Commentary: One Year After George Floyd’s Death, America Faces An Existential Crisis

Do we face the challenge of creating a multiracial democracy, or stick with the status quo that inspired this era’s racial and political reckoning?

By Peniel JosephMay 25, 2021 9:33 am, , ,

One year after George Floyd’s murder, America faces a moral fork in the road. We face the challenge of creating either a multiracial democracy or the familiar status quo that inspired this era’s racial and political reckoning.

Floyd’s death both spurred new movement for social justice and amplified the Movement for Black Lives that had, since 2013, argued that Black death at the hands of law enforcement represented a larger crisis of race and democracy impacting every facet of American life and the nation’s future.  Almost overnight, a racial justice movement that had been overwhelmingly Black became amplified by the voices of millions of white Americans and communities of color, culminating in the largest ever social movement in American history.

Suddenly, Black history mattered in ways that were vital to our national interest. Business, civic, and corporate leaders scrambled to organize webinars that might explain the protests to employees and leadership teams. The “1619 Project,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning multimedia investigation of slavery’s panoramic tentacles in American life over four centuries, took on new political and democratic significance.

George Floyd utterly transformed American politics, both in a partisan sense and a spiritual one. The George Floyd protests reshaped the field of Democratic Party politics, especially the radically pragmatic organizing impulses of Black voters, especially Black women. Black voters united around former Vice President Joe Biden as the candidate most suitable to defeat President Donald Trump, but flexed their muscles and voting power to ensure that his running mate would be a Black woman.

Yet perilous challenges remain. The GOP’s efforts to cancel a commission to investigate the White supremacist riot at the capital on Jan. 6 of this year dovetails into extensive efforts to suppress the nation’s complex racial history by banning the teaching of “critical race theory,” not teaching accurate history in states such as Texas, and denying a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist tenure in the state of North Carolina.

America last faced such an existential crisis in 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.  The choice then was between achieving King’s dream of a “Beloved Community,” and the “Law and Order” rhetoric of President Richard Nixon – a call to our nation’s worst racial impulses that perpetuated Trump’s “Big Lie.” Mass incarceration, racial segregation and racial backlash won the day.

George Floyd’s death changed the trajectory of American history. One year later, a new generation of Americans, joined by veterans of social justice fights, is organizing in the streets, in city halls, nonprofits, colleges and universities, prisons and pulpits and in corporate boardrooms to build a Beloved Community. Their hopeful activism represents a living monument to Floyd’s legacy.

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