It was the cry for help heard round the world: “Momma… I’m through.”
The words, expelled from George Floyd’s mouth on the evening of May 25th, would become some of the last the 46-year-old father would ever utter. That he verbalized his fate, as a knee of a white officer laid pressed to his neck, set the foundation for a social justice movement that would take over the nation and parts of the globe.
Floyd’s death wasn’t merely another police-involved killing. It was a deliberate disregard of human life at a time when the world was on pause, and reeling from a state of perpetual grief. Heightened racial tensions and a contentious election exasperated feelings of impatience with a broken system.
“[Floyd’s death] is a tragic reminder that this was not an isolated incident, but a part of an ingrained systemic cycle of injustice that still exists in this country,” then candidate Joe Biden said following his death.
“It cuts at the very heart of our sacred belief that all Americans are equal in rights and in dignity, and it sends a very clear message to the Black community and to Black lives that are under threat every single day,” he added.
Biden’s promise on the campaign trail was to “get to the root” of those systems that made it possible for a man sworn to serve and protect, to become the careless culprit in Floyd’s untimely death. He assured the community that made his candidacy possible that a vote for him would be a vote for righting systemic wrongs and creating equity for communities negatively impacted by governmental structures.
Now, less than five months into his term as President of the United States, Biden is working to keep his word. In an April joint address to Congress, the former Vice President urged legislators to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by the anniversary of his death. Though the deadline will be missed, the White House continues to assure the American public that the urgency remains.
Ahead of the Tuesday, May 25th commemoration of Floyd’s life, EBONY spoke to White House senior adviser and director of the Office of Public Engagement Cedric Richmond on the importance of Floyd’s death one year later and the equitable steps the Biden administration is taking to bring justice to his name.
For the White House, Richmond explains, the work being done goes far beyond the structural racism in the criminal justice system. It’s about dismantling the discriminatory policies that have impeded the economic growth of marginalized groups for centuries.
EBONY: This week, the White House will host the family of George Floyd. Why was it important for President Biden to have the family in his home to sit down and speak with them?
CEDRIC RICHMOND: Well, he met the family in Houston last year, before the funeral, and had a long meeting with them and got to know them. He’s talked to them a couple of times since. It’s the one year anniversary and commemoration of his murder, and I think the President wanted to talk to the family, check in with them. Check on how they’re doing. Check on how they’re holding up during the trials. All of those things. He hasn’t had a chance to see them in a while, so that is why it was important to him.
EBONY: As you said, we’re coming up on the one year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, and the White House has done a lot in making sure that he is remembered. One of the measures that President Biden has championed and Congress has been pushing for in wake of his murder is the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act. Though the President wanted to have this bill passed by now, it is unfortunately still held up in the Senate. What is the current status of the bill?
RICHMOND: Senator Booker has relayed that the talks are meaningful, and that they are making progress towards a substantive piece of legislation to address policing in the country and so that is a good step. The President supports the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act. He’s said it in a joint address to the Congress, and in front of the world. So we are very supportive of the ongoing talks and hope that they can get to a resolution agreement soon.
EBONY: Last year, you got into somewhat of a viral debate with Rep. Matt Gaetz. During that time you said you were “angry as hell” because it felt like your Republican colleagues were making it especially difficult to get this measure passed. Are you still angry as hell about what is going on in our country?
RICHMOND: The answer to that is a little combination of yes and no. The no part is because I’m part of an administration that is tackling racism and racial equity. I recently left an event correlated to the work we are doing with Black farmers to make sure that they’re aware of and have access to the $5 billion that we have made available to pay off loans and address the systemic racism that Black farmers have faced. And so that gives me encouragement. If you look at the whole of government, as it deals with racism and equity, the President signed on day one an executive order to tackle these issues. That includes what we’re doing at HUD. So when I see what the administration is doing, I am very encouraged. But when I think about how far we have to go and the obstacles that have been put in our way to address these issues, or even the denial, you still get. You know, it’s still emotional.
EBONY: During that same viral moment you also mentioned that you were a victim of excessive force, and you worry about your Black son. Do you worry less now under a Biden administration?
RICHMOND: I do in some aspects. I think that the President sets a tone and I think that President Biden sets a tone of civility, one of respect and one of being guided by morals and values. But the concern is still there and it’s not just for my son. It’s for all people of color and their children and interactions with police. And you know we want to, and we must believe, that we have the support of the police. But at the same time, I think we have to acknowledge and police should acknowledge that if you just look at Ronald Greene in Louisiana and George Floyd, the police reports aren’t even close to telling the truth. And how do we ask people to have trust in the system if we have issues that are so blatant, you know? It erodes that trust and so that’s why transparency and accountability are very important. You start to question everything you see when there are two reports and two videos that just don’t mesh.
EBONY: George Floyd represents a much larger issue within our criminal justice system. Based on what you’ve seen as a senior adviser on the inside of the White House, what can people look forward to in the next six months as it pertains to reform?
RICHMOND: I think that we took action early on with banning the use of private prisons on the federal level. That was an indicator that we’re going to take criminal justice reform very seriously. But also, we’re taking equity seriously. And you know, policing and criminal justice reform is important but that’s not the end. That’s why you see us putting so much money into Title 1 funding for schools. Putting so much money into HBCUs. You saw us reduce taxes for people who have children and expanded the earned income tax credit so that we can reduce poverty among Black children by more than 50 percent, Hispanic poverty by 39 percent. So we’re very intentional about racial equity in this country and people should look for us to continue doing that.
EBONY: I’m glad you mention equity, because that’s important. Justice for George Floyd is not simply about criminal justice reform, it’s also about creating equitable systems. We know that this country has a school to prison pipeline which you can correlate to the large gap in funding between predominately white schools and predominately non-white schools. So as far as bringing equity to education, what does the White House have planned?
RICHMOND: Well that’s why you see us invest tremendously in Title 1 funding. These schools are disproportionately located in minority communities. And we want to make sure that those kids get the same amount of funding as wealthy neighborhoods, at least for their public education. That’s also why you see us investing, intentionally, in HBCUs, because we know the products that they produce. And they’re producing it with inadequate funding and we want to make sure that we give them the tools and the resources to do even greater work than what they’re already doing. Education is really important to us and that’s why you see us investing in it. Hopefully, with Congress’s agreement, we’ll also make the first two years of community college free and HBCUs free for those who qualify. That’s just one of the areas and facets of our education equity.
EBONY: Before their historic election, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were both very clear that immediate and radical change needed to happen in our country. What steps has the White House taken to push the needle toward that change and what would you like to see more of in the coming days and years?
RICHMOND: We are keeping our head down, and we’re doing the work. Whether it’s the $5 billion to help Black farmers, whether it’s the racial equity framework that we’re advancing throughout the federal government, whether it’s making sure that we are addressing the racial disparities with COVID — inequities that were in place in the beginning and continued through to where vaccines were distributed, and we’ve brought relief to small businesses. That’s how we’re pushing the needle and that continues to be important to the White House. It’s about the results. And I think that we are delivering. There’s a lot of work that has to be done, but what people have to remember is we’re 123 days in. We have a number of accomplishments to still show but we’re keeping our promises and we’re meeting the challenges.