On October 9, 2020, Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig delivered the twenty-fifth annual Frankel Lecture, From “Lynching as Status Quo” to the New Status Quo. It was the first Frankel Lecture to address the issue of racial violence in policing, a topic that was long overdue. It was also the first event in the series’s illustrious history to take place online. Given the unusual conditions of this year’s lecture, it is worth taking a step back and situating this important and pathbreaking event in its historical and social context.

To say 2020 was a strange and difficult year would be a vast understatement. It started with the excitement and hopeful anticipation befitting a new decade: a time of promise and opportunity for self-reflection and change. Yet mere weeks into the new year, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency and, not long after that, a global pandemic.[1] As we Americans retreated to our homes in those early months, we witnessed the first of two impeachment trials of now former President Donald J. Trump,[2] the gradual mainstreaming of a far-right conspiracy theory,[3] and the start of a global recession.[4] Instability hung in the air.

And on Memorial Day—a day dedicated to remembering the people who have died in service to our country—another seismic shock hit the United States. A white[5] police officer in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by kneeling on his neck for a grueling nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds.[6] Sadly, racialized police violence is not an uncommon event. Police brutality claims the lives of hundreds of Americans each year, and approximately 17% of the Black Americans whom police kill are unarmed.[7] Yet what made George Floyd’s untimely death extraordinary was that every excruciating moment of his brutal murder was captured on a cell phone camera. In the video, Floyd pleads for his life, telling officers, “I can’t breathe,” and heart-wrenchingly calls out for his dead mother.[8] In the days that followed, the video went viral.

The collective horror at Floyd’s killing reverberated across the country.[9] Thousands took to the streets—despite the deadly pandemic—to mourn his death. These protests of police violence and the racism of the current system ultimately prompted some governors to call in the National Guard.[10] Less than ten days after Floyd’s death, all four officers were charged with felonies.[11] The Minnesota Department of Human Rights launched an investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department, and the Minneapolis City Council stated its commitment to replacing the police department with “a more community-oriented agency.”[12] On the national stage, congressional Democrats introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 (the George Floyd Act), which sought to demilitarize the police, ban abusive practices, and reduce racial profiling and violence. Then finally, on June 9, 2020—just one day after Representative Karen Bass and Senator Cory Booker introduced the bill that bore his name—George Floyd was laid to rest here in Houston, his hometown.

Yet even months later, much surrounding the incident has yet to be resolved. As of the time of this writing, the trial of Floyd’s killer was underway, and the other officers who accompanied him have not yet stood trial. Minnesota has again called in the National Guard in anticipation of protests surrounding these proceedings.[13] Racial justice advocates hope that newly inaugurated President Joe Biden will push for the reintroduced version of the George Floyd Act, which previously stalled out in the Senate last summer, to pass the Senate this year.[14] Here in Houston, a local civil-rights group unveiled a mural in Floyd’s honor on the street in front of his high school. The two-block memorial proclaims, “Black Lives Matter,” in between a portrait of Floyd and a depiction of his high-school football jersey.[15] In response to the tribute, Mayor Sylvester Turner declared that the mural was “another public statement that the life and death of George Floyd [was] not in vain.”[16] Which then begs the questions: what have we as a country learned from these events? How have they changed us, and will things be different in the future? The participants in this year’s Frankel Lecture took on these challenging questions.

In her Frankel Lecture remarks, Dean Onwuachi-Willig built on her previous work on cultural trauma.[17] Within sociology, cultural trauma occurs when a group collectively experiences “a disorienting tragedy”[18] that leaves it forever changed in “fundamental and irrevocable ways.”[19] To fulfill the criteria for cultural trauma, the group must agree that it as a whole has been traumatized by a particular event, and it must construct a “master narrative” of that trauma. Dean Onwuachi-Willig’s scholarship has considered the culturally traumatic effect that incidents of racial violence have had on Black Americans. Yet in her article for the Houston Law Review, The Trauma of Awakening to Racism: Did the Tragic Killing of George Floyd Result in Cultural Trauma for Whites?, she turns her keen analytical eye on another racial group. She asks us to consider whether the killing of George Floyd resulted in a cultural trauma for whites.

