Opinion | 6 Young Americans on What Changed — and Didn’t — After George Floyd’s Death

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By The New York Times Opinion

The nationwide protests that followed George Floyd’s death last May hinted at a possible turning point in the way many Americans confront issues of racial injustice. How much has really changed, though?

Times Opinion asked young readers about how the protests affected their approach to social justice, politics and life in general and what changes they’ve seen, if any, in their communities. Many who responded said the video of Mr. Floyd’s murder awoke them to the reality of racial inequity in the United States and set them on a path of self-education and activism. But for some, those actions seemed fleeting.

“Even though millions of people committed to racial justice last summer, my neighborhood still struggles with the same issues it did before the protests, the same issues it faced decades ago when my grandparents were my age,” wrote Caleb Dunson, an 18-year-old reader in Chicago.

Below, Mr. Dunson and five others tell us how the experience influenced their thinking over the past year. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.

‘My anger has gotten deeper, more nuanced and more directed’

As a young Indigenous woman, George Floyd’s death and the conversations that followed were brutal reminders of the pervasive nature of anti-Black sentiment in places like my home state, Montana. Even in Indian Country, while many stood in solidarity with protesters, many others needed to be reminded of the similarities that Black and Native American history share. I was reminded of the urgency of the situation and that I needed to shed my protective layers of ignorance and the apathy I adopted to save myself heartache.

The protests in my city happened under the watch of armed individuals that looked like private militias. Protesters were followed home and harassed. There were constant displays of intimidation. Eventually, these protests just became too unsafe for people of color.

There are still small pockets of community activism, but last summer really opened my eyes to how hard it can be to trust people in a majority-white town. There’s a reason these places lack diversity. Sometimes it feels like a game of catch-up, people of color standing at the finish line of humanity and basic rights while white people take their time debating how best to word their diversity mission statements, how to best deal with a murderous cop.

I’ve been a lot louder these days. A lot less keen to let subtle microaggressions slip by for the sake of maintaining the peace. My anger has gotten deeper, more nuanced and more directed. I’ve adopted the mind-set that if I don’t do it, no white person in my position would even know how to start, so it has to be me. I’ve found anger and ignorance and courage and heartache that I didn’t know I had this past year. — Dylan R. Crane, 22, Missoula, Mont.

‘The trauma loop never stops, but I can’

I was 17 when Trayvon Martin was killed and I stayed up to watch that verdict. I thought for sure that George Zimmerman would be found guilty — how could he not? I was so naïve. It was at that moment that I realized America is not safe for Black people like myself. Now, at 27, Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd solidifies what I already knew: Black people are under threat every time they come into contact with an agent of white supremacy, which is often the police.

I have been in awe at how many people across the world have finally woken up to the injustice that Black and brown bodies have been subjected to since we arrived in this country. To live in America is to live in a perpetual state of gaslighting. The world — white people — are waking up to the fact that Black people aren’t lying, that we are, in fact, under siege.

While I wanted to be out there in solidarity with protesters, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Black people deserve to rest. Rest is a radical act for Black people. We’ve been playing catch-up since 1619. There is no other culture that sees their men, women and children murdered on a video loop. The trauma loop never stops, but I can. And so can those in our community. — Darnelle D. Casimir, 27, Long Island, New York

‘We still aren’t safe in America’

I’m a South Asian woman. I’ve been followed around stores and called words that have left mental bruises. I get extra questions in the security line at airports and people stare when I’m in a majority-white area. I’m not naïve when it comes to racism but George Floyd’s death prompted me to realize that my life could be in danger when police officers were around.

The terrifying thing was explaining this to my biracial daughter, who is 6. It’s heartbreaking to hear your child — your beautiful baby — say, “Mama, I’m scared. What if a police officer does that to me?” But it’s a truth I had to tell her: We still aren’t safe in America.

