George Floyd and America—one year later

Dr. André L. Churchwell, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, reflects on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death.

The death of George Floyd led many educators and thought leaders to write essays that reflected their institutional and personal reactions to the public murder of an African American man. Mr. Floyd’s callous and inhumane murder brought to mind, for African Americans, the notorious public lynchings in America in the early and mid-20th century. These were frequent occasions, where white families gathered on summer days to picnic as they observed the hanging of “strange fruit” that singer Billie Holiday referenced in her seminal and mournful 1930s song.

Mr. Floyd’s murder and others made many of us question again whether America would or could ever live up to its aspirational goals of valuing all lives regardless of race, ethnicity, gender and a host of other identities. The national angst that grew and fueled multicultural and multigenerational protests led to some traces of hope and, coincidentally, enhanced growing public cynicism and deep depression.

The trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of Mr. Floyd—and the resulting guilty verdict—offered us some brief sentiment that justice might be possible even when it is so often denied. Now as the school year ends and the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic wanes with the growing wave of vaccinations, we again have hope for a more positive future. But with each step forward, we are jolted by the terrible and permanent reality of racism as we witness the rise of violence against African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and also a resurgence of anti-Semitism.

As a university, we must continue to promote open discourse and freedom of speech, but not at the expense of civility and civilization itself. As leaders and educators at our institutions, we must rail against intemperance, arrogance, mendacity, irreverence and other actions and behaviors that can and will erode civilization, and we must guard against the ascension of a single point of view that diminishes any alternate perspectives.

So while we rest and reflect during the summer, we must simultaneously prepare and plan for our universities to promote courses, seminars and lessons that advance a fair and just society by offering all students the opportunity to be successful and safe to think, talk and engage in discussions that promote and support civility.

Lastly, I wrote about acts that sustain a civilization in my book The Other Side: A Collection of Writings and Drawings. I continue to believe that how we conduct ourselves in our everyday interactions and our treatment of and empathy for others are vital to our society’s continued progress. The following excerpt holds true, updated and modified for today:

Recognize that it is the small acts of kindness and simple courtesies that sustain a civilization, and when they are neglected for overt narcissism and overindulgent self-interests, the end of our days will soon be upon us.

Please note, these are the musings of an aging man born in the last half of the 20th century and whose values, beliefs and social mores were forged in those intemperate and life-shaping times.

He believes that a redwood tree with its deep roots, longevity and immense stature can serve as a metaphor for a developing, rules-governed society. Civilized behavior and rules are parts of this magnificent, towering structure, and when its soil is not fertilized or enriched, due to unmitigated boorish or immoral behavior, the giant tree will decay.

Let us remember that many important, apparently immutable structures, like our redwood tree, can lose parts and atrophy if we do not provide sufficient nourishment. But if we nourish and cultivate it, the tree will not only survive, but thrive and grow to even greater heights.