‘I Can’t Breathe’

As I was about to walk out of my house early this morning, I left a note on my son’s door: “When you leave, take your keys because I won’t be here when you get home.” With these words, I was out the door. Despite being 12 years old and his at times dramatic preteen moments, I don’t have to worry about him. I didn’t have to teach my son that running out of a store can be risky, that jogging in a neighborhood that isn’t his can be dangerous, that if he encounters the police he has to adopt a series of careful, calculated and “non-threatening” gestures. I’m the white mother of a white boy.

This privilege is one that not every mother has. Like the mothers in the United States of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Atatiana Jefferson, Muhiyidin Moye, Walter Scott, Sam Dubose, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling, Jamar Clark, Jeremy McDole, William Chapman, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, Akai Gurley, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, but the list doesn’t end there. Or, here in Canada, the mothers of Pierre Corolian, Bony Jean-Pierre and Nicholas Gibbs.

Their mothers. And the mothers of so many others whose killings weren’t caught on tape or never led to a trial.

Yet, the racism is there. Individual. Institutional. Systemic. It’s the racism that leads two men to slaughter Arbery, while he was jogging … this same racism that results in the two men not being charged until a video surfaces, this systemic racism that denies any accountability on the part of the police force that failed to take any action for several weeks.

In the United States, young black men are in the eye of the storm. Ever since their childhood. A 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office shows that as early as kindergarten, African Americans are punished more often than others: black boys make up 19% of students, but account for 47% of suspensions. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the 19 states where corporal punishment is allowed, young African Americans are beaten at twice the rate of their white counterparts. Later in life, black men and boys are 2 1/2 times more likely than white men and boys to die during an encounter with the police. In 2015, The New York Times published a story about the “missing black men,” the 17% of black men cut off from society because they are incarcerated or dead. And, as if we didn’t already know this, Cody Ross from the University of California established in an article published in PLOS One that there is no relationship between race-specific crime rates and racial bias in police shootings. The simple fact of being a young black man in the United States considerably reduces life expectancy.

African American women are impacted differently, with one example being how they are treated in the health care system. A study by Professor Nancy Krieger has suggested a link between living in a state with Jim Crow laws and the prevalence of a specific type of breast cancer tumor which is more aggressive and less responsive to standard therapies. In addition, the Harvard School of Public Health has demonstrated a relationship between racial and health inequities, with the pandemic widening the gap even further. Yet, in the poorest neighborhoods where pollution is high, access to drinking water (10 million people, a majority of whom are African American, drink contaminated water) and even to something as basic as running water is a racial issue in normal times – think of the Flint water crisis. But this issue becomes critical when being able to wash one’s hands is key to combating the pandemic. And the risk of complications from COVID-19 is real: African Americans are four times as likely as whites to die from the disease.

It’s also worth mentioning that Nicholas Johnson’s senior thesis (he’s the Montreal-born valedictorian who broke the glass ceiling on May 31 when he gave the commencement address at Princeton University’s graduation ceremony), focused on developing algorithms to reduce underlying racism in the health care system, has a practical application in the pandemic.

What arguments remain for people to assert their rights when they live on the margins of the health, justice and political systems? How can people invoke the presumption of innocence when the burden of proof varies according to skin color? How can people affirm, like the president did during the Charlottesville “events,” that there are “very fine people on both sides”? How can people reconcile the peaceful law enforcement presence as militias made up of heavily armed white people protested inside the Michigan State Capitol on the one hand, with the deployment of military security forces in Minnesota on the other?

We have to call a spade a spade. That the president of the United States has added fuel to the fire, that he deliberately called for the escalation of violence, that he tweeted the expression “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” used by the staunch segregationist George Wallace during the 1968 presidential election, which ultimately led Twitter to hide Trump’s tweet on the grounds that its content was “glorifying violence.” All of this needs to be called what it is. The president’s racism is overwhelming. And when a segment of society can’t breathe, the entire country suffocates.

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