George Floyd’s America and the Pressures of Systemic Racism

We remember the murder of George Floyd just two years ago — a killing that sparked a movement and a global reckoning on police brutality and racial injustice. Biden is set to mark the date with an executive order on police reform. Toluse Olorunnipa has co-written a new biography, “His Name Is George Floyd,” and discusses how Floyd’s story reflects troubling and pervasive truths about America.

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WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you, Christiane. And Tolu Olorunnipa, welcome to the show.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: It’s great to be with you.

ISAACSON: You start this incredibly powerful biography with just three powerful words that get repeated. “I love you. I love you.” Tell me why you began with that.

OLORUNNIPA: Well, Walter, we spoke to more than 400 people in interviewing folks for this book. And several of them knew George Floyd directly. And so many of them used those words. When they talked about how George Floyd would talk to them. They were people who knew him well, people who didn’t know him that well, people who just saw him in the neighborhood, people who knew him from a long time ago. And they said that he would always say, I love you to them. And a lot of them said they can’t remember everything about the last conversation they had, but they know for sure that the last words that he said were, “I love you.” And in the place like the place where George Floyd grew up, it was not common for a big muscular guy to go around saying, I love you, especially to other big muscular guys. But Floyd was like that. He was different. He was someone who wanted to show love and wanted to show positivity in his community. Even as he suffered from a number of different challenges, which we get into in the book, he always had that optimistic, bright spirit. And we also know tragically that on the video as he was being killed, he yelled, “I love you” a couple of times. He yelled, “I love you” to his mother, to his friend. He said his children should know that he loved them. And those were some of his final words. So we thought it was important to – as we focused on not only his death, but his life – to use those words, to show people what he was like.

ISAACSON: We know him as George Floyd. Unfortunately we know him maybe from that video, that nine minutes and 29 seconds, that happened two years ago. But in your book, he’s called Perry by a lot of people. You talk to a second grade teacher, you talk to other people – they used his middle name. Tell me what he was like growing up. Tell me what you learned by talking to his school teachers.

OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, everyone back in Houston’s third ward knew him as Perry when he was a kid. He was someone who at first was quiet, cuz he didn’t know very many people in the large housing project that he was – where he was raised. But he was also somebody that had ambitions and had dreams. And we talked to his second grade teacher and learned that even though he came from an impoverished background and he was in a school that was segregated and underfunded, he was on – hitting all of his national benchmarks for reading, writing, and math when he left second grade. He was somebody who wanted to be a Supreme court justice. He wrote in an essay in his second grade class that even as he saw that, you know, Thurgood Marshall was the first black Supreme court justice that he saw himself in the future joining the Supreme Court. And you know, as he grew up, we saw how his dreams were diminished and derailed in part because of the systems he was involved in and trying to navigate from the housing system to the education system, to eventually the criminal justice system that intersected with his life. We saw that you know, he had dreams at one point, but being poor and black in America was much more difficult for him to achieve those dreams than it would’ve been otherwise. And we saw, and we documented the book, how he struggled and strived and really had trouble achieving those dreams and saw those dreams diminished over the course of his life.

ISAACSON:You know, we talk about racism in the abstract a lot. And certainly in the past two years, since George Floyd’s death, we’ve talked a lot about systemic racism, but one of the things about your book is that it personalizes it. It makes you really understand what it was like to be a person in George Floyd’s shoes. Tell me how from the early on the racism that sort of interwoven with George Floyd’s life affected what happened to him?

OLORUNNIPA:Yeah, the – as a biographer Walter, you know the power of a human story, of a single person’s story, and we wanted to show all of these different things that people talk about in an abstract way through the very real human impact that it had on George Floyd. And we started this story going back more than 200 years into George Floyd’s ancestry and we found out how racism impacted his ancestors. One of his ancestors, his great, great grandfather was born enslaved. And after he received his freedom after the civil war was able to amass 500 acres of land through hard work and industriousness. And that made him one of the most wealthy people in his community in North Carolina. But all of that land was stripped away from him and taken by fraudulent tax schemes and unscrupulous businessmen who did not like the idea of a very wealthy black man being in their community. And as a result, several generations before George Floyd were marked by generational poverty. They were not able to benefit from that generational wealth and George Floyd came into the world poor. That’s one aspect of systemic racism that impacts him before he even was born. After he was born, he lived in government housing that was underfunded and segregated in Houston’s third ward, which was predominantly black and which was crumbling and underfunded and under-resourced. And that was a very difficult place to grow up. There was crime, there was drugs and it was just a tough place to grow up because the government hadn’t maintained it the way it should have in part, because it was an all black community. Then you talk about the education system, which was also segregated and which did not provide George Floyd with the education that he might need to be able to escape his circumstances. Instead, he was funneled into the idea that chasing sports was the only way out that, you know, the schools were underfunded. The materials were all hand me down materials and crumbling and some of the teachers were not well trained. So as a result, George Floyd did not get the education that he would’ve needed in order to achieve his initial dreams of rising to the Supreme court, or even having a normal life as a professional. And as we saw his sports dreams fall apart, then he enters into the criminal justice system, which we know disproportionately targeted people who looked like George Floyd for petty drug arrest and nonviolent crimes. And he ended up cycling through that system for several years. And we document how mass incarceration and the war on drugs impacted his community and made it more difficult for him to make a living and survive as someone trying to come up in third ward Houston. So we document how systemic racism impacted one person because he wanted to show how somebody who received some level of empathy after he died, was experiencing the suffocating pressures of systemic racism long before he fell under the knee of a police officer.

