Reflections upon the news from America

Forty six year old George Floyd had moved to Minneapolis to find work and was resolved to turn his life around after serving time in prison for robbery. In his younger years he had been a talented athlete who had particularly excelled at basketball and football. He dropped out of school and started to make hip-hop music with a small collective of like-minded musicians. Later, he found work driving trucks and working as a security guard for the Latin American restaurant Conga Latin Bistro. Despite the fact that he had made mistakes in his life, those who knew him best described him as a ‘gentle giant’. Of course, George Floyd was more than this, he was a loving father, adored brother and dutiful son.

On May 25th, George’s life was extinguished due to the actions of Derek Chauvin, a white American Minneapolis police officer. For almost nine minutes, Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Repeatedly, George told Chauvin that he could not breathe. For the last three of those nine minutes, George was unresponsive. Unsurprisingly, he had died from asphyxia. George had been accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a market and for this relatively minor alleged misdemeanour he paid an utterly terrible price. The grotesque image of Chauvin resting nonchalantly with one hand in his pocket as he slowly kills George Floyd has, understandably, inspired a sense of global revulsion. It is every bit as chilling as those haunting images of lynchings which took place in the Deep South during the 1920s. Perhaps even more so given that, on this occasion, the perpetrator is a law enforcement agent.

You cannot police without consent and one should not be surprised that tensions have erupted across the States. The death of George Floyd has unleashed a wave of protests, some of which have turned violent. Yesterday afternoon, peaceful protesters in Washington DC were gassed so that Donald Trump could walk to St John’s Church for what must surely have been the most bizarre photo opportunity of his presidency. Holding aloft a Bible, he said little other than to confirm ‘It’s a Bible’. When asked about his faith some years ago, an interviewer asked Trump, ‘are you an Old Testament or New Testament guy?’ Mr Trump replied: ‘Probably equal. I think it’s just incredible – the whole Bible is incredible’.

Whilst he was hardly likely to have revealed a love of Biblical exegesis or speculative theology and we never mistook him as an authority on the Desert Fathers, this seemingly empty and banal gesture had sinister undertones and implied a sense of righteousness woefully at odds with the sentiment of many Americans. Of sorrow and contrition there was none. Never has Margaret Attwood’s dystopian totalitarian state Gilead seemed a more prescient commentary upon contemporary events. The bellicose rhetoric of Trump and the religious posturing suggests a new and dangerous paradigm for this presidency.

Of course, the reality is that George Floyd’s death is not attributable to a single despicable act. It occured within a context of longstanding racial inequality. In 1968, Lyndon Johnson, ordered an investigation into the causes of race riots. The report, which was largely ignored, concluded that the greatest source of despair and rage was attributable to separate communities, separate school systems and separate police treatment. It suggested that this was a system which was socially and institutionally rigged for white people. You do not need to look far to find compelling evidence that suggests that this is the case.

● Black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers

● Most Americans (65%) say it’s now more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views; more than four in ten say it’s acceptable.

Almost three times as many African Americans have died from COVID-19 as white people. Figures provided by the APM Research Lab highlight this staggering divide in terms of the death rate. In Kansas, black residents are dying at seven times the rate of their white counterparts. The reasons for this differential are complex and deep rooted. It might partly be attributable to genetic or medical factors but often genetic and medical factors are themselves the logical consequence of economic, social, and cultural problems. Indeed, there is a very strong correlation between life expectancy and economic means. In 2011, the life expectancy of Black men in the US was 72.2 years whereas for white men it was 76.6 years. Justice in the US does not appear to be entirely colourblind and African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the US at more than five times the rate of whites and at least ten times the rate in five states.

It is not difficult to see how anger has erupted on the streets of many US cities. If anarchists are making hay then it is because so many people feel disenfranchised and marginalised by a system that has perpetuated inequality. The despairing defiance etched on the face of many young protesters is not entirely of their own making. It is a generational inheritance that has created a gaping wound at the very heart of modern US society. There have been many advances but there is still so much work to do. Martin Luther King was a prophetic leader, a modern day Moses, who brought his people to the top of the Mountain but the society that he dreamed of has not yet come to pass.

The American political activist Angela Davis, stated that, ‘In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist’. It is not enough to be a bystander, or to demonstrate ‘tolerance’ – we need to do much more than that. We need to create a society where outcomes are not partly or wholly attributable to the colour of your skin. We need to create a society in which no one has reason to feel marginalised, forgotten or persecuted.

Racism is not an American problem and the global response to the death of George Floyd is partly driven by the concerns of citizens throughout the world who feel that the ‘system’ is rigged against them. It is a howl of pain against police brutality but it is also attributable to the failure of countries to give full consideration to the impact of COVID on BAME communities. As Public Health England’s recent review concluded, COVID-19 appears to thrive on inequality. Having established this fact, it is now important to consider how best we can address these issues. The Public Health England report pointed out that:

‘People of BAME communities are likely to be at increased risk of acquiring the infection because they are more likely to live in urban areas, in overcrowded households, in deprived areas, and have jobs that expose them to higher risk.’

That this should be the case in the UK in 2020 is deeply troubling. As educationalists, we need to consider what it is that we can do to create a better society.

Rossall School is a wonderfully diverse community. Our children are drawn from forty one different countries and one of the great strengths of our community is the desire to share and learn from each other. This serves to create an exciting and dynamic society within which cultural differences are celebrated but our common humanity valued above all else. There is no room for complacency when it comes to matters of inequality and striving to create a more equal society is unlikely to be successful unless we listen to those around us and take the time to critically reflect upon our own cultural context and privilege.

What matters most is that schools address these issues with unflinching honesty and challenge those perceptions which arise, sometimes unconsciously, from the context within which we live our lives. The challenge is to educate young people in such a way that they ask the difficult questions that others routinely avoid or ignore. Empathetic and caring young people who are politically enfranchised and committed to making a positive contribution to society will doubtless be the agents of change that the world so desperately needs if we are to create the society of which Martin Luther King dreamed.

I am very proud of the community that we have here at Rossall but we should never allow ourselves to become complacent and we should always strive to become better in every regard. Ultimately, as a white middle-class male, what I think is pretty unimportant. What matters so much more, are the views of our students and how they feel about the society within which they live. There is much more that unites us than divides us and at times such as this, our community here at Rossall should serve as a beacon of hope in a world that has sometimes been slow to grasp the importance and joy of living together in a world predicated upon love and acceptance.

Jeremy Quartermain