Can we make the George Floyd moment even bigger? 

By Robert Wright, Jun 28 2020

Here are some things that have grown out of the social and political ferment catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd:

1) Merriam Webster says its dictionary entry for “racism” will be amended to “make the idea of systemic or institutional racism even more explicit in the wording of the definition.”

2) The TV show COPS has been canceled, and police cars have vanished from the bestselling video game Fortnite.

3) Github, the Microsoft-owned company that runs the world’s biggest site for software developers, plans to get them to quit using the word “master” to refer to the main branch of a computer program’s code.

I’m sure things like this can do some good. Language and culture influence our attitudes more than we realize (if not always in uniform ways; in my own experience, COPS often stirred empathy for the people arrested and underscored the pointlessness of jailing them). And particular words, like “master,” can offend some people in ways others are oblivious to. 

Still, it does seem to me that an inordinately large number of the initiatives spawned by the Black Lives Matter protests lack a certain… concreteness.

There is, of course, one concrete-sounding proposal emerging from the protests: “defund the police.” But many people who espouse it spend lots of time explaining that they don’t mean what you might think they’d mean by “defund the police.” And the ones who say they do want to actually abolish police forces are advocating something so unpopular that, for now at least, we can forego discussion of it.

I’m just a random old-fashioned white guy, and it’s possible that my identity is blinding me to momentous change, happening even as I write, that will enduringly improve the lives of people of color. Certainly there will be some worthwhile reforms (including some being discussed under the unfortunate rubric “defund the police”). And certainly the George Floyd protests have brought commitments from big companies—to diversify workforces, to set aside money for laudable programs—that could wind up making a sizable difference. Still, precisely because I’m old-fashioned, I’d hate to see a moment so packed with political energy pass without leaving a legacy of an old-fashioned kind: momentous changes in public policy, including some well-funded ones (where “well-funded” translates as “Can we finally get serious about raising taxes on rich people?”).

So I say we think big! Let’s imagine converting this energy into large-scale policy change that would honor the memory of George Floyd and address injustices highlighted by his death. What follows are two proposals, one in the realm of domestic policy and one in the realm of foreign policy. (Yes, foreign policy—that’s how big I think we should think!)   

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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