What the George Floyd Protests Reveal About the Construction of a Singular American Identity
On Friday, May 29, Trump tweeted the following statement:
“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control, but when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
This tweet came in response to the George Floyd protests, which started on May 26 in Minneapolis and spread across the United States within a matter of days. On Memorial Day, Black American George Floyd was murdered by a group of police officers. These officers used forceful restraining methods despite Floyd’s clear demonstration of physical and mental distress.
Shortly after Trump’s tweet, the social media company flagged his post, indicating that it violated user guidelines by “glorifying violence.” Regardless of Trump’s efforts to backtrack his tweet, as he often does, the President’s words indicate a gross unawareness of the pervasiveness of police violence and of the power that his words hold.
Moving beyond the incredulous fact that the President of the United States used his social media platform to directly support the violent suppression of protesters, his words suggest that the destruction of property justifies the taking of human life. His stance is more radical than an eye for an eye, and it has no place in a democratic, just America. When the President himself supports the disproportionately violent utilization of law enforcement in response to looting, we begin to understand why our culture has enabled so many white police officers to brutalize and kill unarmed Black Americans.
In the midst of continued protests, some of which have turned violent, an extremely polarized debate about property damage has emerged with several individuals condemning the destruction of property. On May 29, conservative political commentator Tomi Lahren sought to generalize political liberals with the following tweet:
On May 30, President Trump tweeted the following:
This debate, which emphasizes the loss of property rather than physical and systemic violence against protesters, represents the extreme state of partisan politics in the United States. It also exposes the sinister racism that is alive and well within American culture and society. In condemning this specific act of property damage, the debate lays bare the presence of a singular, white American Identity. To understand my point, we must go back to the year 1773.
On December 16, 1773, a revolutionary group called the Sons of Liberty destroyed several chests of tea from the British East India Company in direct defiance of the British Empire. These protesters defied the law because they understood British rule to be oppressive. Today, Americans laud this event, commonly known as the Boston Tea Party, as a proud moment in American history. In schools, The Boston Tea Party is portrayed as a crucial moment in the fight from American independence. Today, the conservative Tea Party movement even derives its name from this act of property damage.
Praising one act of property destruction while condemning the actions of modern-day protesters signifies a dark truth within American Identity. We are willing to acknowledge the oppression of some while ignoring the oppression of others. Hundreds of years after the Boston Tea Party, we still celebrate this revolutionary act of property destruction because it serves a narrative of white, American independence and white, American freedom. We celebrate and teach this historical act of political defiance while condemning the actions of Black, modern-day protesters.
Ta-Nehinsi Coates, an American journalist for The Atlantic, describes the singularity of modern American identity in his landmark essay The Case for Reparations:
“The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.”
Coates’ essay demonstrates the constructed nature of modern American identity and the need to broaden this construction. Today’s singular, American Identity rests on events that occurred during the country’s earliest years when Black individuals were lawfully held in chains.
Right now, we are witnessing a pivotal point in American history. We have a chance to create an inclusive and intersectional American identity that welcomes the plethora of identities within this country. Rather than elevating some and diminishing others, we welcome each by doing the work to unravel years of systemic and cultural oppression ingrained in our cultural and legal systems. To do so, we must listen to those who have been oppressed since the creation of this country, and we must be willing to accept our own levels of privilege.
This piece is not to justify the actions of violent protesters nor to justify the loss that many business owners are experiencing across the United States, but simply to point out the hypocrisy in glorifying the actions of the Sons of Liberty while condemning the actions of protesters who are fighting against a pervasive system of oppression and systemic racism. This hypocrisy supports a singular, white American identity that was founded on the oppression of Black humans. It supports a system that allows police officers to repeatedly violate the dignity of and kill unarmed Black men.
One day, Americans will look back on these protests as a critical moment in Black freedom. As some protests turn violent, we must distinguish organized, grassroots activism from the intentional efforts to undermine organized activism. In every social justice movement, the few violent voices threaten the stability of the calm and collected. We must not allow the presence of a few violent actors to distract us from the real message of these protests: racial justice and equality.
Non-Black Americans, we must do better. We must continue to listen, to learn, and to acknowledge our privilege. To provide room for minorities to create an inclusive, just, and intersectional American Identity.
George Floyd, it certainly is not enough, but we will continue to say your name.
If you have the means, consider donating to one of the following:
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund promotes racial justice and structural change through advocacy, legal action, and education. To donate, click here.
The National Bail Fund Network is a network of community bailout programs that support protesters. It includes a directory of local bail funds. To donate, click here.