Hári Sewell on the George Floyd killing and the aftermath (as appeared in June 2020)

by | Feb 15, 2022

On 25th May 2020 George Floyd, an unarmed African American man died after being arrested by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. An officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes whilst being filmed and ignored Mr Floyd’s pleas and the begging of citizens observing and gathering evidence on their smart phones.

Why Black people in the UK and globally are upset and angry
The reasons vary. Along with many other people, of whichever ethnicity, the circumstances appear to be brutal; it looked like cold intentional murder.

For some Black people, the Floyd case is a reminder of what law enforcement or representatives of other authorities have already done to them or someone close.

For some this case highlights yet again, the real death consequences of the negative representations of who they are. Racial tropes and stereotypes lead to a deeply entrenched (and often unconscious) view that there is a delineated race called ‘Black’ and that this race is deficient to the point of being less than human. To put this another way, negative views of the very essence of who they are means their life or death carries less of weight.

Negative representations
No one is immune. We still have not flattened the curve. We are constantly exposed to negative messages (which sometimes masquerade as compliments): in art, history taught in mainstream education, the media and basically in all walks of life. This seeps into us and unless you do active reflective work to counter this continually, these beliefs will remain with you at various doses, depending on who you are.

Being Black does not make you immune. Being in a relationship with a Black person or having children with someone who is Black does not make you immune. Having mainly Black friends, colleagues or networks doesn’t make you immune. Identifying Bob Marley as your favourite singer doesn’t make you immune.

For many Black people the George Floyd case feels personal. In response to immutable characteristics that have come to denote your race, you can be murdered. For Black people, this is terrifying at various levels.

In the face of atrocities such as the George Floyd killing, authorities and citizens will quickly default to an explanation that either is nothing to do with racism and more probably because you are from a race that is riddled with problems. Consequently, the collective actions of the judicial process are likely to reinforce beliefs that it is acceptable to use outrageously disproportionate force and kill a Black person. The interim autopsy on Mr Floyd’s apparently suggests that he died from an underlying medical condition in combination with ‘police restraint’.

It feels personal
The George Floyd case is a reminder that the political and judicial system and other powerful systems are stacked against you; there may be occasions where individual cases buck the trend but over any sustained period of time the evidence is that the roulette wheel will work against you. It’s tough living with this reality; just because of the way you are perceived racially means that in any like-for-like scenario your chances of thriving are slimmer, and in the most extreme situations, you are more likely to be harmed and killed by representatives of the state. This is psychologically toxic. It is tough knowing that the dominant view (which is invisible to most) is that you are not fully human, or at least not quite as refined as the purest form of humanity, and that as one of these ‘others’ you require a different set of interventions. You can replace ‘different’ with your own words or phrases.

Why many people irrespective of background are also upset
There is not even space in this blog for people who feel (about the George Floyd killing) that ‘this isn’t about race, it’s about basic humanity’. This fits into the colour-blind category which basically looks at statistical patterns over centuries and feels that they are individual chance events. When people adopt such a position it is a response to how people feel (probably based on their worldview) so trying to appeal through a simple blog may well be futile.

Not unrelated to the colour-blind position is the belief that Floyd killing was evidence of bad policing by a bad officer. Many feel that higher standards are expected of those in uniform and they are disgusted by the breach of trust.

Many people irrespective of background are however upset and angered by the racism they saw. Some have empathy because they have friends, family, team-mates and colleagues who are racialised as Black and they stand in solidarity with them. This is a limited platform on which to stand as it potentially implies that our response is driven be the extent to which it affects us, albeit through someone we care about. It individualises a systemic problem.

Local individual actions vary in response to the Floyd killing. Some evoke negative responses (such as romanticised social media memes of Black and white people in harmony or comments like ‘what we need right now is love’). There is however evidence that people are grappling with how to take a stand in this acute episode in the ongoing crisis of racism.

A risk of taking a stand is that it serves a secondary function; it allows for righteous indignation i.e. being able to create clear blue water between oneself and racist others. Being able to demonstrate your ability to see and name racism is an important signal to Black people that you stand with them. It is relatively easy when the incident is (to most people) unambiguous; when it is located in a specific time and place, with an easily identifiable perpetrator or perpetrators.

