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Statement Regarding the Death of George Floyd

June 26, 2020

I wanted this statement to be open to revision, and I am grateful to those who have offered comments about it (Josephine Lee, Terri Sutton, Nate Mills, V. V. Ganeshananthan, Qadri Ismail, Nyla Numan, Kyle Riper, and Kerstin Tuttle). While all who commented agree with the importance of developing an anti-racist department, the graduate students, Numan, Riper, and Tuttle, offered strong objections to an earlier version of this letter, in a document that was signed by many others in the department. I have revised this statement in relation to their comments. But, as the graduate students and faculty who signed their letter stressed, I should not claim to speak for them or others in the department and do not do so in what follows.

Black lives matter.

We lift up our voices in protest, sorrow, and outrage at the Minneapolis Police Department’s callous killing of George Floyd, at the racial and economic systems that made this homicide business as usual for the perpetrators, at the indifference and injustice fueling violent protest, and at the arrest of Omar Jimenez and other journalists as they were pursuing the essential job of representing the truth. I recognize the leadership of Student Body President Jael Kerandi in calling on President Gabel to reduce University reliance on the Minneapolis Police Department, urge her to ensure effective follow-through on this promise, and join with her, Dean Coleman, and UMN students, who have taken a leadership role in pushing for accountability and reform. Our BIPOC faculty, staff, and students are central to our mission, and we stand with them now, in part through our existing commitments to equity, diversity, and inclusion and in part through our commitment to do better to foster anti-racism through mentoring, teaching, researching, creating, and learning. In terms of visible specifics, we are developing an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion [EDI] portion of our website that will make public the material in the 2019 report of our EDI committee that is disclosable by University policy, as well as provide updates about our progress in meeting its goals. But I also recognize that the needs of the department are greater than even the report suggests, and I am committed to working with the department to find ways to address them.

As scholars and creators of literature who are committed to social justice, we are especially sensitive to the words and narratives around current events. We point to the history of terms like “rioters” and “looters” being used to discredit Black activism. We note that oppression is maintained partly through narratives that stress restoring stability for the privileged over seeing justice done for those oppressed and victimized by that privilege and all that it sustains. Likewise, we recognize how racist structures are enabled by stories that position racism elsewhere, as if the English department were not also part of a racist institution. We urge our public leaders to foreground racial and socioeconomic justice now as always, and to choose their words and stories with care for the implications they create about the way forward. And we urge this not for public leaders alone, but for all commenting on these events: the language that we use is shaping perceptions of events and responses in ways that will guide next steps.

Most of all, we are sensitive to voice: at any given moment, who is able to speak and who is silenced. I therefore follow the recommendation to use my privilege to amplify Black voices by foregrounding the words and stories of Black leaders, and quote in full this statement from the Black Midwest Initiative, directed by Terrion Williamson of UMN’s African American and African Studies Department:

Statement on the Death of George Floyd

The Black Midwest Initiative, which is based in Minneapolis, joins the chorus of people and organizations who are demanding justice for George Floyd and accountability for the police officers who caused and enabled his death, and we recognize that “justice” and “accountability” operate on different registers for differently situated people. We are simultaneously concerned with advocating for the felt needs of black people that stretch far beyond holding any one police officer or group of officers responsible for George Floyd’s death. This is to say, we understand that policing is a strategy of social control that emerges out of and is fortified by the kinds of racist logics that continue to structure black communities, and that ending policing as we know it also mandates working toward the destruction of all the intersecting forms of oppression that make black people especially vulnerable to physical, emotional, psychological, psychic, and economic violence and premature death. In the current context, this means that we also understand the death of George Floyd at the hands of the state to be tethered to the disastrous state response to the coronavirus pandemic that continues to disproportionately affect and kill black people and is part of the contextual framework of this moment.

In 2019, US News & World Report listed the Twin Cities—Minneapolis and St. Paul—sixth on its list of the “125 Best Places to Live in the U.S.” Heralded for their robust amenities and eclectic architecture, the Cities were ultimately given kudos for their “approachable Midwestern feel.” Yet, that very same year the Twin Cities landed fourth on another national list. Compiled annually by the financial news site 24/7 Wall St., the ranking of “The Worst Cities for Black Americans” takes into account disparities among black and white residents across a number of measures, including household income, homeownership, rates of incarceration, and educational attainment. While neither of these lists is definitive, what this disjuncture between “best” and “worst” effectively conveys is how normative accountings of civic life and its supposed successes fail, time and again, to account for the realities of black lived experience.

The death of 46-year-old George Floyd is the latest and most urgent example of the stark disconnect so many black people and communities have to the Midwestern ideal that is alleged to characterize the Twin Cities and other Midwestern locales. The death of George Floyd follows in the wake of the deaths of thirty-two-year-old Philando Castile and twenty-four-year-old Jamar Clark, unarmed black men who were both shot to death by police officers in separate incidents in the Twin Cities area within the past five years. The palpable rage and sorrow that is currently surging through the streets of Minneapolis is a reflection of this recent history as well as a longer history of black political, economic, and social disenfranchisement that has been reinforced by the Minneapolis Police Department over the course of its more than150-year history (for more on this history visit mpd150.com). As black people, this is a history that we not only witness and experience, but one that we often feel viscerally. Wherever we shop, eat, work, or gather, whether we are simply jogging through the neighborhood or birdwatching in the park or sitting in our own homes, we know—we feel—that at any moment our perceived threat and attendant socioeconomic positioning can become the condition of our containment, expulsion, incarceration, or death. And if not us, then someone we love dearly.

Most of the places that make up the list of “worst” cities for black Americans each year are located within the Midwest and larger industrial sectors of the country. Here, in the so-called “heartland,” where most states have average black populations that are larger than any region outside of the South, black people have been struggling and fighting and organizing for generations primarily outside of the national spotlight. Except, that is, when a crisis—think Detroit, Ferguson, Flint, Chicago, and now Minneapolis—forces that spotlight to hone in just long enough to use us for the expediencies of political outrage. But as the media now trains its attention on the impact of what it has largely termed “looting” and “rioting” in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, we are determined to continue using our collective organizing, teaching, writing, and art-making to disrupt the ongoing plunder of black lives and communities in our region and beyond. So much depends on it.

While I am grateful for Williamson’s words, it is not up to Black people to carry responsibility for anti-racist reform. Black writers in Britain and the United States have been attacking racist structures of white privilege for well over 200 years. Those like myself with that privilege need to change those structures. I have noted the work that we are doing as a department and our need to do more. But I want to use this space also to advocate for Black-led organizations working for social justice and an end to police violence. We list some of them here, and urge you to invest in them, even as I recognize that the call to invest assumes privilege:

While these national organizations provide vital to support to our local community and organizations, many local organizations are providing critical support right now in the Twin Cities area; here is a guide to some of them:

This statement is open to revision and suggestions; if you have comments, please send them to englmaj@umn.edu.  Also, we acknowledge that we are part of a wider community here at UMN, and recognize that lasting change will require reform not only in this department but throughout the University:

We look forward to continuing and learning from these discussions.

Andrew Elfenbein
Professor and Chair, Department of English