For many white Americans, George Floyd’s murder 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. Like Flitcraft, we feel that we will “never know peace again” until we adjust to this new reality. We’ve glimpsed the way life works for Black people and feel “impacted.” The question is, how much and how lastingly, and here too the Flitcraft story is not terribly reassuring. The beam that narrowly missed Flitcraft, Spade tells Brigid, caused a chip of concrete from the sidewalk to fly up and hit him in the cheek, peeling off some skin. Years later, when Spade finds him in Spokane, Flitcraft still has the scar, which he touches “affectionately,” but it’s clear that he’s all but forgotten it. The fact that no more beams have fallen (near him) has allowed him to consign the experience of nearly having been killed to the furthest reaches of his memory. Nor does it seem to occur to him that there are people for whom falling beams are the rule, not the exception, and that they are affected by more than flying debris.
Indeed, the way white people are experiencing George Floyd’s death has to be fundamentally different from the way Black people are. Intellectually, we whites know that more than 70 Black people have died in police custody after having spoken the exact same words that George Floyd spoke: “I can’t breathe.” And we know that in addition to George Floyd structural racism has claimed the lives of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castile and Freddie Gray and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and so many others. But I fear that to white people it feels like one beam that’s fallen, just as this feels like a single moment in time. I have to believe that for Black folks it’s very different. Beams have been falling on them since the first African was kidnapped and chained belowdecks on the first slave ship. Falling beams is their groove. I’m sure that many in the Black Lives Matter movement are pleased that so many white people have at long last joined them in their struggle, but if I were in their place, I’d be wondering if we can be trusted to stay the course. I’d love to assure them that this time is different, that there’s no going back. I want desperately to believe that this is the case.