Author Talks: George Floyd’s America revisited

Toluse Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels examine the life of the man whose death launched a worldwide movement: “We all have a responsibility to pay attention to people like George Floyd before they die under the knee of a police officer on video.”

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Vanessa Burke speaks with Toluse Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels about their new book His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Viking, May 2022). The two Washington Post reporters explore every facet of George Floyd’s life as a Black man in America, the manner of his death, society’s reaction to it, and the trial of his murderer. Floyd’s death “touched the world,” Olorunnipa and Samuels write, launching a national conversation and consciousness about racial inequality in a fervor not seen since the civil rights era. They discuss all this and more against a backdrop of extensive historical research and poignant insight. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What was the motivation and overall purpose for writing this book?

Video 1

Toluse Olorunnipa: We wanted to write this book, in part, because we had seen the video of George Floyd dying, but very few people knew about how he lived. It was important for us to allow him to be removed from the realm of iconography and allow him to be a full human being.

We thought that by telling the world about George Floyd’s life, we might be able to tell everyone about the America in which he lived and all of the injustices that he faced, not only in those final nine minutes of his life, but also over his 46 years—and even hundreds of years before that, when it comes to his family.

We thought it might show a little bit not only about him as a person, and his perseverance and his willingness to keep going, despite the unfairness that he faced, but also about who we are as a country and some of the challenges that we face—and about the movement that erupted after he died and how people who were part of that movement all believed in making this country a better place.

Robert Samuels: When we started thinking about turning an original Washington Post project into a book project, I thought about the look in George Floyd’s eyes on May 25, 2020, when he was first confronted by the police officer. He had a terror there.

“We were hoping to depict a country in its fullness—in all its nuance, in its brilliance, in its tragedy. All of those things that were around George Floyd—the school system, the healthcare system, the education system, how wealth is passed down—had reverberating impacts on how George Floyd viewed the world, and all of them contributed to why he was so afraid the moment the officer tapped on his window.”

Robert Samuels

When we thought about what journalism could do, it set us on a pretty intense mission. And that led to more than 400 interviews with people who were closest to Floyd—his family and friends—all the way up to the president of the United States.

We were hoping to depict a country in its fullness—in all its nuance, in its brilliance, in its tragedy. All of those things that were around George Floyd—the school system, the healthcare system, the education system, how wealth is passed down—had reverberating impacts on how George Floyd viewed the world, and all of them contributed to why he was so afraid the moment the officer tapped on his window.

We repeat the lessons that we don’t learn

George Floyd said, ‘I want to touch the world.’ How would you say he did that?

Video 2

Toluse Olorunnipa: One of the things we wanted to capture in the book was the aftermath of George Floyd’s death—how it shook this country and how it shook the world. We saw people taking to the streets. We saw protests. We saw a great coalition of people coming together.

We saw Black activists and White suburban moms and all kinds of different people from different backgrounds coming together to protest: to say that what happened to Floyd should not have happened, that it was a tragedy, and that it should not be accepted in this country or in any country.

We have seen changes on the local level. We have seen a number of different cultural changes. Corporations and institutions are more attuned to the issues of systemic racism and diversity and inclusion, and there is a discussion that was not taking place at the same level before George Floyd died that now is part of our national consciousness. We have seen executive orders be signed. There is a sense that his death did touch and change the world in a number of different ways.

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Robert Samuels

Robert Samuels: George Floyd’s murder definitely touched the world. But I’d also caution that there is something else: we’re seeing this continual festering—this continual amplification of things like White replacement theory. We’re seeing the stubbornness in Congress about passing legislation that would make it easier for people of color to vote and harder for police officers to get away with killing people without a fair trial.

We talk about George Floyd touching the world, but there was something about it that touched me. During the reporting, we not only saw the impact that racism had on a family but we saw the impact that it had on strangers, on other Black people whose lives were lost through dubious police practices.

We sat with White people who were trying to make sense of this country and couldn’t. I think there was a message that was really important: if we allow what we learned in 2020 to slip away, it’s destined to repeat itself. We hoped this book would not just remind folks of the lingering presence of racism in this country but respark that interest in trying to do something—to acknowledge and confront it.

Quite a few quotes from various people were prophetic for Floyd’s life. Were there any that struck you in particular and, if so, why?

