Will White People Forget About George Floyd?

A parable embedded in The Maltese Falcon offers a cautionary tale.

H. Armstrong Roberts / Getty / The Atlantic

Many people, of all races and ethnicities, are saying it feels different this time. With George Floyd’s killing, white America has finally gotten its long-overdue wake-up call. And, yes, it feels different to me, too. What I’m troubled by, though, is that word feel. What if it feels different but isn’t? Marriage vows, some would say, are merely testimony to the power of our present feelings, feelings we can’t imagine will ever change. They do, though.

Since George Floyd’s death I’ve been haunted by an interpolated tale in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. In it, Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy the story of a man named Flitcraft, who disappears one day only to turn up unexpectedly in another city five years later. As she listens to the story, Brigid seems to be asking herself the same question the reader is asking: Why is Spade telling her this story in the first place, given that they’re in the middle of trying to untangle an entirely unrelated murder plot? What does Flitcraft have to do with her? Moreover, why is Hammett pausing the main narrative to tell a second tale that appears to be apropos of absolutely nothing? As a puzzled Brigid listens, however, she gradually becomes more fully engaged, as if she’s glimpsed Spade’s purpose, which in turn signals that the reader would also do well to pay attention. Because while the Flitcraft story may be a darling Hammett couldn’t bring himself to kill, it may also be at the heart of everything. In other words, it might just be a parable, and not a few of these are warnings.

The story goes like this. Flitcraft is a successful real-estate agent who lives in Tacoma, Washington, with his wife and two small children. His life could not be more ordinary. One day on his way to lunch he passes an office building that’s under construction and a beam falls from a great height, nearly killing him. Stunned, he decides on the spot that he cannot return to his life. It isn’t that he doesn’t love his wife and children or, for that matter, his work. Rather, the falling beam has “taken the lid off life” and given him a glimpse of its inner workings. To this point, Flitcraft has imagined that he’s in control, that his life is ordered by his choices and in this order is its meaning. The falling beam reveals that he’s not in control at all. You’re alive today not because you’ve arranged things well but rather because an uncaring universe permits you to live. Flitcraft has always believed that he’s in step with reality, but the falling beam proves that the opposite is true. Solution? Walk away. Which Flitcraft does.

Years later Mrs. Flitcraft hears that a man resembling her missing husband has been seen in Spokane and asks Spade to investigate. Sure enough, he finds Flitcraft living there under an alias. What most surprises Spade is how much the man’s new life resembles his old one. He’s back in business, though he now owns an automobile dealership. He’s also remarried to a woman who, like his first wife, plays golf and bridge and trades recipes with other women like herself. He also has another young child. He has settled back, Spade explains, into the same groove he jumped out of in Tacoma. Why? Flitcraft himself seems not to fully comprehend his own behavior, but Spade does, and he’s the one who supplies the story’s moral. When a beam fell, Flitcraft adjusted. When no more beams fell, he adjusted to that, too.

The more one unpacks this parable, the more discouraging it becomes and the more relevant it feels to our historical moment. For one thing, though he’s had time to think about it, Flitcraft doesn’t seem to grasp the significance of what’s happened to him. He thought of his first life as a series of choices that resulted in a kind of order that pleased and comforted him. But the details of Flitccraft’s story Spade unfurls make clear that this was always an illusion. His real-estate business was made possible by a sizable inheritance from his father. The order that he imagines he’s created—the house in the suburbs, the new car in the garage, “the appurtenances of successful American living”—was already there, awaiting his arrival. The groove he slips back into so easily is in reality a kind of genetic gift. He was the man he was, Flitcraft admits, because “the people he knew were like that.” It’s his father’s groove. His grandfather’s. The life he enjoys has been created specifically to benefit people like him.

For many white Americans, George Floyd’s murder is the falling beam that “takes the lid off,” that makes it impossible for us to see life as operating the way we once imagined. Like Flitcraft, we feel that we will “never know peace again” until we adjust to this new reality. We’ve glimpsed the way life works for Black people and feel “impacted.” The question is, how much and how lastingly, and here too the Flitcraft story is not terribly reassuring. The beam that narrowly missed Flitcraft, Spade tells Brigid, caused a chip of concrete from the sidewalk to fly up and hit him in the cheek, peeling off some skin. Years later, when Spade finds him in Spokane, Flitcraft still has the scar, which he touches “affectionately,” but it’s clear that he’s all but forgotten it. The fact that no more beams have fallen (near him) has allowed him to consign the experience of nearly having been killed to the furthest reaches of his memory. Nor does it seem to occur to him that there are people for whom falling beams are the rule, not the exception, and that they are affected by more than flying debris.

Indeed, the way white people are experiencing George Floyd’s death has to be fundamentally different from the way Black people are. Intellectually, we whites know that more than 70 Black people have died in police custody after having spoken the exact same words that George Floyd spoke: “I can’t breathe.” And we know that in addition to George Floyd structural racism has claimed the lives of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castile and Freddie Gray and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and so many others. But I fear that to white people it feels like one beam that’s fallen, just as this feels like a single moment in time. I have to believe that for Black folks it’s very different. Beams have been falling on them since the first African was kidnapped and chained belowdecks on the first slave ship. Falling beams is their groove. I’m sure that many in the Black Lives Matter movement are pleased that so many white people have at long last joined them in their struggle, but if I were in their place, I’d be wondering if we can be trusted to stay the course. I’d love to assure them that this time is different, that there’s no going back. I want desperately to believe that this is the case.

But it’s not what the parable tells us is likely to happen. After all, when that beam fell, everything felt different to Flitcraft, too. To me, the most unnerving thing about the story is that Flitcraft isn’t really a bad man. When he “affectionately” touches the scar on his cheek, he seems to be remembering a better self. He’d been offered an opportunity to see life for what it really is and to adjust to what he now knows to be true. Spade tells us that after the beam, he wanders for a couple of years like a lost soul, as if waiting for what comes next. When he eventually slips back into his old groove, it doesn’t even seem like a conscious choice. It’s easy and natural—that is, in accordance with his own particular nature. And why shouldn’t it be? That old groove was designed by people like him for people like him.

So is it really different this time? It could be, right? After all, is it written somewhere that we must slip back into the grooves of our former lives? Is it written somewhere that we must adjust, as Flitcraft did, to beams not falling? I don’t mean these to be rhetorical questions. Because it may, in fact, be written somewhere, in our genes, our history. But if the Flitcraft story is dispiriting, it’s not despairing. Parables by their very nature convey a degree of hope. Why go to the trouble of telling the story in the first place if the listener can’t benefit from hearing it? While the novel isn’t explicit as to why Sam told Brigid about Flitcraft, we get the impression that she makes a grave error by not heeding the cautionary message of the story. For our purposes in the present moment, the Flitcraft parable warns white people that if we’re not careful, we will find peace again, we will find comfort in a world designed with us in mind. If we aren’t careful, five or 10 years from now, when we think of George Floyd, we’ll affectionately touch the small scar on our cheek and try to recapture what it felt like “when the lid came off” and we glimpsed not just how America really works but our own complicity in its design.