ISAACSON: You know, his mother summed up what you just said by saying, “You’re born with two strikes against you.” Explain her and her outlook and what she meant by that.

OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, George Floyd’s mother grew up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, working with her sharecropper parents. And she realized that as they were cheated out of their wages, as they worked for decades and were not able to amass any kind of wealth to be passed down because they were living hand to mouth, as they struggled, they knew that there was a level of unfairness in the system that they were operating in. And she knew that her children were also gonna be operating in that same system. They were poor and they were black. And because of that, she said they already had two strikes against them in this system. And they needed to be very careful because one other – one more strike and they would be out. So they – she told them that they needed to never make any mistakes, that they should try to focus on their schooling and they should try to speak to King’s English and never allow anyone to think they weren’t smart. And she passed that message down to them. But even as they received that message, they were also suffering under the caprices of racism, where it became very difficult for them to believe that they would have an opportunity to make it out. And that made it very difficult for George Floyd to key into the idea of the American dream: if you work hard, if you study everything is gonna work out well for you. Because he saw that even as his ancestors worked hard and they played by the rules, they were cheated out of their wages and they were not able to build any kind of an American dream for themselves.

ISAACSON: He died two years ago in a police encounter. Tell me how much he feared police encounters throughout his life.

OLORUNNIPA: Well, we were able to document over the course of the research for this book that George Floyd was detained by police at least 20 times over the course of his life. And in some of those police reports, he was detained for something as simple as walking through his own neighborhood because the police wrote quote, he did not look like he was going anywhere in particular. And we also documented that at least six of the officers that detained him were later charged with crimes of their own. So there was a history of police corruption, and he was a victim in some ways of that police corruption. And even as he admitted to some of the crimes that he later pled guilty to, he maintained his innocence for some of the other crimes. But he still pled guilty and he still spent a lot of time in jail over the course of his life in part, because he felt like the criminal justice system would not be fair to him. And he developed claustrophobia. He developed anxiety. We looked at intake forms from some of his time in prison, where he wrote that he was having crying spells, depression, anxiety. And being locked up in Texas, he received no treatment while he was imprisoned. And his substance use issues got worse. His own mental health issues got worse and his claustrophobia got worse. And that’s why when the police officers tried to arrest him on May 25th, 2020, he was essentially telling them I have claustrophobia. I will not be able to survive in this system going in the back of your police car – why he was so terrified. And we were able to document that that was actually true, that he actually felt that deep, intense level of claustrophobia and fear in part, because of his traumatic experiences with police over the course of several decades.

ISAACSON: But he did go on a bad path many times. He did end up with drugs and other things, and that makes it a more complex story. How do you deal with his own agency in this story, as well as the things that happened to him?

OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, Robert Samuels and I are both journalists and we happen to be black men and who happen to have a level of empathy, but our commission – our mission is to the craft of journalism, the craft of biography, and telling the full story, both the good and the bad. And George Floyd, as his friends told us, did not hide away from his own shortcomings, his own sins and his own flaws, both in his own words and his own diary entries. He agonized over some of those sins and he recognized them and he acknowledged them. We thought it was important that we also acknowledged them and write them to the fullest extent of the truth that we, that we were able to determine that included covering some of his dark moments, the dark moments that he acknowledged by telling his friends I’m in the dark, I need help to get to the light. And some of those dark moments include addiction. Some of those dark moments include criminal activity. Some of those dark moments include drug use and drug – and the sale of drug. And we document all of that in the book in part, because it was important for us to tell his full story, including the story of the most well known part of his criminal history, his guilty plea for an armed robbery in which we document exactly what happened, including – with an interview with the victim in that case. So we hope people read the book because there are people who say, you know, if you write about George Floyd, you’re just writing to, you know, lionize him and cover up all of – any of the unsavory things. And we did not do that. We told his full story and we told it with empathy and we told it with context, but we told it in a way that did not shade away or did not hide away any of the things that he did that he knew was wrong.

