There is a dark irony in the fact that being so consumed with grieving a fresh tragedy, we have had little space to memorialize the death of George Floyd, which happened on May 25, 2020. Two years later, we find ourselves in a cycle of mourning rituals that have barely any time between them.
The massacre in Uvalde, Texas, and the choking, pleading death of Floyd share few attributes or circumstances—one was committed by a lone gunman, and the other was the product of police brutality—but in close contrast, they are both grim representations of the disposability of American life.
Two years ago, it seemed possible that we might have learned the value of our humanity and thus would shift to protect and cherish it. Galvanized by the needless cruelty and open bias of former police officer Derek Chauvin, we gathered to protest the wanton disregard for human life. In the midst of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we were still unsure of the costs, we crowded together and cried out and marched to demonstrate our determination to make the system so different that we would never have to do so again.
For a moment, it worked. We had the most extensive public conversation about race, policing, and white supremacy in decades, while white society opened itself up to self-inspection in an unprecedented way, actively seeking out and consuming anti-racist material and providing space for voices that it had long kept stifled. Millions gathered in solidarity; corporations pledged billions of dollars in donations; diversity even briefly became a principle rather than a buzzword. We asked what it would mean to value Black life, and we tried to shape ourselves around the answer.
But it didn't last. Perhaps it was the pandemic and the yearning for a status quo ante that was rapidly dissolving from memory, or possibly it was the deep hold of white supremacy in the country, or maybe we just didn’t want it, but the support for social equality fizzled out within a few months. The demands for significant changes in policing and law enforcement were converted into little more than token gestures, the openness and inclusion efforts met a slow and silent dissolution, the money promised became money owed, and a brief bout of self-awareness curdled into an insistent refusal to purge the core of white supremacy at the heart of inequality.
The result hasn’t just been more deaths at the hands of law enforcement or a rise in anti-Black racism, but a widespread apathy and indifference to human suffering that fed thousands and thousands more lives into the machinery of American politics. There was little outrage when we learned that the Trump administration had taken a pro-COVID stance because of the disproportionate impact on marginalized communities, and so there was little alarm when Democrats promoted a “back to normal” strategy that used marginalized survivors of the pandemic as human shields.
White supremacy has inspired numerous attacks against ethnic and religious minorities everywhere from day spas to synagogues to supermarkets, and the manifestos of the perpetrators mirror the rhetoric of Republican officials. In response to the increasing violence wrought by poverty and desperation and loss in this pandemic, we pour money into police departments to protect our communities and watch helplessly as a gunman walks through an elementary school and the police protect themselves.
Where two years ago, the violent negligence against one man was enough to inspire a movement, we now accept mass death as background noise. We have become numb to the news reports and death tolls, subservient to a system that says our economy and our right to arms and our citizenship are not there to sustain life but to subsist on it. Looking at what we have become since Floyd’s death, it is almost as if our failure to defend against the loss of one person was enough to make us despair of saving any.
So it is here, at the crossroads of memory and tragedy, that American society is asked again to make a choice. We can live through anniversaries marred by misery and our own inability to change, or we can mark the years by our transformation and the atrocities we no longer accept. We can reject reversion to the violence of hierarchy and instead seek an equality of dignity that makes every life worth living. It is not a matter of having the capacity to respect our shared humanity; it is simply a matter of will.