Dean Onwuachi-Willig begins by describing the public reactions of whites in the wake of Floyd’s death. The author of one op-ed stated that “George Floyd’s death was a tipping point, not just for the Black Lives Matter movement or the movement to reform policing, but for many white Republicans like me who once chose to believe—perhaps were taught to believe—that the fight to end institutionalized racism had been won.”[20] Another wrote, “For many white Americans, George Floyd’s death is the falling beam that ‘takes the lid off,’ that makes it impossible for us to see life as operating the way we once imagined.”[21] The protests and opinion polls that followed seemed to confirm this perspective—that the killing of George Floyd had forever transformed the thinking of whites regarding racism. Perhaps then, white Americans had experienced “an awakening to racism.”[22]

However, not all public tragedies rise to the level of cultural trauma. The catalyzing event must permanently impact the group’s consciousness. A cursory review might conclude that the case for white cultural trauma following Floyd’s killing seems quite strong. Certainly, many white Americans, like the op-ed authors described above, felt deeply affected and believed that witnessing Floyd’s death irreversibly changed their thinking about race. For the first time, they realized how whites—even well-intentioned whites—have contributed to racism and understood that they needed to be part of the effort to end police brutality and racial hierarchy in the United States. Yet whether whites experienced a cultural trauma requires deeper inquiry.

Dean Onwuachi-Willig looks to polling data from the past fifteen years to assess the impact of George Floyd’s killing on whites’ views of police violence. This dataset captures public opinion at several significant moments in the recent history of American race relations, including numerous, well-publicized killings of Black individuals by law enforcement and the election of President Barack Obama. Yet from 2007 to 2020, whites’ views on racism in policing remained relatively steady. White Americans and Black Americans were strongly divided on these issues with whites expressing much more confidence in law enforcement. Following Floyd’s death, the differences in white and Black opinions diminished significantly. Specifically, whites expressed greater disapproval of police officers who killed civilians. From 2015 to 2020, the percentage of whites who believed those officers were treated too leniently increased from 32% to 62%,[23] and the percentage that believed that they were treated too harshly decreased from 21% to 5%.[24] Moreover, 61% of whites supported the Black Lives Matter movement in summer 2020.[25] To be sure, George Floyd’s death seems to have awakened at least some white Americans to racism. The question remains, however, whether whites as a group experienced the kinds of enduring shifts in their collective thinking that are necessary to establish a cultural trauma.

Dean Onwuachi-Willig then turns her attention to this issue: whether the white awakening to racism during this period constitutes a cultural trauma for whites. She finds that much of the cultural trauma narrative for whites rooted in the horrors of the killing of George Floyd remains “undefined and unfulfilled.”[26] To start, there is no clearly defined group injury. For instance, some whites experienced “vicarious trauma” from the footage, while others felt the sting of confronting their personal role in perpetuating racism. Furthermore, white Americans have very different literacies regarding their ability to engage in thoughtful, complex conversations about race, making developing a common group narrative challenging. In fact, many whites did not feel directly harmed. And lastly, the promising changes in whites’ attitudes about racism documented in the polls may already be dwindling. Sadly, one reporter recently found that the number of whites who thought “racism was a big problem” dropped from 45% to 33% in just two months, from June 2020 to August 2020.[27] As a result, Dean Onwuachi-Willig concludes that George Floyd’s death did not result in cultural trauma for whites that “could promise lasting changes in today’s civil rights movement.”[28]

In her response to Dean Onwuachi-Willig, Dean Tamara F. Lawson contemplates whether George Floyd’s killing might have an effect on jurors in cases of police brutality. Juror attitudes toward police violence remained largely stable prior to 2020 with jurors tending to absolve police officers (or “proxy police” like George Zimmerman) of murder either by not indicting them or by not convicting them. Dean Lawson explains that before witnessing Floyd’s death, many Americans believed that such heinous acts by law enforcement “were just not possible.”[29] One might think that the difference could be that prior killings were not caught on video. Yet even when the killing was filmed, such as in the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Tamir Rice, juries did not ultimately hold the officers accountable. Based on the public reaction to Floyd’s death, one might assume that jurors will be more willing to indict and to convict officers in the future. Yet like the white awakening to racism, these culture shifts may be short lived.

