How systemic racism shaped George Floyd’s life and hobbled his ambition

How systemic racism shaped George Floyd’s life and hobbled his ambition

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His life began as the last embers of the civil rights movement were flickering out. Its horrific, videotaped end ignited the largest anti-racism movement since, with demonstrators the world over marching for racial justice in his name.

During the 46 years in between, George Perry Floyd came of age as the strictures of Jim Crow discrimination in America gave way to an insidious form of systemic racism, one that continually undercut his ambitions.

Early in life, he wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. Then, a pro athlete. At the end, he just longed for a little stability, training to be a commercial truck driver.

All were bigger dreams than he was able to achieve in his version of America. While his death was the catalyst for global protests against racial inequality, the eight-minutes and 46 seconds Floyd spent suffocating under the knee of a White police officer were hardly the first time he faced oppression.

Throughout his lifetime, Floyd’s identity as a Black man exposed him to a gantlet of injustices that derailed, diminished and ultimately destroyed him, according to an extensive review of his life based on hundreds of documents and interviews with more than 150 people, including his siblings, extended family members, friends, colleagues, public officials and scholars.

The picture that emerges is one that underscores how systemic racism has calcified within many of America’s institutions, creating sharply disparate outcomes in housing, education, the economy, law enforcement and health care.

While Floyd’s life span coincided with many advancements for Black Americans — some of them dramatic — his personal path highlights just how much those hard-fought gains remain out of reach for millions like him.

“My mom, she used to always tell us that growing up in America, you already have two strikes,” as a Black man, Floyd’s younger brother Philonise said in an interview. “And you’re going to have to work three times as hard as everybody else, if you want to make it in this world.”

Like many Black Americans, Floyd was behind long before he was born.

A descendant of enslaved people and sharecroppers, he was raised by a single mother in a predominantly Black Houston neighborhood where White flight, underinvestment and mass incarceration fostered a crucible of inequality.

George Floyd as a baby, in the arms of his mother, Larcenia Floyd.
George Floyd as a baby, in the arms of his mother, Larcenia Floyd. (Photo by Angela Harrison)

In the crumbling Houston public housing complex where Floyd grew up — known as “The Bricks” — kids were accustomed to police jumping from cars to harass and detain them. His underfunded and underperforming public high school in the city’s historically Black Third Ward left him unprepared for college.

When Floyd was a young man, minor offenses on his record yielded significant jail time and, once released, kept him from finding work. One conviction — a $10 drug deal that earned him 10 months behind bars — is now under review because the arresting officer is suspected of fabricating evidence in dozens of low-level drug cases.

Floyd spent a quarter of his adult life incarcerated, cycling through a criminal justice system that studies show unjustly targets Blacks. His longest stint was at a private prison in a predominantly White town where the jail housing mostly minority inmates generated a third of the town’s budget.

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A survivor of covid-19, he struggled with several ailments that disproportionately cut short Black lives.

Floyd made many mistakes of his own doing. His choices landed him in jail on drug and robbery charges, while also leaving him without a college degree and with limited career prospects. He acknowledged many of his poor decisions and tried to warn others against making them too. But for him, each misstep further narrowed his opportunities.

“I got my shortcomings and my flaws,” he said in a video he posted on social media aimed at convincing young people in his neighborhood to put away their guns. “I ain’t better than nobody else.”

But he also didn’t get the benefits that others might have.

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