The past several days have been profoundly unsettling and scary, not least because of the horrifying tragedy of what happened to George Floyd. Many people have been galvanized, to use President Obama’s term, to action. In yesterday’s Town Hall, President Obama reminds that, “Dr. King was a young man when he got involved.” So were Malcolm X, the leaders of the feminist movement, leaders of the LBGTQI movement, leaders of union movements, and the environmental movement, along with countless others. These words could not come at a more opportune time. President Obama also said something that many people who are minorities, myself included, need to hear: “I want you to know that you matter. I want you to know that your lives matter, that your dreams matter.”
Racism, vulnerability to structural inequality and brutality, economic and social “class”, access to opportunity, and episodes like the murder of George Floyd are all intertwined. How so? One of the ways structural racism manifests is by keeping people of color and other minorities under the control of society by denying them access to basic services and rights of participation. Basic services include, but are not limited to, education, healthcare, childcare, transportation, water, sanitation, food, and shelter. Rights of participation include, but are not limited to, the above, but also political participation (the vote) and employment.
For a man like George Floyd, accessing all of these would have probably been a challenge at some point in his life, on account of his skin color. George Floyd was a casual worker. According to the Boston Globe, he had lost his job as a bouncer after the Minnesota governor ordered the lockdown. Right before his death, Floyd was apparently shopping at a grocery store and allegedly tried to pay with counterfeit money.
George Floyd was a man who had apparently faced great challenges in his life, who had tried to make an honest living, and had made mistakes – in a country like the United States, where Jim Crow laws were on the books as late as the 1960s, two decades before I entered this world.
Another example makes the connection between racism, systemic and structural violence, casual employment, and bleeding union activity dry abundantly clear. This time, it involves a company that has become ubiquitous: Amazon. In April, a memo was leaked from Amazon in which one of its lawyers attempted to deflect recent attention from its anti-union action and firing of unionist Christian Smalls. David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, described Smalls as “not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers”.
Zapolsky seems to have thought that the press and the public would share his view that Smalls is “not smart, or articulate”, which would discredit Smalls as an activist fighting for labor justice on account of a perception of him being a “not smart, or articulate” black man. Zapolsky apparently thought that this would help Amazon save face. In other words, he sought to capitalize and cash in on something that has contributed to George Floyd’s death: white privilege. Entitlement. Greed. Confidence that the press and public will believe an educated person with a well-paying job over a low-wage worker of color.
America needs to dig deep and to think hard about how we want to live in the future. Employers should be supporting their staff as much as they can, if they can afford it. The Zapolskys, Chauvins (the police officer whose knee cut off Floyd’s windpipe), and Amy Coopers of the world are many. They should be held accountable for what happened to George Floyd, Christian Smalls, and Christian Cooper.
Parisa Zangeneh is a lawyer and a PhD student at the Irish Center for Human Rights, National University of Ireland, Galway and is originally from Wallingford, Pennsylvania.