Dean Lawson explains that American juries have a “long history” of deciding the outcome of a case and the severity of the punishment based on the race of the victim.[30] Black victims are therefore statistically less likely to get justice via the criminal system. By contrast, the grieving families of Black victims of police violence have had success obtaining civil settlements, frequently in the millions. Dean Lawson notes that we should not confuse this compensation with actual justice. Quite chillingly, she observes that “[s]ome may even see [these settlements] as a financial transaction of sorts, subsidized by taxpayers—an operational cost of maintaining a social hierarchy.”[31] Dean Lawson expresses her doubt that even an event as horrifying as George Floyd’s killing will be sufficient to overcome these deeply ingrained patterns.

Professor Aya Gruber in her comments situates George Floyd’s death and other acts of racialized police violence in their social and historical context. She provocatively and convincingly argues that police brutality directed at people of color is not a bug but rather a feature of the current system. She begins by using the work of legal historians and criminologists to debunk the popular belief that the purpose of organized law enforcement is to fight crime. Police departments in both the South and the North used crimes like “vagrancy” and “disorderly conduct” to target and to control racial and ethnic groups. Additionally, politicians on both sides of the aisle have deployed racialized crime narratives to win elections. Carceral politics and seeming “tough on crime” were responsible for the growing police forces and overflowing prisons of the 1980s and 1990s. Professor Gruber shows that policing in the United States evolved and expanded to reinforce social hierarchies and to further political aims, not from a sincere desire to protect the community from crime.

Racism and violence have therefore always been a part of American policing. Professor Gruber writes that “[f]rom its very inception, the institution of American policing has succeeded extremely well at controlling race, space, and place.”[32] She explains that police engage in “bluelining” Black neighborhoods, “designating them as high-risk areas and stigmatizing them as degraded, pathological spaces.”[33] Racialized police violence is then part and parcel of policing, designed to reaffirm the dangerous, high-crime label of the bluelined areas.

Professor Gruber describes how police culture formalizes and lionizes these acts of violence as not only necessary but as virtuous. She describes how police training materials frame violence as heroic, creating an unfortunate “feedback loop”: policing “attracts those enamored with violence; many of these individuals become police officials; police officials codify violence as policy and ingrain it as practice; police officers train on violent policy and practice; officers are violent on the street, reinforcing that policing is violent . . . .”[34] SWAT teams and the use of “no-knock” warrants during drug raids—like the one that killed Breonna Taylor—further militarize police culture. Given these realities, Professor Gruber warns against the desire to punish “individual bad-apple cops” because that strategy “holds little promise of upending the structures that maintain policing as an institution of racial, social, and economic control.”[35] The very DNA of American policing is tainted by violence and racism. In Gruber’s view, police reform will not be enough. She calls for “a total reimagination” of policing.[36]

When someone dies a violent and needless death, we as human beings often try to make sense of the horror by reassuring ourselves that some good might come of the tragedy. Like Mayor Turner, many Americans want to believe that George Floyd did not die in vain and that we are forever changed as a result. Yet the papers in this year’s Frankel Lecture challenge us to confront the troubling reality that even the most egregious acts of racial hatred will not by themselves guarantee meaningful social reform. So, where do we go from here?

Having left 2020 behind us, we may be inclined to breathe a collective sigh of relief. We have the benefit of not one but three COVID-19 vaccines.[37] We seem to be pulling ourselves out of a recession.[38] And for the first time in our history, we have a Black woman—Vice President Kamala Harris—in the White House. These developments seem to indicate not just stability but progress. Last year’s optimistic musings about what the “roaring '20s” might hold have slowly begun to return.[39]

But we should not be too fast to forget the lessons of 2020, least of all George Floyd’s tragic death. All three Frankel Lecture authors warn us that our shared revulsion at racialized police violence could all too soon become a distant memory. The awakening to racism experienced by whites, while spurring declarations of outrage and cries of allyship in the short term, was not sufficient to produce a lasting change on white identity. Not surprisingly then, juries may return to their status quo: willing to award grieving families damages but resistant to holding murderous police officers criminally accountable. And the very police departments whose militarized cultures have condoned such conduct receive additional funding and support in the name of reform instead of facing meaningful consequences. Read together, the work of Deans Onwuachi-Willig and Lawson and Professor Gruber sends a very clear message; if we truly want racial justice and police reform, we cannot sit passively as law enforcement continues to brutalize Black Americans and expect these events to change us or our institutions. The roots of our racial hierarchy run too deep. Instead, we must take action and ourselves be sources of change.