This wasn’t the first conversation we’d had about race. She knew about Ruby Bridges and Harriet Tubman. She knew that people could judge her by her beautiful cocoa skin. But this was the first time I told her she had to be careful around cops. It was the first time I said to her, “Here’s what you do if a police officer approaches you.”

Her response to George Floyd’s death was, “This isn’t fair.” That brought me to tears. Why does my first grader need to be scared of the people who have sworn to protect her? I went to a protest a few days later and took her with me. She chanted “Black Lives Matter!” She was fighting for her future. She was fighting to be recognized as someone who matters, a young Black girl with dreams. — Amira Choudhary, 28, Jackson Heights, Queens, N.Y.

  • William Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove believe that “the Trayvon Martin generation has come of age and is pushing the nation toward a Third Reconstruction.”
  • David W. McIvor, a political theorist, recalls the “wild swings between hope and anguish, possibility and anxiety” of last summer’s protests.
  • Elizabeth Hinton, a historian, writes that “the history of Black rebellion demonstrates a fundamental reality: Police violence precipitates community violence.”
  • Six young Americans reflect on how the past year has changed them: “I’ve been a lot louder these days.”

‘Our deaths only matter if they can provoke an emotional response from white Americans’

George Floyd’s death has made me resent the power that white people have to define justice in our society. Black Americans have been getting murdered by the police and vigilantes for as long as this country has existed, and yet it feels like our deaths only matter if they can provoke an emotional response from white Americans. This time around, it took a nine-minute video of a Black man’s brutal killing to elicit that response. That, and last summer’s protests, pushed me to start writing about politics for the first time. Now I write a column about race and justice for my college newspaper.

I live in one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in Chicago, a neighborhood that is majority Black. Even though millions of people committed to racial justice last summer, my neighborhood still struggles with the same issues it had before the protests, the same issues it faced decades ago, when my grandparents were my age. I turned 18 in 2020. Becoming an adult during a time of political change has been strange. So I reached out to my grandmother, who turned 18 in 1968, and we had a conversation about the similarities between her experiences and my own. That conversation showed me just how much we have in common and how little our country has changed over the past 50 years. — Caleb Dunson, 18, West Side, Chicago

‘The nonstop barrage of violence only made me a stronger abolitionist’

The protests were intense. I had already “woke up” to the reality of racism in America, but seeing people out in the streets gave me some small hope that I was not so alone in my anger anymore. But things didn’t change like we wanted, and in Louisville, where I’m from, people lost their lives. The second night of protests, we were tear-gassed in the streets. Not long after, David McAtee was killed by law enforcement.

The nonstop barrage of violence only made me a stronger abolitionist. I spent the summer learning as much as I could about abolition and police violence. We must come up with a way of implementing police abolition in our communities. There have been small changes in Louisville since. But things are moving slowly. The private sector made promises of change but I saw very little happen on a local governmental scale.

Every time I meet someone who is racist, I’m surprised. I guess I’ve spent too much time with a community moving in solidarity and not enough time trying to convince folks that Black and brown and Asian and Indigenous people deserve to live on equal ground. Those conversations are really painful. — Avalon Gupta VerWiebe, 23, Louisville, Ky.

‘They may listen but they do not truly hear us’

As a person of color, I have always known that racism is prevalent in the United States. Mr. Floyd’s death, and the controversy surrounding it, has shown me that racism will be a pressing matter for generations to come. The protests and growing racial justice movement have been weird to navigate. There is peer pressure to post about social justice issues on social media and while this does spread awareness, I wonder how effective this form of activism truly is. It feels as though we are preaching into an abyss.

At school, more space is being given for students of color to voice their opinions. We are told “we hear you.” They may listen but they do not truly hear us. They don’t help us make changes. We’re not making progress toward racial justice. However, I will continue to dedicate my life to the movement of racial justice. While progress may look dim, countless teen activists like me are doing important work that will impact those that come after us. — Mariel Baez, 16, Springfield, Mass.

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