How George Floyd's Conflicting Autopsies are a Glimpse into Systemic Racism

Breaking down the county system, redlining, and systemic racism.

First of all, I want to apologize to my subscribers. I was supposed to write a follow up to bitterness, but I simply couldn’t ignore everything that has happened over the past week. Since George Floyd’s death, I’ve had several conversations about systemic racism with people through Facebook, Twitter, and personal conversations. As a Korean American, I’ve decided I can’t stay silent. Today’s letter is going to be different and its purpose is to cover how George Floyd’s conflicting autopsy reports reveal a conflict of interest in the county system as well as the larger topic of systemic racism.

On May 29, 2020, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office filed a criminal complaint against Officer Chauvin that cited a preliminary autopsy report showing that there were "no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation."

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner (ME) conducted Mr. Floyd’s autopsy on May 26, 2020. The full report of the ME is pending but the ME has made the following preliminary findings. The autopsy revealed no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation. Mr. Floyd had underlying health conditions including coronary artery disease and hypertensive heart disease. The combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death.

According to this complaint, the initial autopsy revealed that the cause of George Floyd’s death was NOT by suffocation a.k.a. asphyxia. Instead, the cause of death was the combined effects of police restraint, underlying health conditions, and potential intoxicants in his system. In other words, the complaint shifted some of the culpability off of Officer Chauvin and placed it onto George Floyd. In light of seeing the complaint, George Floyd’s family was quick to request an independent autopsy over the weekend.

When I read this, I was shocked. This was one of the clearest and most blatant examples of systemic racism I’ve ever seen. It was a move designed to either lessen the sentence or completely acquit Officer Chauvin. How? Because autopsy reports are crucial pieces of evidence in court. If you have one that does not directly tie the cause of death to Officer Chauvin, the defense attorney now has some wiggle room to work with.

Let’s take the case of Eric Brown as an example. His autopsy report stated that no windpipes were crushed. Stuart London, Officer Pantaleo’s attorney, then argued that this proved Pantaleo did not actually use a chokehold. In fact, he goes on to state that “Garner caused his own death in part by resisting arrest despite being in poor health.”

Seeing how George Floyd’s preliminary autopsy could later be used in court for the benefit of Officer Chauvin, I shared my disbelief on Facebook and was met with some pushback. People told me I was jumping to conclusions. They said that I wasn’t a medical expert and shouldn’t comment. That I was creating controversy. To be honest, I don’t blame them.

The idea that the county system, which includes law enforcement and medical examiners, misconstrued an autopsy for the benefit of Officer Chauvin isn’t something you hear everyday. It challenges the sense of security people might have in believing in an equal and fair system.

But on June 1, 2020, the independent autopsy requested by Floyd’s family came out and proved otherwise. It concluded something very different from the first autopsy and identified that George Floyd died as a direct result of asphyxiation. In other words, George Floyd’s death was a homicide due to the actions of Officer Chauvin.

Experts hired by George Floyd's family and the Hennepin County Medical Examiner have concluded his death was a homicide, but they differ on what caused it.

The independent autopsy says Floyd died of "asphyxiation from sustained pressure" when his neck and back were compressed by Minneapolis police officers during his arrest last week. The pressure cut off blood flow to his brain, that autopsy determined.

But the medical examiner's office, in its report also released Monday, said that the cause of death is "cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression." Cardiopulmonary arrest means Floyd's heart failed.

After that, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner acted quickly. Within the next couple of days, they released an update to the initial autopsy specifying that the cause of death was homicide directly contradicting the preliminary autopsy that was cited on May 29.

Cause of death: Cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression

Manner of death: Homicide

How injury occurred: Decedent experienced a cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by law enforcement officer(s)

Both autopsies now identify that George Floyd died due to asphyxia and have described the manner of death as homicide leaving little room for interpretation.

So What Does This Mean?

Given the circumstances of the video we saw of George Floyd’s murder, the conclusions of the independent autopsy, and the quick update from the Hennepin Medical Examiner, it seems reasonable to conclude that the conflicting autopsy reports show that there was an attempt to use the county system to try and bend the legal system in favor of Officer Chauvin.

