Day 6·Q&A

Killing of George Floyd has changed how the world sees the U.S., diplomat says

When Linda Thomas-Greenfield retired in 2017, she was the highest-ranking Black American woman at the State Department. Now, the veteran U.S. diplomat says the killing of George Floyd has made it harder for Black American diplomats to do the work they believe in.

‘They look to us for an example, and that example has now been tarnished’: Linda Thomas-Greenfield

A portrait of George Floyd is seen during a protest encampment on June 28, 2020 in a park near City Hall in New York City. (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

Originally published Sept. 18, 2020. On Nov. 23, 2020, it was announced that U.S. president-elect Joe Biden tapped Linda Thomas-Greenfield to become the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

A veteran U.S. diplomat says the death of George Floyd at the hands of police will have a lasting effect on the world's perception of the United States.

Floyd, 46, died in Minneapolis on May 25 after police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd's neck on the ground for several minutes.

Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. Three other officers at the scene were charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and manslaughter

Floyd's death sparked protests in Minneapolis and across the rest of the country, reigniting the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The story soon hit international waters. Protesters in Europe voiced their disapproval online and in the streets of cities such as Paris and The Hague, while Canadians held their own protests and vigils protesting Black and Indigenous lives lost in police encounters.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield has been keeping a close eye on the international reaction to Floyd's death. She's a veteran diplomat who spent 35 years in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Here's part of her conversation with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

When George Floyd was killed by police, solidarity protests broke out across the world. Did that surprise you?

I have to admit it did surprise me, because this has been an ongoing issue in our country for decades — I would probably argue for centuries.

There was a killing in Minneapolis [four] years earlier — Philando Castile was killed — and I felt so deeply emotional about what had happened. And I remember thinking why diplomats are not calling us to express their concerns about a police killing of an African American man sitting in his car in a seatbelt. That this had happened in our country, a country where we stood on a solid moral- and values-based approach to our foreign policy. 

At that time, I started a conversation on race to bring that issue into our diplomatic engagement.

As soon as you learned of the death of Philando Castile, it affected you deeply. What did you say to your department? How did that trickle down into the actions you took as a representative of the government?

I actually walked into my staff meeting that morning and I said that I was not there as the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs that morning. I was there as a Black mother, and I wanted to talk about how it impacted me because I have a son, and Philando Castile could have been my son.

People attend a vigil in honor of Philando Castile, at the site where he was killed, on July 6, 2020 in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop by Jeronimo Yanez, an officer with the St. Anthony Police Department, four years ago on July 6, 2016. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

You're a member of an elite class of America. You're a diplomatic representative of your country. But that does not exempt you from the violence that befell Philando Castile?

No, not at all.

We started the conversation on race, and we started it in our bureau and we expanded it. Then, when I traveled overseas, I would talk about race in my public engagements.

What concerned me the most is that what was happening here in the United States didn't really resonate with them.

Has that changed with George Floyd, based on the conversations that you're having?

Absolutely. It's changed completely with George Floyd. In Africa, in Europe [and] all over the world, this has become an issue. And it has exposed something that is so deeply broken in our country.

But for states that behave in a way that would normally earn censure from the American government, isn't this just a way for [them] to deny America the ability to claim the moral high ground?

As a diplomat, it worries me tremendously that our moral high ground has deteriorated.

If there is a tiny silver lining, it is the fact that this has been exposed globally, and there are people who feel the time is now, despite what is happening here politically in the United States.

Protesters march during an anti-racism march on June 6, 2020 in Toronto. (Cole Burston/Getty Images)

You grew up in the U.S. South, so you have spent a lifetime coexisting with American racism. As a young person, what was the hardest lesson you learned about justice and race?

Sometimes you're not in control, and that was my hardest lesson when I started college.

My success was not always in my hands. It didn't matter how hard I worked. If the system was against you, the system could destroy you. But, I also felt that I was going to do what I needed to do in spite of the racism. 

That does not work for everyone, and I think it's been high time for a long time that we address the structural issues that hold African Americans and other people of colour back in this country. 

Did you believe that there were deadly consequences to racism? That lives can be taken? 

Absolutely. I grew up in the '60s. I saw lives being taken on a regular basis. I was old enough when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed to really feel the pain. 

I was very, very aware of what our country, but also our people, were experiencing,

Toronto cyclist completes journey in honour of George Floyd 

CBC News

6 months agoVideo
7:12
Matthew Cuesta, a Toronto cycling enthusiast, has completed his mission to cycle 46 kilometres a day for 46 days to honour the life of George Floyd. 7:12

We're just weeks away from what many have described as the most important U.S. election in recent memory. But from the perspective of the place that America holds in the world, what do you think's at stake here?

Our democracy is at stake. Our leadership has been diminished, [and] our reputation as a country that stands up for the rights of people suffered over the past three and a half years.

As other countries look at our election, there's tremendous angst and worry about what will happen. People have wondered what happened to our country — what happened to a country that 12 years before elected the first African American to be president of this country. 

They look to us for an example, and that example has now been tarnished.

With widespread dissatisfaction in America with the status quo, is there an opportunity in this moment for another social justice movement to take hold and bring change in the next part?

I think that movement is taking place right now. People are still in the streets in peaceful demonstrations, despite what we sometimes hear in the news. 

This is an opportunity to start to heal those wounds and fix the structural problems. 


Written by Mouhamad Rachini with files from the Associated Press. Produced by Pedro Sanchez. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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