Calling out racists potentially allows facile explanations of racism to thrive. It buries deeper underground more structural critiques of the assumptions and systems that fuel the very kind of incident that occurred in Minneapolis. As an example, people’s capacity for political analysis might not stretch to critiquing positivism (“if you work hard, and obey the law these things won’t happen”). They may not see how this can be a tool of the privileged. As another example, why capitalism (“individual freedom enables everyone a chance for progress”) is not the potential equaliser many believe it to be. Covid-19 has exposed the cost of inequalities in the context of these ideologies. Supermarket panic buying and lockdown has been different depending on how capitalism worked for or against you; read around the subject. There are racialised inequalities as a result of Covid-19 and the measures taken by households or those imposed by the state. There was and is a racialised pattern in the effects. This is how racism works. It hides in ostensibly fair systems.

Seeing the world differently
There are racislised ways of seeing the protests and uprisings sparked by the George Floyd killing and those racialised perspectives need not reflect the eye colour of the person seeing. Some differing perspectives arise from class and privilege (if you don’t personally feel the brutality of racism it’s hard to appreciate the strength of feeling). Some differences in perspective on the protests arise from philosophical positions (if you don’t believe in direct action you will see no justification for anything other than peaceful orderly protests). On this point it is worth reflecting on lessons from history about how progress on various civil rights was achieved. Would women have achieved the right to vote by compliantly asking for it? Would the South African regime have considered abolishing apartheid if Black people kept on politely asking for change? There are recent examples of regime change as a result of uprisings, such as the so-called Arab Spring. In this blog I do advocate any one position. The purpose is to promote deeper thinking. There is always a cost. Academic and policy reports in the US and UK repeatedly document costs to individuals and communities as a result of racism. A set of questions to consider might be around where in society and for whom we are content to tolerate costs and detrimental impacts.

Historical and theory texts that capture pivotal factors in social change are filled with examples that illustrate that the greater the benefit to the oppressor, the less likely it is that they will surrender their power. Terminology will be important in describing people taking to the streets across the US: riots or uprisings; protests by angry people, exhausted with the lack of progress or thugs set on violence. The reality is that the positions are not binary. Maybe acknowledging this from a standpoint of appreciating lessons from history is a starting point.

My personal reflections
I’m racialised into a group which inevitably brings a sense of “this could be me”. The Floyd killing is an insult to my very being. The Black body is where Black people live – there is no hiding place. It is toxic to know that people hate me on the basis that I live in this Black body, irrespective of who I am as a person. It is toxic to know that social, political and legal systems are designed in a way that means that I am certainly less protected because I live in a Black body. I may have my own set of privileges and the constant stream of microaggressions that I face may not be life threatening but I know that this could change any time. I also can see ways in which being racialised has adversely affected my life choices and outcomes to date.

One of the greatest powers of the state is the legalised power to use violence, including to kill. It is a frightening experience to know that the state, through its agents, routinely and systematically uses legalised violence against people who look like you far more frequently. It is frightening to know that the state sends coded and overt messages that people who look like you represent a threat, whether that be a physical threat or a threat to a way of life.

The killing of George Floyd, in the manner we saw, showed us yet again that racism is a threat not just to a way of life but to life itself. Not just because the police officer, whilst being filmed kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck, hearing his and other people’s pleas, looked as if he didn’t care but because many people don’t care. I mean they don’t care about all the racism that shows up in ‘jokes’, banter and in research and service data; spoken about daily, written about, filmed, raised in complaints and depicted in movies daily. These are the relatively straightforward areas, never mind the geo-political systemic inequalities around trade and commerce, racialised impacts of the environmental crisis and so forth.

Luckily many people do care and they are prepared to identify racism name it and attempt to change systems. As with all things, people use different means. What are yours?

Remember the lessons from history. Rosa Parkes was not a lone hero feminist and anti-racist; she acted as part of a coordinated strategy within a wider group, with a clear focus on institutional and systemic change.

Hári Sewell, with his colleague Dr Karen Linde is about to launch a Leadership Network for Workforce Equality to support employees at any level and in an role who are taking on a leadership around equality, diversity and inclusion. For more information email contact@hsconsultancy.org.uk and type ‘Leadership Network’ in the subject field.

Hári Sewell
Hári Sewell is founder and Director of HS Consultancy and is a former executive director of health and social care in the NHS. He is a writer and speaker in his specialist area of social justice, equalities and ethnicity, race and culture in mental health. Hári is honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at the University of Central Lancashire and was the co-founder of the national Social Care Strategic Network (Mental Health) and was chair until November 2010. Hári has had various books, articles and book chapters published, with new material emerging regularly, usually ever year. See www.hsconsultancy.org.uk/publications

Hári worked with another local campaigner to secure services for survivors of sexual violence and currently runs a campaign “Men Supporting Women’s Rights” including “Men Against Rape”. He is increasingly studying forms of masculinity and the possibilities in practice and employee relations to recognise the intersections between masculinity and other aspects of identity.