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Toluse Olorunnipa: There were so many times in the reporting of this book where, even though we knew the end of the story—we knew that George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer—reporting his life, reporting his background, reporting the comments and the conversations he had with other people made it clear, in hindsight, that there was a foreshadowing of what was about to happen.

It was prophetic when his teacher told him, “I want to read about you in the newspaper. I want to read that you have done something to impact the world,” and when George Floyd himself, said, “I want to touch the world. I don’t want to rule the world; I don’t want to run the world. I want to have an impact and touch the world.”

George Floyd had wanted the world to know his name, even when he was a young boy. Obviously, tragically, the world came to know his name through his heinous death. It was impactful as writers to experience that and to see those parts of his history.

Robert Samuels: The quote that stays with me the most is when George Floyd is confronted by an officer and is telling him that he’s a good person, that he’s nervous about going into the police car because he’s claustrophobic. And then he says, “Why don’t you believe me?”

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Toluse Olorunnipa

That’s not prophetic in the sense of what happened to George Floyd and his life. But I think it raised a question about how we treat each other and what we choose to believe. And what the reporting helped to show was that, in his death, people still had questions about whether he was a good guy, right? They still brought up his issues with drug dependency as a way of maligning his character without doing the research.

If you look at the fullness and the context of his life, you could understand that when over-the-counter drugs came into George Floyd’s community and many people started to have these drug-dependency issues, these addictions, it was looked on as something that was small, not worthwhile. Who should care about them at all? When those same sorts of things started happening in White, suburban communities, there were billions of dollars sent to those communities for education, treatment, and research.

It calls on us, not just as reporters, but as people who get to live, who lived past May 25, 2020, to start considering the fullness of a person and to start thinking about the context of the lives in which they lived.

The struggle is real ‘under the knee of societal systems’

This book is a mental photograph of years of systemic racial inequality in America. What lessons should society take from it?

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Toluse Olorunnipa: One of the things that I hope readers take away from reading this book is that we all have a responsibility to pay attention to people like George Floyd before they die under the knee of a police officer on video. George Floyd was suffocating for decades in America as a result of various institutions that we all play a role in upholding, we all play a role in defending, and we all play a role in constructing.

Those systems range from the housing system to the public-school education system, to the healthcare system, and definitely to the criminal justice system. And Floyd experienced the harsh caprices of all of those systems in different ways.

“I hope that by outlining the people who were impacted by George Floyd’s death, we can also learn more about his life and learn more about how he struggled under the knee of the societal systems that we’ve created.”

Toluse Olorunnipa

I hope that by outlining the people who were impacted by George Floyd’s death, we can also learn more about his life and learn more about how he struggled under the knee of the societal systems that we’ve created. That might allow people to grapple with some of the systems that we’ve created and, hopefully, be as animated and be as upset by those systems as they were by the policing system that took his life.

Robert Samuels: I’d just say that we hope readers also get that there are millions of people in this country who are like George Floyd. George Floyd was distinct by nature of his spirit but not his condition.

There are millions of families that are still dealing with the reverberations of being exploited: through the sharecropping system, you had generational wealth robbed from them before they could have an intergenerational transfer.

There are millions of children who are still in crumbling school systems that remain underfunded because wealthier people—and largely White people—left their school districts after integration. There are still people who have serious mental-health and substance-use issues who are African American in this country and do not receive the proper treatment because doctors don’t believe them.

“There are millions of people in this country who are like George Floyd…. There are millions of families that are still dealing with the reverberations of being exploited: through the sharecropping system, you had generational wealth robbed from them before they could have an intergenerational transfer.”

Robert Samuels

When we think about the systemic challenges that George Floyd faced, those are some of the questions that we posit. They’re important questions, and they’re things that we have the opportunity today to actually examine and think about and act upon.

America has taken some steps toward racial equality as a result of the global outcry from Floyd’s death. What still needs to be done?

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Toluse Olorunnipa: The question of what America needs to do to address its issues with racial injustice and inequality is a really significant one, and it’s one that we didn’t fully capture in this book.

Policing is one of the issues, and there is a big policing bill that was debated for quite a while that ended up not passing in Congress. But there are several other pieces of policy on a number of different areas that could address the things that George Floyd faced in his life.

We’ve documented a number of them in the book, from the criminal justice system and the inequalities there that lead people like George Floyd to get arrested at rates way higher than in other communities that also have similar rates of drug use to the public-school system, which, half a century-plus beyond Brown v. Board of Education, continues to be segregated in a number of different communities.

