A President's Reflections

Reflections on George Floyd One Day Later

Posted on April 21, 2021

Like so many others, I was glued to the television late yesterday afternoon, waiting for the jury to return its verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial. It was an enormous relief to see George Floyd’s murderer convicted on all counts. There was finally accountability, a sense that justice had been served, and some reassurance that the judicial system can actually work. Not all the time when a person of color dies at the hands of a White police officer – think Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and Stephon Clark – but this time. That we were not sure of the outcome had a lot less to do with what our eyes undeniably showed us or the superb prosecution led by Minnesota’s Attorney General Keith Ellison, and more to do with the ongoing institutional racism of our criminal justice system. In America today, even a case as seemingly obvious as this one did not feel like a sure thing.

As I later watched news coverage of the verdict, I found myself more reflective than jubilant. The verdict does not bring George Floyd back to life, and while I hope his family can find a kind of closure now, his death remains a sad part of their lives. I also found myself wanting to know more about Derek Chauvin. I wonder what happened in his upbringing and his life to allow him to callously drain the life out of another human being for nine and a half excruciating minutes. How does society create someone like Derek Chauvin?

In “The Illiad, or the Poem of Force,” French Philosopher Simone Weil brilliantly talks about the way power or force transforms the subjugated person from human to thing, often a corpse. She also describes the way power intoxicates and then reduces the person who wields it into a thing as well, reducing the capacity to feel, pity, or love. She aptly captures what happened to George Floyd and Derek Chauvin in those fateful 9½ minutes. They both were rendered something other than human – a physical corpse in George Floyd’s case, an emotional and psychological corpse in Chauvin’s case. There is no humanity in that video.

In reflecting on the trial, I also feel sobered by how far we have to go in terms of racial equality. Indeed, if George Floyd’s murder had not been captured on video, there’s a good chance Derek Chauvin would still be patrolling the streets of Minneapolis. Video, whether from a bystander’s phone, or from a surveillance camera, or from an officer’s body camera, is proving to be one of the most effective tools of modern day Civil Rights work. But how many bogus traffic stops, police encounters, and stop and frisks still take place every day out of the sight of cameras? Ask any of our colleagues of color what it feels like to see blue lights turned on behind them on an isolated street, when the stomach tightens and hands stay visible on the steering wheel, as countless Black parents have taught their teenagers. If I get pulled over, I become indignant or annoyed. If Black colleagues get pulled over, their life may be at risk.

So yesterday was important, a day when one Black life did matter. Today, I ask myself how we at SNHU can do more to make sure Black lives matter every day at work. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we created our Social Justice Fund, expanded our ODI team, and invested nearly $15m in funds managed by people of color. I’m proud of those initiatives, but I also worry that we are not yet where we need to be in our recruitment of a more diverse workforce and, almost more importantly, in the supports that make employees of color feel welcomed, included, and valued. In conversations with some of those colleagues, they report not egregious instances of insensitivity, but more often the thoughtless remark, the signals that communicate “you do not belong,” or a lack of advocacy or sponsorship (which is different than mere mentorship). They also share their occasional exhaustion from being asked to speak for all people of color, of educating well-meaning and often newly conscious White co-workers, and the endless mental and emotional calculus of entering any White dominated space.  Which is almost all space at SNHU.

If you have seen the jaw dropping show In and of Itself (on Hulu), the emotional power in the second half of the performance comes with human connection and people being seen for who they are in their essence. Not their job, their title, their particular role in a context, but their whole self. Not the self as assigned by others, but the self they feel at their core. The feeling we all get when we think someone really gets us. The extreme opposite of what Weil describes and what we saw in the George Floyd video. If we are to make SNHU and our broader society more inclusive — which also means more interesting, just, and smarter – we have to first deal with people as people. It recently pained me to hear someone on campus say that some of our transformation work made her feel like a game piece being moved on board, not a colleague and person with important insights, emotional investment, worries about her job and ability to care for her kids. We had stopped seeing her fully.  

That was a moment when we got it wrong. In contrast, I was recently privy to a conversation with a colleague, a person of color, who was feeling demoralized and considering leaving us. We took the time to not only listen to what was not working well in his job, but to hear his story. From the beginning – his struggles as a child, his fight for better education, his professional roles before coming to us, his kids and how they were faring in the pandemic, and then we had a far better sense of where we might be able to better use his talents and where he could feel more fulfilled. We held onto him and he later told me he felt it was the first time he had felt fully seen as a person. He had always been kindly treated, but kindness is a question of manners. Being seen is existential and powerful. 

We surely have a lot of work to do around structures, policies, systems, and more if we are to be inclusive and equitable. However, maybe the most transformative work happens when we take the time to see and know each other as human beings, with the full range of gifts and foibles we all carry within us. I wonder if doing so starts with our own vulnerability and some humility, a willingness to sometimes surrender our positional power or titles or group identities and know that we are no more deserving or virtuous than anyone else. In other words, see others in their full humanity by first sharing our own, a kind of emotional vulnerability. I think that is a big part of books like Humanocracy and Unleashed, which I often mention.  

If repression, subjugation, and racism are rooted in a willingness to see others as less than human, might equity, inclusivity, and love happen when we see others as richly human? If Derek Chauvin had one moment of that connection, he might have lifted his knee and George Floyd would be alive today. That was a moment when a lack of human connection went nightmarishly wrong. I wonder how often in our everyday interactions we fall short on making human connections, on taking the time to see someone fully, and then make them feel a little less included and valued. We talk a lot about building a learning culture, but I suspect that begins with being an inclusive culture, and that, in turns, starts with seeing the person – not the category – that stands before us in any given moment.

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