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A Matter of Dignity

Donna Hicks

Like so many of us, I am deeply saddened and outraged by the brutal killing of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis police. The jaw dropping video showing the fatal actions of Derek Chauvin, while George pleaded for his life, were beyond comprehension. What happened to Derek Chauvin that enabled him to continue to crush George’s neck while hearing him gasping for breath, moaning in agony, and ultimately, calling out for his mother as he faded from consciousness? What was broken inside Derek that allowed him to commit such a heinous act of inhumanity? What happened to the three other police officers who stood by without taking action to intervene on George’s behalf? What could possibly have been going on inside the minds of these four men that made it possible to disconnect from the humanity of George Floyd? I’m not sure we will ever have satisfactory answers to those questions. What I do feel confident about is the extent to which the events that unfolded can be viewed through the lens of dignity.

The assaults to the dignity of African Americans perpetrated by police have a long history in this country. They have created a painful imprint on the identity of black people and have caused ongoing trauma, suffering, and injustice that have not been properly acknowledged and redressed. How many times have we heard African American mothers and fathers tell us how terrified they are when their sons leave their home, for fear of arbitrary and discriminatory treatment by law enforcement? Assaults to dignity start by targeting people because of their identity, but there is more to it. I have done extensive research on what I call the elements of dignity—ten ways to treat people that honor their value and worth as human beings. They are accepting identity, inclusion, acknowledgment, recognition, safety, understanding, fairness, independence, benefit of the doubt, and accountability. It is clear that the behavior of the four police officers who were responsible for the death of George Floyd violated all of the elements of dignity. Sadly, such violations happen far too often against black people at the hands of law enforcement.

Certainly, there are some police officers who do not engage in these violent behaviors. We have seen many examples of police all over the country who have taken a knee with protesters. The tragic truth, however, is that most people, not just police officers, lack the knowledge and skills needed to ensure the recognition and protection of human dignity. My work all over the world attempts to address the knowledge gap by helping people become “dignity conscious.” My strong recommendation for law enforcement in this country is to get educated about dignity. In a perfect world, all police would take part in mandatory dignity education, with the goal of learning how to treat all people, but especially African Americans, with the dignity they deserve. In an even more perfect world, all Americans would be required to learn about dignity. It should be embedded in our education system at all levels. I have had great success working with schools, integrating dignity education into their curriculum.

Finally, I would like to describe some advice that Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave me when I was working with him on a project in Northern Ireland. He was known to us on that project as the “Champion of Reconciliation.” He knows more than anyone about how to engage people in a process that heals dignity wounds and creates an opportunity for them to put the past to rest. I asked him this basic question: “Archbishop, what do you think is the most important ingredient in reconciliation?” He responded, “Donna, when people have been roughed up, they need acknowledgment for the suffering they have endured.”

These profound words have significant relevance for us now, in considering how to move forward in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. We need a national reconciliation project that begins by acknowledging the multiple wounds to dignity endured not only by George Floyd, but by all black people who have suffered from institutional racism. The project would begin with acknowledgment and accountability for all the indignities suffered through police violence against black people. It would end with new policing policies that are rooted in honoring the dignity of all human beings. As I pointed out above, the new policy would include extensive dignity training with strict accountability for anyone who violates it. The message is clear: It is not acceptable to treat people as less than or inferior to others. We may differ in status and power, but we are all equal in dignity.   

My experience tells me that we can do this. By engaging in such a process, we Americans can reclaim our commitment to equal rights for all and show the world that every human being matters to us. We can demonstrate that we are willing to do what it takes to bring “justice with dignity” to those who have suffered unspeakable wounds to the very essence of what it means to be human.

Donna Hicks is Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, and author of Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict and Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People.

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