This sequence of events also indicates that there is a clear conflict of interest in having the county coroner investigate the deaths reported by the police. This dynamic has created controversy in other cases involving police brutality and unarmed black men:

  1. In 2017, Stephon Clark was shot in San Francisco by the police who thought he was reaching for a gun. During the trial, his autopsies had conflicting reports. The initial one from the county coroner indicated 3 shots in the back. An independent autopsy showed 6 in the back. Suspicions then arose as to the conflicting reports and questioned if the initial autopsy was designed to lessen the sentence of the officers. The officers weren’t charged.

  2. In 2013, Tyrone West fled from a traffic stop and died during his arrest. The autopsy report by the Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Maryland attributed his death to “cardiac arrhythmia when his heart suddenly stopped beating exacerbated by dehydration, a heart condition, and excessively high temperatures.” Neither asphyxia nor trauma from the fight were found to be causes of death. However, second and third independent autopsies both concluded that the cause of death was due to “positional asphyxia.” The officers weren’t charged and the case was not reopened.

Now I want to be clear. I am NOT claiming that all policemen are evil. But what I am saying is that I see a pattern of inequality and injustice here. And it’s not just in the county system. It exists in other systems such as in the world of financial services and it’s called redlining.

What is Redlining?

Redlining is the systematic denial of various services by federal government agencies, local governments as well as the private sector, to residents of specific neighborhoods or communities, either directly or through the selective raising of prices. Examples of these services include denial of mortgages, banking services, and health care.

This practice formally started with the National Housing Act of 1934 which sought to make housing and mortgages more affordable. Yet the Federal Housing Administration(FHA) refused to insure mortgages in and near black communities. The FHA also subsidized home builders who were creating entire neighborhoods for white people under the condition that none of them be sold to African Americans.

So profound was this effect of these government policies that banks were literally able to draw red lines around these neighborhoods and refused to offer loans to homes or businesses to develop these areas.

Home Owners’ Loan Corporation’s “Redlining Map” of Atlanta (1938)

The effects of redlining is still felt today as home ownership and high-quality affordable housing are critical in building generational financial wealth in the United States. For example, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, and Houston are all cities that have roughly kept the same demographic neighborhoods that were originally redlined decades ago. And although redlining was made illegal in 1977 through the Community Reinvestment Act, it is still practiced to this day in less overt ways.

Modern Day Examples of Redlining

Racist Landowners

Ramona Shelbourne hosted an incredible 5-part docu series on Donald Sterling, the former L.A. Clippers owner. In one of the podcasts, Ramona covers how Donald Sterling almost single handedly contributed to the development of “KoreaTown” in Los Angeles by buying up properties and refusing to rent them out to black and hispanic people:

In February 2003, the Housing Rights Center filed a discrimination suit against Sterling on behalf of 6 tenants. The lawsuit claimed Sterling had said that he intended only to rent to Koreans because, quote, “They will take whatever conditions I give them and still pay the rent.” And that he had also told his employees that “black people smell and attract vermin” and “hispanics just smoke and hang around the building.”

It didn’t matter that redlining was illegal. By the time there was enough evidence and complaints for the Housing Rights Center to act, the damage had already been done. And even though he was fined, Donald Sterling was protected by his wealth as he wasn’t significantly impacted by it.

Reverse Redlining

Reverse redlining is the practice in which a lender targets minority consumers and charges more than they would with a white consumer in a similar situation. In the early 2000’s, some financial institutions specifically focused on black communities to offer subprime mortgages:

These predatory practices had the reverse effect of building wealth by shackling them with unaffordable debt. They were subsequently devastated after the 2008 Financial Crisis.

Denial of Mortgages Due to Credit Score

Reveal conducted a year long study in 2018 based on 31 million records with the help of the Justice Department and the Federal Reserve. They discovered that modern-day redlining still persisted in 61 metro areas “when controlling for applicants’ income, loan amount and neighborhood.”

