INTERVIEW: Malcolm Gladwell said George Floyd’s death may be a ‘tipping point’ on how we address policing in America

Author and ‘Revisionist History’ host Malcolm Gladwell. Business Insider
  • Malcolm Gladwell said we may have reached a “tipping point” on policing in America following the police killing of George Floyd.
  • The author and “Revisionist History” host said he was “encouraged” by how quickly debate has shifted from whether individual police officers are racist to examining large-scale, systemic issues.
  • More than two-thirds of Americans believe Floyd’s killing represents a broader problem with law enforcement.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In his best-selling book “The Tipping Point,” author Malcolm Gladwell chronicled how ideas, trends, and behaviours spread like wildfire after reaching a critical threshold of acceptance.

Twenty years later, Gladwell says we may finally be reaching a tipping point on policing in America.

In an interview with Business Insider’s Havovi Cooper, Gladwell said he was encouraged by how quickly the conversation following George Floyd’s death shifted to large-scale, systemic issues about the use of police force against minorities.

And that’s not the type of conversation that was taking place with prior police killings, he said.

“After one of these issues happens, do we talk about the specifics of the issue, and make it sound like this is just about a bunch of bad apples, and it’s a personal beef between two people, or it’s one bad cop gone wrong?” Gladwell said on Business Insider Live. “Or do we talk about systems and cultures? And it struck me that very early on after George Floyd we were talking about systems and cultures.”

He continued: “That’s super encouraging. Because that’s the conversation that we have to have if we’re going to clear up this mess. So if that is going to be our guide, it does suggest to me that something very different is happening now with the way we approach this issue.”

Recent polls suggest a shift in attitude may well be underway. More than two-thirds of Americans – 69% – said Floyd’s killing represented a broader problem in law enforcement, according to the Washington Post. That number was 43% in 2014, following the police killings of two Black men – Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City.

The same poll found 81% of Americans said police need to make changes to address the unequal treatment of Black people.

Gladwell, who hosts the podcast “Revisionist History,” said we won’t be able to understand individual acts of police brutality without examining the societal conditions that allowed them to take place.

“If you want to understand how racism operates on a daily level, you have to go beyond simply peering into someone’s heart and saying, ‘Do you or do you not like black people?'” he said. “Racism gets enshrined into zoning ordinances and tax rules and … who and when and how people vote. There are all kinds of systematic ways racism is enshrined in this country.”

He gave as an example Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old woman who died in police custody in 2016 after being detained during a traffic stop.

“This specific situation is an outgrowth of a theory and strategy of law enforcement which has been enacted at the highest level in many areas of the United States over the last generation,” Gladwell said. “In other words, you cannot understand these kinds of encounters if all you’re doing is talking about the character of the individuals involved. You need to look at the larger system.”