How will George Floyd be remembered in 100 years?

Tulsa and a George Floyd protest.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock, Library of Congress)

It doesn't feel like a coincidence that the first anniversary of George Floyd's death under Derek Chauvin's knee arrives on the same week as the centenary of the Tulsa Massacre, in which as many as 300 Black people were killed. American history is full of racial horrors — it may be impossible to pick a week that doesn't coincide with some act of terror in our collective past.

The Tulsa experience tells us something important as the country continues to move on from Floyd's death: The pain of racial trauma never really ends, and the ramifications can ripple out endlessly.

Wheaton College researchers have documented some of those ripples. Before the massacre, Black Tulsans had higher rates of homeownership, marriage, and employment than their peers in other cities. After the violence, they fell behind, and many of the city's more prosperous Black residents left town entirely, upending the city's social structure. "In just 24 hours, the promising trajectory of an entire community can be significantly altered in ways that last for generations," the researchers wrote.

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In Congress last week, one of the survivors — 107-year-old Viola Fletcher — testified that she is still haunted by what she witnessed as a young child. "I still see Black businesses being burned," she said. "I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day."

As in Tulsa, the ongoing ramifications of Floyd's death will be both personal and societal, as well as long-lasting. Millions of Black Americans have been traumatized by the videos of the crime, and they will carry that pain forward. Americans are still working out some of the other possibilities. Will we remake America's police and our relationship to them? Or will the "Blue Lives Matter" backlash win out? Future generations will live with our choices.

There's a widespread notion in America that we can and should leave the bad stuff behind — that (say) yes, the Founders were slavers, but they also wrote the Declaration of Independence, and that's where our focus should be. Such happy talk amounts to an act of erasure. Like Tulsa, Floyd's death will leave a lasting mark on the country. What's unsettled is whether we'll be left with scars that signify healing, or with an ugly, open wound.

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