  1. Rolling Updates on Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), World Health Org., https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/events-as-they-happen [https://perma.cc/NF82-Y73U] (last updated July 31, 2020).

  2. See Nicholas Fandos, Trump Impeached for Inciting Insurrection, N.Y. Times (Feb. 12, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/13/us/politics/trump-impeached.html [https://perma.cc/3KXS-SX5Z].

  3. See Amy Mitchell et al., Political Divides, Conspiracy Theories and Divergent News Sources Heading into 2020 Election, Pew Rsch. Ctr. (Sept. 16, 2020), https://www.journalism.org/2020/09/16/most-americans-who-have-heard-of-qanon-conspiracy-theories-say-they-are-bad-for-the-country-and-that-trump-seems-to-support-people-who-promote-them/ [https://perma.cc/Y3F9-6P2H].

  4. See Kim Parker et al., Economic Fallout from COVID-19 Continues To Hit Lower-Income Americans the Hardest, Pew Rsch. Ctr. (Sept. 24, 2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/ [https://perma.cc/G3CZ-L9P5].

  5. I capitalize “Black” but not “white” for the reasons expressed by Kimberlé Crenshaw. See Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law, 101 Harv. L. Rev. 1331, 1332 n.2 (1988) (“When using ‘Black,’ I shall use an upper-case ‘B’ to reflect my view that Blacks, like Asians, Latinos, and other ‘minorities,’ constitute a specific cultural group and, as such, require denotation as a proper noun.”); Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, 43 Stan. L. Rev. 1241, 1244 n.6 (1991) (“By the same token, I do not capitalize ‘white,’ which is not a proper noun, since whites do not constitute a specific cultural group. For the same reason I do not capitalize ‘women of color.’”).

  6. Amy Forliti et al., Police Chief: Kneeling on Floyd’s Neck Violated Policy, Associated Press, Apr. 5, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/derek-chauvin-trial-live-updates-c3e3fe08773cd2f012654e782e326f6e#:~:text=Chauvin%2C 45%2C is charged with,for a pack of cigarettes

  7. Deidre McPhillips, Deaths from Police Harm Disproportionately Affect People of Color, U.S. News & World Rep. (June 3, 2020, 4:07 PM), https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2020-06-03/data-show-deaths-from-police-violence-disproportionately-affect-people-of-color [https://perma.cc/D8EV-NRC2].

  8. Elliot C. McLaughlin, Three Videos Piece Together the Final Moments of George Floyd’s Life, CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/01/us/george-floyd-three-videos-minneapolis/index.html [https://perma.cc/A3JP-46XF] (June 23, 2020, 9:14 AM); see also Lonnae O’Neal, George Floyd’s Mother Was Not There, but He Used Her as a Sacred Invocation, Nat’l Geographic (May 30, 2020), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/05/george-floyds-mother-not-there-he-used-her-as-sacred-invocation/ [https://perma.cc/25CE-KGRJ].

  9. See Meredith Deliso, Timeline: The Impact of George Floyd’s Death in Minneapolis and Beyond, ABC News (June 10, 2020, 3:27 PM), https://abcnews.go.com/US/timeline-impact-george-floyds-death-minneapolis/story?id=70999322 [https://perma.cc/3SHU-H4YB].

  10. Id.

  11. Id.

  12. Id.

  13. Jennifer Mayerle, Minnesota National Guard ‘Capable and Ready’ for Whatever Comes During Derek Chauvin Trial, CBS Minn. (Mar. 25, 2021, 10:01 PM), https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2021/03/25/minnesota-national-guard-capable-and-ready-for-whatever-comes-during-derek-chauvin-trial/ [https://perma.cc/KE3F-KG8N].

  14. Chris Simkins, Biden Faces Competing Pressures on Police Reform, VOA (Feb. 4, 2021, 6:50 AM), https://www.voanews.com/usa/biden-faces-competing-pressures-police-reform [https://perma.cc/AGJ7-MSF9]; Candice Norwood, Democrats’ Police Reform Bill Faces Opposition in the Senate—but That’s Only the First Hurdle, PBS Newshour (Mar. 5, 2021, 5:33 PM), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/democrats-police-reform-bill-faces-opposition-in-the-senate-but-thats-only-the-first-hurdle [https://perma.cc/CYH2-RQU5]. Some have stated that the fate of the bill will answer the question, “Do Black lives matter to Congress?” Editorial, Do Black Lives Matter to Congress? The Fate of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act Will Tell Us, L.A. Times (Jan. 27, 2021, 3:00 AM) https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-01-27/editorial-do-black-lives-matter-to-congress-the-george-floyd-justice-in-policing-act [https://perma.cc/J74C-65ZB].