The analysis – independently reviewed and confirmed by The Associated Press – showed black applicants were turned away at significantly higher rates than whites in 48 cities, Latinos in 25, Asians in nine and Native Americans in three. In Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, Reveal found all four groups were significantly more likely to be denied a home loan than whites.

When Reveal reached out to the financial institutions to discuss this disparity, they categorically denied that a customer’s race was the reason. Instead they stated that a complex internal formula was used which included credit scores (which were not publically available) and debt-to-income ratios.

Reveal’s analysis included all records publicly available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, covering nearly every time an American tried to buy a home with a conventional mortgage in 2015 and 2016. It controlled for nine economic and social factors, including an applicant’s income, the amount of the loan, the ratio of the size of the loan to the applicant’s income and the type of lender, as well as the racial makeup and median income of the neighborhood where the person wanted to buy property.

Credit score was not included because that information is not publicly available. That’s because lenders have deflected attempts to force them to report that data to the government, arguing it would not be useful in identifying discrimination. 

When we consider the business practices of racist landowners who are still alive today, predatory targeting of financial institutions through reverse redlining, and the modern day redlining through hidden credit scores, the systems of inequalities created to exclude and oppress people of color become clear. However, this is just the beginning of the discussion when it comes to systemic racism.

What is Systemic Racism?

Systemic racism is a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions. So far, we’ve covered what systemic racism looked like through government policies such as the National Housing Act of 1934. We saw how systemic racism looked like through the denial of various services by federal government agencies, local governments as well as the private sector. But systemic racism also includes institutional policies around immigration, education, criminal convictions, business loans, qualified immunity, police systems, and health care all deeply rooted in history.

For example, one of the significant origins of today’s police system dates back to the slave patrols of the 18th century. To further the discussion, here’s what the historians from r/AskHistorians had to say about the history behind police brutality against black people in the U.S. starting from the mid-1800’s:

Police brutality against Black people is woven into the fabric of the history of policing in the US—and reflects the historical reality that white America benefits from police and state violence against the Black community. George Floyd’s murder and the brutal suppression of the ensuing protests are the latest in a long history of police brutality and excessive, extraordinary violence.

As historians like Edward Ayers and Sam Mitrani have established, the construct of American policing was formed between roughly 1840-1880 on the crest of two trends. First, rising population density in cities brought middle-class and wealthy white Americans into close contact with people they considered disruptive to their orderly world: sex workers, impoverished drunk people, Black residents, immigrants. Second, a spiralling urban trend towards wage labor for larger corporations that was itself a disruption in some of the institutions that had previously guarded local order, like families and close-knit neighborhoods.

And we haven’t even talked about the experience of being a person of color living inside this system while facing acts of racism at the same time. Some recent examples of these are:

  • Cameron Welch, an 18-year-old black teenager in Houston, recently sharing the unwritten rules that his mother had taught him growing up.

  • Christian Cooper having the police weaponized against him for asking a white woman to leash her dog according to park rules.

  • My friend second guessing going for a run because he moved into a predominantly white neighborhood where he isn’t well known yet in light of what happened to Amaud Arbery. This one really hit home for me because I went for a run on Tuesday and had no reservations about it.

So Now What?

First: I want to acknowledge that talking about systemic racism is difficult because it’s hard to see.

Second: When people talk about systemic racism, it is not intended to be a personal attack. The purpose is to explain the challenges a person of color living in the United States has with the hope of changing the status quo to bring true equality.

Third: If you found this compelling, here are some practical steps you can take to continue your journey:

  1. Keep learning and listening - Here is an article that provides a great overview of systemic racism. Here is a list of books you can read to learn more about racism and antiracism. You may not agree with everything but that’s okay. Finally, take time to listen and ask questions to those you know who’ve experienced racism.

  2. Share what you learned - Help others see what you see. This is a difficult process and the more allies there are, the better.

  3. Get involved - Systemic racism was created by the people in power. As we get older, we will be the next generation to lead. But the responsibility for us to bring the change starts now. Speak up at work when you see patterns of systemic racism. Donate to causes you believe in. Advocate for policy changes. Take the time to sign petitions.