“I can’t breathe.”
The person saying these words is not a coronavirus patient laboring in the intensive care unit, nor one of us struggling to breathe behind a face covering. The person saying these words is a Black man, succumbing beneath the boots of a white police officer, delivering these as his last words.
Yes, what we are experiencing is by any definition a “pandemic within a pandemic” — within the COVID-19 pandemic, a racism pandemic. But this second virus, unlike COVID-19, is not new. It has enveloped the world for centuries. And George Floyd is not the first Black man to be killed by American police. But what a coincidence that right in the middle of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 people in the U.S., that has settled into the lungs of more than 5 million people worldwide — making them say, “I can’t breathe” — that a Black man should die saying, “I can’t breathe.”
I wonder, is this the reason the masses have summoned so much empathy this time? Is that why this massacre has touched them more? Who knows? But we do know one thing, and that is where it has brought us.
Racism is the U.S.’s disease of the century. Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., killed in Memphis in the United States in 1968, was known throughout the world for his speech in which he said, “I have a dream.” He dreamed of a world that did not practice segregation of Blacks and whites. Later, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, also a symbol of the civil rights movement, became known across the world for saying, “Get used to me.” Floyd will certainly take his place in history for his words, “I can’t breathe.”
And this is the point we have come to. African Americans “had a dream.” It did not come true. Then they said, “Get used to us.” Nope — we didn’t get used to them. Now they say, “I can’t breathe.” Forget about society giving Black people the right to have dreams — now we’re not even letting them breathe. We have really slid downhill.
The statistics actually bear this out. In America, COVID-19 has hit Black people the hardest. Because of serious disparities in income and in access to health care, the rate of fatal cases among African Americans is much greater than that among whites. In fact, they say that “white Americans get the virus, while Black Americans die from it.”
Discrimination of the Century
It is true that as long as the mentality doesn’t change, nothing changes. The U.S. Constitution can say that “all men are created equal” all it wants; you can establish laws and penalties to counter discrimination all you want; you can say that the U.S. is “a melting pot” all you want — up to a point. As long as people’s attitudes don’t change, that virus will find its way to the surface again.
If you recall, in April 2015 in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, a young Black man named Freddie Gray was killed while in police custody. Afterward, the U.S. erupted in a firestorm once again. As I’ve said, this pattern has existed in the United States for 100 years. When I visited Memphis, Tennessee in 2009, the city where King was killed, I was shocked by the reality I encountered. The conflict I witnessed between Black and white people in Memphis, where 63% of the population is Black, was no different than it had been the year King lost his life.
Black and white people were living in different neighborhoods. The city was seriously split in two. Not only that, when high-income African Americans moved into “a white neighborhood,” they would have to contact the local authorities ahead of time and request a kind of permit. The reason is this: After the first Black people move in, property values in that neighborhood begin to fall, and a few more Black people come in right after them. Then white people begin to slowly leave the area. The opposite is also true: When white people move to a Black neighborhood, property values go up. In this case, Black people have to leave because they cannot afford the rents.
Boy, you’ve got to hand it to the color of people’s skin for destabilizing housing prices!
The Issue Is Systemic
The issue is not just at the base. The system exudes this spirit from top to bottom. According to recent research by Stanford University, the number of Black people who die while under arrest throughout the United States is five times the corresponding number with respect to white people. The justice system experiences the same condition. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, while Black people make up only 12% of the population, 40% of those who are arrested are Black.
Moreover, in 2015, in the first case of its type, an investigation was launched into police activity in Gray's death. At the time, this was attributed to the fact that Barack Obama was president. Of course, the political climate is important. In similar fashion, the events happening now are being attributed to the racist attitudes displayed by Donald Trump during his presidency.
But things are still not as they appear! Following Gray’s death, there were many who said, “Obama turned out to be an Oreo — Black on the outside, white on the inside.” He disappointed many Black people by calling protesters “looters” and trying to restore order. American media, especially “Obama-friendly” CNN, became a central outlet for police propaganda by running partisan broadcasts around the clock.
The New Normal
Could the lesson to be drawn from Floyd's death — occurring, as it did, in the middle of the pandemic — be that as long as we don't let the "other" breathe, the virus will not let us breathe? Or is the world now pushing us toward a “new normal,” not only for COVID-19, but for racism as well? Could it mean exactly this when one hears, "You’re all in the same boat"?