DANIEL VAUGHAN: The death of George Floyd: A reminder of imperfections in our Union

A few weeks ago, lawyer and national security writer Benjamin Wittes, outraged over the Justice Department’s move to drop charges against Michael Flynn, revealed more about himself than corruption at the FBI and DOJ.

In what he meant as a defense of those institutions and an attack on Flynn, Wittes wrote: “If you’re outraged by the FBI’s tactics with Flynn, keep in mind that they do these things every day against drug dealers, gang members, and terrorists. Except those people are black, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern—not ‘lock ‘er up’ lily white.”

By saying that, Wittes wanted his audience to believe that Flynn was getting special treatment — not realizing that he undercut the entire legitimacy of those institutions in the process. Joe Biden’s implosion, telling both Charlamagne tha God and the whole Breakfast Club audience that if they questioned or wavered between Biden and Trump, “you ain’t black,” revealed a similar problem.

Biden undercuts the institutional support among blacks Democrats he’s received, showing that he cared for them — and would fight for their votes — only during the primary race; not after.

Wittes and Biden are doing the same thing: using a people group to play partisan politics. But if you’re black, you see this as saying the quiet part out loud about how institutions like the FBI, DOJ, and political parties treat minorities.

That’s one side of the coin.

If that’s the high-level view of things, events like George Floyd’s death at the hands of an indifferent police force show an individual, on-the-ground reality. A Minneapolis police officer kept his knee forced on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes until he went from begging and exclaiming, “I can’t breathe,” to silence.

That silence was death; though paramedics pronounced his death later, first responders never got a pulse on the scene nor were able to get any response from Floyd, according to a report from Minnesota’s Star-Tribune.

People are understandably upset with the outcome and have taken to protesting the police department’s actions. And they have few options beyond protesting; other Minnesota police shootings have resulted in the officers getting cleared of all charges.

A Minnesota jury also absolved the police officer involved in the shooting of Philado Castile, a black man who lost his life on the basis that he was a legal gun owner.

A nation that treats some of its people differently from the rest threatens the rights and dignity of all. And it’s not just policing and federal politics. We’ve seen black Americans experience worse outcomes during the coronavirus pandemic. The Title IX rules that Donald Trump relaxed to give defendants more rights happened because colleges and universities brought more Title IX sexual assault allegations against black men than anyone else. And administrators violated fundamental constitutional rights in the process.

Joe Biden opposed relaxing those Title IX rules, by the way. People can argue all they want about his vote on the 1990s crime bills. Joe Biden supports, right now, enforcing Title IX rules that are proven to violate the due process rights of everyone, and mainly impact black men. That’s not the past; that’s right now.

These are all events involving federal and local governmental powers, or people running for office. These events form the basis for every black American’s assertion that they experience a different America. And when people like Wittes or Biden say the quiet part out loud, there should be less doubt about the existence of that experience. All these events together tell a much broader story, revealed for all to see.

The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it.” It’s a lesson the American Founders took to heart when creating a written constitution — one that doesn’t require people knowing history.

They codified fundamental rights and privileges. It’s taken the entire lifetime of the country to fulfill that dream, and there’s still work to do.

There are two components to this problem: there’s the force of government that’s getting abused, and there’s the cultural issue of one people group getting treated differently. On the government side, legislation and lawsuits can move the country in the right direction. But on the cultural front, no law can change how people treat one another.

When Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in Georgia, it was at the hands of a retired former prosecutor and his friends — people adjacent to the legal process, but still representing a form of vigilante justice. Justice for what, no one knows, since there was no evidence of any crime occurring, nor that they had any proof of wrongdoing. Arbery’s death, and others like his, are tragic because they shouldn’t happen.

They shouldn’t happen because if America were living up to its ideals, a minority group wouldn’t have a radically different life experience from those in the majority. But there is a difference.

It’s not enough to acknowledge the quiet part out loud. Part of creating a better country and culture is reforming the institutions and cultural norms that create these situations.

We’ve gotten better regarding racial disparities, but there’s still plenty room for improvement. We shouldn’t neglect our duty to improve once the shock of this moment passes.