  15. Christina Maxouris, Houston Mural Honoring George Floyd Is Unveiled in Front of His High School Alma Mater, CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/08/us/george-floyd-mural-houston-high-school-trnd/ [https://perma.cc/B4Y3-49HA] (Feb. 8, 2021, 5:53 AM).

  16. ShaCamree Gowdy, George Floyd Honored with Street Mural in Front of Jack Yates High School, Hous. Chron., https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/George-Floyd-honored-mural-Jack-Yates-High-School-15933376.php [https://perma.cc/XZ87-ENES] (Feb. 8, 2021, 12:01 PM).

  17. See, e.g., Angela Onwuachi-Willig, The Trauma of the Routine: Lessons on Cultural Trauma from the Emmett Till Verdict, 34 Socio. Theory 355 (2016).

  18. Angela Onwuachi-Willig, The Trauma of Awakening to Racism: Did the Tragic Killing of George Floyd Result in Cultural Trauma for Whites?, 58 Hous. L. Rev. 817, 825 (2021).

  19. Id. (quoting Jeffrey C. Alexander et al., Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma, in Cultural Trauma & Collective Identity 1, 24 (2004)).

  20. Id. at 821 (quoting Daryl Austin, George Floyd’s Death Has To Be a Tipping Point. White People Like Me Must Fight Racism, NBC News (June 14, 2020, 3:30 AM), https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/george-floyd-s-death-has-be-tipping-point-white-people-ncna1229181 [https://perma.cc/S82B-5U9G]).

  21. Id. at 822 (quoting Richard Russo, Will White People Forget About George Floyd?, Atl. (July 28, 2020), https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/07/Richard-russo-george-floyd-white-americans-flitcraft-parable/614638/ [https://perma.cc/AV9Y-5NF2]).

  22. Id. at 833–34, 841.

  23. See id. at 839; Associated Press & NORC Ctr. for Pub. Affs. Rsch., The June 2020 AP-NORC Center Poll 21 (2020), https://apnorc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Topline_final_release5.pdf [https://perma.cc/Q7P5-MY6A].

  24. Onwuachi-Willig, supra note 18, at 840.

  25. 31% strongly supported; 30% somewhat supported. Id. at 837 (citing Kim Parker et al., Pew Rsch. Ctr., Amid Protests, Majorities Across Racial and Ethnic Groups Express Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement 5 (2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2020/06/PSDT_06.12.20_protest_fullreport.pdf [https://perma.cc/7445-7TA7]).

  26. Id. at 842.

  27. Id. at 843 (quoting Renée Graham, Support for Black Lives Matter Is Dropping Among White Americans, Bos. Globe (Sept. 1, 2020, 3:16 PM), https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/09/01/opinion/support-black-lives-matter-is-dropping-among-white-americans/ [https://perma.cc/EW4M-KF9U]).

  28. Id. at 845.

  29. Tamara F. Lawson, Awakening the American Jury: Did the Killing of George Floyd Alter Juror Deliberations Forever?, 58 Hous. L. Rev. 847, 853 (2021).

  30. Id. at 859.

  31. Id. at 863.

  32. Aya Gruber, Policing and "Bluelining," 58 Hous. L. Rev. 867, 891 (2021).

  33. Id. at 894.

  34. Id. at 915.

  35. Id. at 919.

  36. Id. at 936.

  37. See Different COVID-19 Vaccines, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines.html [https://perma.cc/UV4D-DW2P] (last updated Apr. 3, 2021).

  38. Jim Tankersley, The Economy Is Improving Faster than Expected, the U.S. Budget Office Says, N.Y. Times (Feb. 1, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/01/business/economy/cbo-economy-estimate.html [https://perma.cc/7929-8RB8].

  39. Rayan Rafay, Roaring '20s Possibilities in a Post-Covid-19 World, Forbes (Sept. 8, 2020, 7:00 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesrealestatecouncil/2020/09/08/roaring-20s-possibilities-in-a-post-covid-19-world/ [https://perma.cc/65UY-GSTU].