I still haven’t watched the full 8 minutes and 46 seconds of a knee on the neck of George Floyd that an independent autopsy confirms killed him. I skip or pause or turn it off when Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting came on TV in recent months. And I’ve never been able to finish watching Eric Garner’s killing where he, like Floyd, gasps “I can’t breathe.” I can’t watch anymore. It’s torture, and part of a centuries-old struggle against racism sanctioned by the U.S. government.
This week the world saw massive protests against white supremacy in all 50 states, looting, violence against protesters and journalists, and curfews in major cities. For the first time ever this week, the United States now appears on a list of most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Protests are expected to continue this weekend. A march on Washington will be held in August with the Floyd family to demand federal police reform.
More happened this week than it seems possible to keep up with. The Robert E. Lee statue came down in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. On Thursday, the U.S. Senate’s only three African American members moved forward a bill to make lynching a hate crime. On Friday, following a week of militarization of the nation’s capital, Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington D.C. had “BLACK LIVES MATTER” painted in giant yellow letters on the street leading to the White House and renamed the area in honor of the movement.
In business, employees demanded an end to government contracts and staged efforts to fight institutional racism, such as the virtual walkout by Facebook employees on Monday. Recommendation algorithms that companies like Facebook and YouTube use often increase engagement by spreading hate.
Following President Donald Trump’s tweet threatening to shoot people in the streets and the tear-gassing of protestors for a photo-op with a Bible, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis called him a threat to the U.S. Constitution and the first president in Mattis’ lifetime working to actively divide the American people. Other former military leaders also spoke out this week, including General John Allen, former leader of forces in Afghanistan, who criticized Trump for empowering white supremacists and behaving like an authoritarian leader, positing that June 1 may be known as the “beginning of the end of the American experiment.”
We also saw footage of extreme violence and killings by police and against police while simultaneous protests against white supremacy in the United States took place around the world.
After more than a week of protests, protests are expected to continue this weekend, and George Floyd will be laid to rest in his hometown of Houston on Tuesday. After Floyd’s burial, more attention will begin to turn to specific policy proposals crystallizing now. Members of Congress are considering a prohibition on the sale of military weapons to police departments. Former President Barack Obama is calling for community policing reform akin to the kind implemented during his time in office. People from several corners of society are ratcheting up campaigns to defund the police. Some law enforcement agencies have already stopped usage of knee-on-neck restraints. Like the military distancing itself from the president, schools and universities in some places are cutting ties with local police departments.
But racism against black people is rampant, and in this moment the lack of progress toward racial equity and the backsliding after making progress in the past is glaring. In education, the reform promised by the 1950s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling to desegregate schools has not come to fruition; school integration began to backslide in the 1980s. This despite the fact that desegregation is one of the most effective tools for closing scholastic achievement gaps.
In the workplace, a Washington Post analysis this week found that the economic gap between black and white households is the same as it was in 1968.
In business and tech, a majority of VC firms have no black investors, and only a small percentage of venture capital funding goes to startups led by black founders. The couch cushion donation of $2.2 million from Andreessen Horowitz this week, a firm with nearly $3 billion under management, is frankly offensive. Only four Fortune 500 CEOs are black men.
Like tech, newsrooms have a history of sluggish progress on diversity, and this week heard pushes for reform. After the New York Times ran an op-ed urging President Trump to “send in the military,” black reporters publicly called the opinion a threat to their lives. Leadership claims the opinion section vows changes in the future; the episode led to the greatest number of subscription cancellations in a one-hour period recorded in company history.
The Philadelphia Inquirer also saw pushback from black reporters, who protested the front-page headline “Buildings Matter, Too.” Paper editors apologized Wednesday for equating the value of a black life and property in a nation where ownership of black Americans used to be a legal right.
The unfortunate truth is that VentureBeat has its own troubles. With a few exceptions, all AI and games journalists and editors at VentureBeat are white men. VentureBeat hasn’t employed a female reporter since February 2019. I found all of this disturbing and said so. It should have been the responsibility of my white male editors to push for a more pluralistic newsroom, something I called for internally since August 2018. This week, VentureBeat agreed to make its next editorial hire a woman and plans to start a paid internship for journalists of color, though management says due to economic conditions it’s unclear when VentureBeat will hire new writers. Look for more details from founder Matt Marshall in the coming weeks.
History can make it hard to be hopeful, but what gives me a lot of hope is seeing protestors in the street that look like a cross-spectrum of society, and hearing people like Al Sharpton who have spent their entire lives marching against racism say this time might be different.
An anti-white supremacy protest in San Francisco on Wednesday honored the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others killed by people willing to treat black people as less than human.
Top of mind for speakers on the steps of Mission High School was the hypocrisy of tech companies like Facebook and Twitter. There was a sprinkling of “Black Lives Matter” signs alongside allies with signs bearing slogans like “Latinx for Black Lives,” “Filipinx for Black Lives,” “Queer Asians for Black Lives,” and “Nurses for Black Lives.”
One of my favorites was “Your Kid = My Kid.”
While pondering what policy steps might deliver meaningful change, people need to ask themselves “What is patriotism?” Patriotism is demanding your government applies “Equal Justice Under the Law,” as protesters in all 50 states have done this week. Patriotism is doing what’s right for your kids or the next generation. Patriotism is leadership that recognizes that together is the only way forward.
For people making AI, as I wrote two weeks ago in a story about a fight for the soul of machine learning, I believe it’s a question of how people building systems that work best on white men want to be viewed by history in a diverse world.
As feminists like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said and Al Sharpton paraphrased at the George Floyd memorial service Thursday: We ask no favor, just that you take your knee off our neck.
George Floyd’s daughter Gianna and the people at protest walks across the U.S. look like the future of this nation. If you’re passionate about solutions to urgent problems we collectively face — global pandemics, climate change, historic economic problems that weigh heavily on black people and the young — dismantle white supremacy and discriminatory systems for our kids.
And please take care of yourself. Love yourself, and if you attended a protest in the past week, please consider getting tested for COVID-19. For AI coverage, send news tips to Khari Johnson and Kyle Wiggers — and be sure to subscribe to the AI Weekly newsletter and bookmark our AI Channel.
Thanks for reading,
Senior AI Staff Writer