How George Floyd's death has changed the suburbs

One year to the day since the murder of George Floyd, how have race relations and the treatment of people of color improved in the suburbs?

That question evokes a variety of emotions and reactions depending on who is asked, their background and experiences, and how their lives have been affected by the global racial reckoning in the aftermath of Floyd's death.

Yet, a common thread among many people involved with race relations in the suburbs is that Floyd's death sparked a long overdue conversation about racial injustice at all levels of society, beyond a focus on police brutality.

“A lot of change is coming,” said Keyvon Kyles, 23, of Carpentersville, speaking of how people of his generation feel more hopeful now of bringing about that change.

Keyvon Kyles, a graduate of Larkin High School in Elgin, says Black people of his generation feel a sense of hope that George Floyd's death will be a catalyst for change. Courtesy of Keyvon Kyles

A graduate of Larkin High School in Elgin and Elgin Community College, Kyles led one of several Black Lives Matter protests across the suburbs last summer.

“When you are a part of something like that, there was like this energy ... this community, and everyone who experiences that gets to take that home with them to their families and have that impact locally,” said Kyles, who is studying business administration with a concentration in leadership at Judson University in Elgin.

Many African Americans expressed hope stemming from increased awareness about racial injustices bringing about change and reforms at the national and local levels. That includes corporations and communities standing in solidarity with people of color, Congress poised to vote on police reform legislation and the conviction of the former Minneapolis police officer responsible for Floyd's death.

Tim McGowan

“The incident with George Floyd was a catalyst,” said Tim McGowan, 33, of Palatine, one of two African Americans elected to the Palatine-Schaumburg Townships High School District 211 school board in April.

McGowan found himself helping raise awareness about the experience of being Black in the suburbs while on the campaign trail.

“People are starting to recognize that we need to create these platforms to have voices be heard that were either ignored or silenced,” he said. “This was the first time I felt like people were really listening.”

McGowan sees his election, along with a wave of diverse candidates elected to offices across the suburbs, as a direct response to last summer's protests. Voters are seeing the value of diverse perspectives and the need for representation, he added.

“There has been no time in this country's history where there has been this much focus on one goal by the majority,” McGowan said. “It's not likely that my children are going to have to deal with what I dealt with (growing up) here.”

That optimism is met with skepticism by some who have been advocating for inclusion and a seat at the table for minorities for decades.

The Rev. Clyde Brooks says a year since George Floyd's death, suburban municipal leaders have offered little more than lip service to diversifying their employees, especially police officers. Daily Herald File Photo

“Really nothing has changed,” said the Rev. Clyde Brooks, of Arlington Heights and founder of the Illinois Commission on Diversity & Human Relations.

Brooks has criticized suburban municipalities, particularly Arlington Heights, for the lack of representation of Blacks and other minority groups among their employees, especially within police and fire departments.

“I don't think this is a Black issue,” Brooks said. “This is an issue for village managers and police (and fire) chiefs.”

Brooks said many suburban leaders pay lip service to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) studies and policies, but haven't made significant strides in hiring more minorities in the past year.

“It's the same old rhetoric,” Brooks said. “We are still where we were many years ago. It always seems to take trauma before officials get serious. We're getting more and more marginalized people of color in the Northwest Suburbs.”

Though, Brooks acknowledged, young people “agitating, marching and demonstrating” is what finally led many municipalities to develop DEI programs.

Tom Hayes

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said the village started focusing on diversity and inclusion as a strategic priority even before Floyd's death.

“Certainly, the George Floyd incident really caused us to take a closer look at our police procedures, if there is anything we could improve on,” Hayes said.

While an internal audit of the village's police procedures found nothing lacking, an outside consultant hired to review village policies and procedures determined officials need to cast a wider net to recruit more minority candidates.

“We're working in that direction right now ... reaching out to minority populations to get more candidates to apply,” Hayes said. “The challenge is finding candidates that are well qualified.”

Community colleges also are stepping up efforts to be more inclusive and welcoming of the suburbs' burgeoning diverse populations.

Dr. Avis Proctor

One major change stemming from Floyd's death and the COVID-19 pandemic is people openly are “having courageous conversations” about race, said Avis Proctor, president of Harper College in Palatine, whose population is 51% students of color.

Proctor, Harper's first female and first African American president, said the college's focus on diversity and inclusion preceded last summer's racial unrest. The college hired a new vice president of DEI in January of 2020 and is rebuilding a multicultural center on campus to open this fall.

Since last summer, Harper students themselves formed an IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and access) Circle as a safe space to share experiences. The college also will be incorporating DEI and social justice perspectives into its law enforcement curriculum, and faculty members are working on a new social justice studies concentration.

“The culture is certainly shifting at the college as we start to strengthen cultural competency of employees,” Proctor said. “We are committed to respecting and honoring the humanity of people.”

The ripple effect of a racial awakening after Floyd's death reaches beyond Black communities. Asian Americans, who have been experiencing a spate of hate incidents during the coronavirus pandemic, see hope and support for their communities as a result. The number of anti-Asian incidents surged from 3,795 in March of 2020 to 6,603 in March of this year, according to a national report by Stop AAPI Hate. It led to the passage of the federal COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.

Jan Zheng

“After the Black Lives Matter movement, people realized whatever rights that you are supposedly entitled to, you have to fight for it,” said Jan Zheng, of Naperville, president of the Chinese American Association at Greater Chicago. “It's like the #MeToo movement ... people are more sensitive to these issues. The safety of the community is in our own hands.”

Zheng and other Chinese American community leaders pushed for Naperville to adopt a resolution supporting inclusivity and denouncing hate after multiple incidents of racism were reported in town. The city also has hired a DEI manager and created a human rights and fair housing commission.

Suburban police departments facing criticism over policing of communities of color also have been forced to take an introspective look at internal policies.

Keith Cross

Aurora, for instance, launched a CHANGE Reform Initiative as a result of Floyd's death to hear community members' concerns about policing. The city also is creating a citizens' review board to address complaints against police.

Meanwhile, the police department is partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities to recruit more diverse candidates - a need identified by residents, said Keith Cross, deputy chief with the Aurora Police Department and past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives Northern Illinois chapter. “The goal is to try to have our department mirror our community. That helps build trust with the public,” Cross said.

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