• George Floyd’s death followed several widely publicized incidents that exposed the deep racial fissures in American society.
  • The current demonstrations are the result of a series of incidents that were the manifestation of long-simmering, systemic racial inequities. These disparities don't just hurt the black community, but the entire economy.
  • The sustainable, inclusive, prosperous world of the future cannot only be for some, it is the responsibility of everyone to make sure that it is for all.

On 25 May many Americans yearned for normality on Memorial Day. A holiday normally spent at barbeques with family and friends was spent in muted celebrations at home for many, mindful of the strange new reality that COVID-19 necessitates.

However, in Minnesota, an all too familiar occurrence was unfolding. A 46-year-old unarmed black man named George Floyd was killed by police officers on a Minneapolis street outside a local deli. In the following days, the nation was transfixed by George Floyd’s death, captured on camera and beamed across phone, computer and television screens nationwide. As officers pinned Floyd to the ground, with one placing his knee on Floyd’s neck, he said repeatedly, “I can’t breathe". In his agonized final moments, he called out for his mother. Six minutes later, he became unresponsive, and when paramedics arrived at the scene, he was pronounced dead. What has followed is a week of protests that have spread to cities across the country and around the world.

These demonstrations, however, are not the result of one incident, but a series of altercations that were the manifestation of long-simmering, systemic racial inequities.

What led to the street protests?

George Floyd’s death followed several widely publicized incidents that exposed the deep racial fissures in American society. On 23 February Ahmaud Arbery was shot by a former police officer and his son while they attempted a citizen’s arrest for jogging in the wrong neighbourhood in Georgia. In Kentucky, Breonna Taylor was asleep in her bed on 13 March when police raided her apartment, looking for a person who did not live there and had already been detained, and shot her eight times.

On the same day George Floyd was killed, video surfaced of a white woman in Central Park threatening to call the police on a black man who had asked her to put her dog on a leash, telling him “I’m going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life": a terrifying prospect for any black man who was given the ubiquitous “Talk” during their childhoods. By the time videos of Geroge Floyd's death had become widely shared, tension had boiled over into the streets.

Why are police killings in the United States so fraught?

These incidents are illustrative of the deep-seated racial divide in treatment received by US law enforcement. According to analysis by the Washington Post, black Americans were 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be fatally shot by the police. Analysis by The Guardian found that black people were also twice as likely to be killed by police while unarmed.

Compounding the sense of injustice, The Guardian also found that since 2005, after 15,000 deaths in the US at the hands of police officers, fewer than 150 have resulted in charges for murder, and fewer still convicted. This number doesn't account for the varying degrees of abuse many in the black community suffer that do not end in death. Indeed, one of the officers involved in George Floyd's killing was sued by a local black man who was stopped while returning his pregnant girlfriend from his grandmother's house to her own, handcuffed under a non-existent warrant, and beaten to the point of hospitalization.

The COVID-19 effect

While these protests are directed at improving the way law enforcement interacts with communities of colour there is more to the underlying pain, frustration and fury. COVID-19 has hit the black community hard, with black Americans being infected at higher rates and dying in greater numbers than white Americans. They have also been arriving at hospitals with "more advanced or severe illness" indicating delayed hospital visits that in many cases are due to the deep distrust that many black Americans have of doctors. This stems from a history of dangerous experimentation, as well as alarming structural racism in modern medicine. One 2016 survey found that 40% of first and second-year medical students wrongly believe that black people's skin was thicker.

The cost of racism

The same systemic racism that results in excessive police force and insufficient healthcare has stunted economic progress for black Americans since the founding of the country. Incidents like razing black neighbourhoods when they become too economically successful, denying black veterans the post-World War II GI Bill benefits that fueled the growth of America's middle class, discrimination in home lending that continues to this day have locked black Americans out of the engines of American prosperity.

According to a 2019 McKinsey report, median black family wealth was 10 times less than median white family wealth, partially due to racism-fueled barriers to building generational wealth. These disparities don't just hurt the black community, but the entire economy. The same report estimates that the cost of the lost consumption and investment from the black wealth gap is $1-$1.5 trillion between 2019 and 2028, or 4% to 6% of the projected GDP in 2028.

Image: McKinsey & Company

What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle racial injustice and inequality. In response, the Forum's Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society has established a high-level community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers. The community will develop a vision, strategies and tools to proactively embed equity into the post-pandemic recovery and shape long-term inclusive change in our economies and societies.

As businesses emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, they have a unique opportunity to ensure that equity, inclusion and justice define the "new normal" and tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity. It is increasingly clear that new workplace technologies and practices can be leveraged to significantly improve diversity, equity and inclusion outcomes.

The World Economic Forum has developed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit, to outline the practical opportunities that this new technology represents for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, while describing the challenges that come with it.

The toolkit explores how technology can help reduce bias from recruitment processes, diversify talent pools and benchmark diversity and inclusion across organisations. The toolkit also cites research that suggests well-managed diverse teams significantly outperform homogenous ones over time, across profitability, innovation, decision-making and employee engagement.

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Toolkit is available here.

How can understanding this history help move things forward?

If we are to solve the problems that led to this unrest, it is important to understand that the protests we see now, though sparked by recent events, are fueled by long-festering problems. In the case of the US, acknowledging the formative role racism has played in its social and economic history is crucial. Knowing this history is to know that it is not the inequality and violence that causes the racism, but the racism that causes the inequality and violence. Until the underlying racism is addressed, the other problems will remain secondary and perpetual.

The New York Times Magazine's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 project is one such effort to tell a fuller history. It explores the legacy of how the enslavement of black people in America affects everything from the structure of American capitalism, the conditions of American prisons, to the severity of traffic in American cities, and how despite this, black Americans can still find pride in the country they built, and the democracy they helped perfect.

There is much that can be done, however, starting at the individual level and realizing that simply stating "I'm not racist" is not enough. Past street protests have birth organizations like Campaign Zero, which focuses on lobbying governments to increase police department accountability.

"Business leaders in America today have both a moral and economic responsibility to provide black communities the financial and mental support that they so desperately deserve, as well as the opportunity for advancement and access to the resources required to do so."

— Yusuf George, Managing Director JUST Capital

It is also a mistake to believe that racism, and the violence and inequality it breeds, are a phenomenon confined to the US. In Brazil, the state of Rio De Janeiro alone saw police kill 1,810 people with the hammer falling heaviest on black Brazilians. In France, prominent figures have continued to push racist “great replacement” narratives to fearmonger about minorities.

Each country, each community and each individual needs to find the strategy to work for them, but they need to find one. The sustainable, inclusive, prosperous world of the future cannot only be for some, it is the responsibility of everyone to make sure that it is for all.