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George Floyd biography explores the systemic racism that contributed to his death


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Today marks the second anniversary of George Floyd's murder at the hands of police in Minneapolis. His death touched off protests and a global movement for racial justice.

Since then, reforms at the federal level in the U.S. have stalled. So, today, President Biden signed an executive order aimed at overhauling policing practices. We will focus on those in a moment.

But, first, special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on a new book that examines what we didn't know about George Floyd's life and America's struggle with systemic racism. It's part of our ongoing series. "Race Matters."

Fred de Sam Lazaro: His face became a global symbol.

Protestor: What's his name?

Protestors: George Floyd!

Fred de Sam Lazaro: His name a rallying cry. Within days of his murder on May 25, 2020, George Floyd became an internationally recognizable figure.

Millions watched the video of his death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer…

Protestor: Say his name!

Protestors: George Floyd!

Fred de Sam Lazaro: … and took to the streets demanding justice.

But who was George Floyd?

Robert Samuels, C0-Author, "His Name Is George Floyd: One Man's Life and Struggle for Racial Justice": The first thing that we thought about was how much people saw his face, but had no sense of who he was.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa are the authors of "His Name Is George Floyd: One Man's Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice."

Toluse Olorunnipa, C0-Author, "His Name Is George Floyd: One Man's Life and Struggle for Racial Justice": We wanted to bring back some of his humanity and not reduce him to just an image of a protest movement, but a human being who had loved ones and who had thoughts and dreams and who really saw a lot of those deferred and derailed, in part because of who he was and how society treated people like him.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: The two Washington Post journalists conducted hundreds of interviews, spending time with Floyd's family and friends, civil rights leaders and politicians.

They reported in Third Ward and the sprawling Cuney Homes public housing complex in the shadow of downtown Houston, where Floyd came of age, and where we met them recently.

Toluse Olorunnipa: He was surrounded by deep poverty. He was surrounded by the crime and the drugs and the issues that come along with the poverty. And it made it very difficult for him to envision how to — how to escape, but that was always his goal.

"For as long as anyone can remember, George Perry Floyd Jr. had wanted the world to know his name. He was young, poor and Black in America, a recipe for irrelevance in a society that tended to push boys like him onto its margins. But he assured everyone around him that, someday, he would make a lasting impact. 'Sis,' he told his sister when he was a teenager, 'I don't want to rule the world. I don't want to run the world. I just want to touch the world.'"

Fred de Sam Lazaro: The book traces Floyd story from his enslaved ancestors through the struggles of his single mother to his own challenges in Third Ward's poorly funded, nearly all Black schools.

Toluse Olorunnipa: When Floyd was being educated here, it was very clear that he was not getting the kinds of educational investment that he needed in order to see this as a place where he could build his dream.

It was a place where he just kind of did time and spent time here in the classroom, but was really focused on athletics.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: He did become a football star at the athletic powerhouse Yates High School. People around Third Ward thought Floyd could play in college or even the pros, but he repeatedly failed the tests needed for a high school diploma.

Robert Samuels: He worked himself into having this massive frame, because he was given a promise. And that promise was, if you become an athlete, you will be able to be successful and lift your family out of poverty.

And then, when that dream didn't happen, he had this body that was big that was ultimately thought of as a weapon.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Robert and Olorunnipa write that Floyd was acutely aware of his 6'6" 225-pound frame.

Toluse Olorunnipa: He told his family members: Whenever I go into a room, I go to shake everyone's hand. I want to make everyone feel comfortable. I know I'm a big guy. I know some people may be afraid of me, and I need to let them know that I'm OK.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Floyd often used his stature around Cuney Homes for good, they say.

Toluse Olorunnipa: He was someone who broke up fights because he was respected by people from different parts of the community, different parts of Third Ward, from different backgrounds.

Especially for younger people who were coming up behind him, he was the one sort of saying, put the guns away.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: He wanted people to avoid the traps into which he ultimately fell, which are detailed in the book, petty drug dealing, addiction and prison time in an unforgiving Texas judicial system.

After spending four years in prison for armed robbery, Floyd came to this Third Ward church and its pastor, John Riles.

Robert Samuels: When Pastor Riles started this church, he knew that it couldn't just be an everyday ministry, that he saw so many people struggling with drug addiction, with an inability to get a job, with trying to get their lives together after being incarcerated.

He started to try and find places to — for people to go to get their lives together, to go to rehab. And the sad truth of the matter was that a lot of that infrastructure didn't exist in Texas. So he started looking around and found Minnesota.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: But Minnesota, a state with some of the worst racial disparities in the nation, presented its own challenges.

Robert Samuels: When George Floyd gets to Minnesota, he also has to confront those things, most notably, an alarming rise in the number of Black people living in that state who are getting addicted to opioids.

And it isn't until a few months before George Floyd dies that public health experts start to realize it's happening. The help that could have come to George Floyd came too late.

"It was all supposed to be a fun, freewheeling day, an afternoon barbecue, a trip to Wendy's with a friend, a rendezvous with an old flame. And yet it ended with Floyd's face on the warm asphalt on a muggy late spring evening, begging an agent of the state to believe that he wasn't a bad guy. He told officers he could not breathe at least 27 times. And, each time, he was ignored.

"The last conversation Floyd had was under duress with an elderly Black man he did not know, who told him that, in this country, he could not win."

Fred de Sam Lazaro: In the aftermath of Floyd's death, you saw this incredible outpouring, not just onto the streets and all of the uprising that happened, but you also heard commitments toward some form of equity.

Two years on, do you sense that that needle has shifted much?

Robert Samuels: All the time, I think about the idea that there's George Floyd the man and there's George Floyd the movement.

We have to ask ourselves the question if the country would be more accepting to listen to George Floyd's cries for help now, compared with the day that he died. I think, in a large sense, for a lot of people, that would be yes.

If you look at George Floyd the movement, it's a lot more complicated.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: There's been little movement on big issues like police reform. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act stalled in Congress, prompting today's more limited executive order from President Biden.

And voters in Minneapolis rebuffed an effort to drastically reshape policing and public safety in the city. And the authors say there's even been some regression on confronting inequality.

Toluse Olorunnipa: This broader idea that maybe there's too much focus on racism, there's too much focus on this country's history, there's too much focus on addressing issues of systemic racism, and that backlash is having a lot of political force, and it's causing some of the people who are in favor of making those changes to shy away from it now.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: And, in Third Ward, the conditions that plagued George Floyd mostly persist two years after the world learned his name.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Fred de Sam Lazaro in Houston.

Judy Woodruff: And a reminder, Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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