This week offered a moment of reflection on race relations in the US as it marked the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd. Floyd’s final words as he was pinned beneath the knee of a white police officer – “I can’t breathe” – became a rallying cry for racial justice in the US and across the world.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden will travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to mark an event that was a similar inflection point in the US’s troubled racial history.
On June 1st ,1921, a white mob ransacked a black neighbourhood of Tulsa, razing homes, buildings and businesses to the ground and killing hundreds of people. The riot was prompted by reports that a young black man had assaulted a white teenage elevator attendant.
As tensions exploded, clashes erupted over an area spanning 35 blocks. White attackers were backed up by assaults from private aircraft, and reportedly help from police.
At the time the Greenwood area of the city was one of the most prosperous black areas in the country, known as “Black Wall Street”. In less than two days, the area was in ruins. Those who were not murdered fled, while up to 6,000 African-Americans were interned.
No one was ever charged with a crime, and the incident until recently rarely appeared in American school textbooks.
Last week three survivors of the massacre brought their stories to Washington. Testifying before a House of Representatives judiciary subcommittee, 107-year-old Viola Ford Fletcher recalled how she had grown up in a safe, happy community before the events of 1921.
“My family had a beautiful home, we had great neighbours, I had friends to play with, I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future,” she said. “Within a few hours all of that was gone.”
Another survivor, Lessie Benningfield Randle, who was six at the time, testified remotely that she did not believe she would survive the attacks. “I still see it, in my mind, 100 years later. I have survived to tell this story. I believe I am still here to share it with you. Hopefully you all will listen to us while we are still here.”
Biden’s visit to Tulsa takes place against the background of a debate about whether reparations should be paid to the descendants of slavery and those who experienced events like the Tulsa massacre.
The idea of making specific payments to descendants is a divisive issue in the US. Biden has said he supports a study into the issue of reparations, and appears to be more open to the idea than many had expected, judging by comments by his press secretary in recent months.
In some ways it’s unsurprising. After all Biden’s victory in the Democratic primary contest was due to overwhelming black support in the key state of South Carolina last year. Throughout the campaign he vowed to address the issue of racial justice as the George Floyd killing pushed the issue front and centre in the presidential race.
It is unclear if Biden will address the reparations issue when he delivers remarks in Tulsa on Tuesday. Nonetheless, his visit has been welcomed by African-Americans in the region, unlike last year’s visit by Donald Trump. The then president controversially held a rally in Tulsa at the height of the coronavirus pandemic last June. He delayed it by a day having first scheduled it for June 19th – a holiday that traditionally commemorates the ending of slavery in the US.
As Biden prepares to pay homage to those who lost their lives a century ago in Tulsa, this week’s anniversary of George Floyd’s death was a reminder of the challenges that still remain to achieve true racial equality in the US.
Gap in wealth
The structural legacy of racism has generated a persistent gap in wealth, health and outcomes – the median-income black family is still significantly poorer than a white family, Covid-19 has killed African-Americans at a higher rate than white Americans, and African-American men are disproportionately represented in the prison population.
Calls for police reform in the wake of the Floyd killing have not yet been answered. Congress has yet to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, amid resistance from some Republicans about altering the “qualified immunity” provision that protects police officers.
Though senior lawmakers are confident that a compromise will be reached, no deadline has been set.
Achieving substantive change in policing would be a true testimony to the memory of George Floyd.