Obviously, the housing system that we all are dealing with has a number of inequities. George Floyd experienced those over the course of his life. There are millions of other young boys who look like George Floyd who are continuing to experience those issues. It is incumbent upon policy makers—and all of us, as Americans—to think about how we improve those systems and make sure that people who are like George Floyd aren’t left behind the way he was by a number of systems.

Robert Samuels: We think about the question of how to improve things. For the actual reader, we make a bet that if you are taken along the journey of a man like George Floyd and you have an elevated understanding of some of the structural systems that were supposed to theoretically boost him in life that never fully supported him, the question then becomes, “How does it change your perspective about how you treat your fellow human beings?”

Five hundred acres stolen, cheating George Floyd out of generational wealth

You conducted a massive amount of research, including 400-plus interviews. Which part of that process impacted you the most?

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Toluse Olorunnipa: The part that stuck with me the most was going back to the 1800s—going back into the annals of history—to see how all of the things that happened in this country impacted George Floyd’s life. That’s everything from the Civil War to the Emancipation Proclamation to Reconstruction and the era after Reconstruction, in which there was this backlash, as we’re seeing in a number of different ways over the course of our history.

We see progress followed by backlash. And that impacted George Floyd’s family line. His great-great-grandfather worked hard and amassed 500 acres of land and wanted to be able to pass that land and wealth down to his descendants, including George Floyd, but had it all stripped away from him before he died. He died poor, and all of the generations leading up to George Floyd were hardworking people who also died poor because of the racist system that they tried to navigate.

Being able to research that and substantiate what I had heard from the family helped to illustrate how the living history of this country is still very much living, even if it’s 100 or 200 years ago. It’s still showing up in the 21st century.

That was important, especially because we hear so often that slavery happened such a long time ago and discrimination happened such a long time ago. It was really important for us to show how those things are still having an impact today, and they had a very real impact on George Floyd’s life.

“We hear so often that slavery happened such a long time ago and discrimination happened such a long time ago. It was really important for us to show how those things are still having an impact today, and they had a very real impact on George Floyd’s life.”

Toluse Olorunnipa

Robert Samuels: One of the things that surprised me most in doing the reporting and the research was just how little reporting and research there was on some of the issues. For example, there’s a part in the book where George Floyd fills out an intake form, and he says that he wants to end his Percocet cravings and that he’s hearing voices. It’s ruled that he’s faking, that he’s making it up. By the time he gets to the end of his life—dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, finding it hard to get a job, finding it hard to keep a job (in large part because of the pandemic), unable to end the cravings for pills, unable to fully deal with the death of his mother—many people said George Floyd was depressed.

The federal government put out a study, in this century, looking at the past 25 years and saying, “We have not done enough to research how depression operates in Black men.” It’s a problem. It’s an urgent problem. Issues that can happen or that play out differently because of a person’s race were often disregarded, or not seen as elevated enough, to draw the attention or the dollars of people who would be able to make decisions. That was one of the most surprising things.

How has writing this book affected the two of you, personally?

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Toluse Olorunnipa: This book was a huge undertaking, and it was a difficult book to write. At times, it was traumatic to engage with the subject material, including the material of George Floyd dying, and including the material of him suffering under various systemic pressures that he faced during his life.

One of the things that affected me personally was seeing George Floyd continue to strive and continue to believe in the American promise. Also, watching the people who took up his cause after he died continue to believe that they could positively impact this country was inspirational to me.

“What I learned had to do with the way I understood how history plays into the ideas of living today. I used to think of racism as sort of a dark cloud…. It began to feel to me that it was something far more insidious and invasive on our spirit, both individually and collectively, that we needed to deal with and address.”

Robert Samuels

Robert Samuels: What I learned had to do with the way I understood how history plays into the ideas of living today. I used to think of racism as sort of a dark cloud or a lingering stain on the fabric of this country. But as I saw so many different types of people being affected and impacted by it—not just the Floyd family and other people of color, but White people who sometimes ingest the toxicity of what racism does—it began to feel to me that it was something far more insidious and invasive on our spirit, both individually and collectively, that we needed to deal with and address.

Watch the full interview

Video 8
Toluse Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels examine the life of George Floyd

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