ISAACSON: What drew him to Minnesota?

OLORUNNIPA: He realized that as a former felon, as someone with a criminal record in Texas, it was gonna be difficult for him to get a job, his girlfriend had just given birth to a daughter and he realized that he wanted to be a provider. And that it was difficult for him to find a job because he had a record in Texas. He also needed treatment. He realized that he had a substance use issue, and Texas is one of the states that had not expanded Medicaid and it was difficult for him to find the kind of treatment that he needed. So he connected with a pastor in Texas. And that pastor let him know about a program in Minnesota, where he could get his life together. He could get rehabilitation, they could help him find a job. And he realized that he needed to reset his life. So he left his family. He left the community that he knew all of his life. And he picked up in 2017 and moved to Minneapolis not really having his families – a big family there, but knowing that he needed to make a change. And he had this moment where things were going well. And unfortunately things went – turned sour really quickly for him when his roommate died of an overdose. And a few months later, his mother died and people who we spoke to said he was just broken by that tragic set of events. And it made it very difficult for him to stay on the straight and narrow path. He actually fell back into addiction and struggled up until the moment of his death.

ISAACSON: As a biographer, I was deeply impressed how you found such a treasure trove of written material. His diary, things he said, I think even – I saw even rap lyrics that he was trying to write. Tell me about those writings of George Floyd and how they informed your story.

OLORUNNIPA:Yeah, there is a, there’s a moment, a scene in the book where, you know, Floyd is having this time in his life where he’s free styling often and going to a rap studio And he says I’ve been broke for so long. I’ve been stuck in last place for so long. I’m loaded with potential, but I’m still going wrong, and I need to get my act together before – and start acting like a grown man. And it showed how he was suffering and struggling with the fact that his dreams had been diminished. Some of his ambitions including his statement as a child, that he wanted to touch the world. He realized that he was not reaching those dreams and he wanted to put it down in his lyrics that he was more than the stereotype that people put on him.

ISAACSON: After his death, president Biden told his family that there would be good that would come out of it. That he would help change America. You spoke to president Biden for this book. To what extent do you think things have changed over the past year because of his death and have they improved or has it gotten more polarized?

OLORUNNIPA: Oh, well president Biden in some ways owes his presidency to the coalition of people who came out to protest after George Floyd’s death, you had black voters that were animated, you had white suburban people who were animated and decided that they wanted to change at the top level of our government. And he promised the family that things would be different. He promised a lot of voters that he would be a changemaker, especially when it comes to issues like police reform and racial justice. And I don’t wanna downplay his record. There are many things that have changed since George Floyd died. We have the first African American woman to be vice president. We have a Supreme court nominee who’s going to join the court who’s also an African American woman. And representation across our society has changed and we have corporations and different cultural institutions realizing that more needs to be done on diversity and inclusion. But at the same time, there are a number of people who are not satisfied with how much political progress we’ve had since George Floyd died. There’s been this major backlash with people saying that we should not teach this country’s history. Critical race theory has become a flashpoint in our politics. And we have people like the killer in Buffalo, deciding that black people are taking up too much space in society and they need to be eliminated. So it’s always something that happens in fits and starts. Progress is never a straight line in this country. And the kind of broad racial justice movement that we thought might result from George Floyd’s death with major civil rights legislation and other changes. We haven’t seen that. We’ve seen changes on a much more minor local level. And we’ve seen an ongoing struggle with the activists who took to the streets in 2020 still hoping that in the future, there’ll be more significant changes taking place.

ISAACSON: When I was reading this book, I saw what a deeply personal story it was about him, all the things that you’ve talked about, that his mother, his roommates overdose, how it all happened. And yet, like all biography, it’s supposed to be about something larger. To what extent do you think his life represents something larger? Especially if I may say about black men in American society.

OLORUNNIPA: This is an American story. George Floyd is an American. His family has a long history of being Americans. And we all sort of owe it to him to reflect on that and reflect on how, while his death was heinous and it stirred up emotions in people, his life also was something that’s worthy of looking at and analyzing because it reflects a version of our country that very few people know, and very few people acknowledge and that many people are living in silence. So we wanted to shine a light on that, on that version of George Floyd’s America.

ISAACSON: Tolu Olorunnipa. Thank you so much for joining us.

OLORUNNIPA: Thank you, Walter. Appreciate it.

About This Episode EXPAND

Yesterday a Texas school massacre left 19 children and two teachers dead. In the decade since the Sandy Hook massacre, there have been more than 900 shootings on school grounds. This year, there have been more mass shootings than days. James Stavridis on the current analysis on the Ukraine war. Toluse Olorunnipa on how George Floyd’s story reflects troubling and pervasive truths about America.