[Note: Please follow this link for an expanded version of these thoughts.]
Genocide scholars spend a great amount of time and energy debating (often against one another) whether situation X – whether in present times or in the recent or distant past – meets the legal definition of the term as codified in the 1948 United Nations convention against genocide. Insofar as such arguments are geared to produce a “Yes” or “No” answer, the line of inquiry is often disappointing – especially for those who might have preferred, intuitively, for the opposite of the answer given. Nor is either answer the end of the story. As a legal matter, a “Yes” leads to further questions of what individuals and entities bear what levels of responsibility for it, and in who’s jurisdiction. A “No” simply deflects the line of inquiry to consider what other types of violations of laws may have taken place.
To ask whether the violent death of George Floyd is indicative of genocide, or even some other atrocity crime, is of limited use. I suspect the answer would be ‘no’ – hate crimes, even those involving state agents, can be perpetrated in the absence of the convention definition’s crucial “intent to destroy” element, and something like widespread and systematic pattern of infliction would be required to infer it otherwise. However, the field of genocide studies has a lot more to offer to the consideration of the current situation in the United States beyond legal analysis. Three topics strike me as highly relevant for this moment.