By the time you’re reading this column, you probably will have seen well over two months of daily protests and civil disobedience largely centered around the tragic killing of George Floyd. That killing was something of a final straw in a long line of videos over the past several months. You might recall Ahmaud Arbery being shot at the hands of two persons in Brunswick, Georgia. In an incident that did not lead to death but showed the power of white privilege, you may have seen the video where a black male bird-watcher video recorded a white female dog walker on camera where she actually called the police and alleged he committed acts that he clearly had not committed. For some, including me, the video was a 21st-century flashback to Money, Mississippi, and the killing of Emmett Till because he allegedly looked at or spoke improperly to a white woman. That’s right: Simple allegations of speech or sight led to Emmett Till’s murder.
For many, the brutal deaths of Floyd and Arbery were shocking and new. For others, either because of their personal experience in this country or their involvement in the practice of criminal law, the videos were just graphic manifestations of things they had previously seen or discussed. The fact that Floyd’s death, and lest we forget Eric Garner’s death, was captured on video and they both share the common last words “I can’t breathe” probably makes these videos more memorable than others. Their dying words became a phrase used to protest against their killings. But the phrase “I can’t breathe” is also symbolic language about the inability of some residents of the United States to experience well-being by not having safety, security, or the ability to live fulfilled lives.
The words “I can’t breathe” are not relegated to the last breaths of two dying men. The phrase frames a human and moral question we must ask of ourselves if we are to ever successfully correct the original sin of slavery, racism, and discrimination that has existed since this country’s founding. “I can’t breathe” is symbolic language of generations of African Americans, who have had a figurative knee on their neck and have figuratively been suffocated at work, in the classroom, during police stops, when trying to purchase homes, and in the countless other activities that are taken for granted by the majority society. The painful phrase “I can’t breathe,” if relegated only to a minority population in this country, will achieve nothing. No one can truly breathe until the least among us—the oppressed, the discriminated against, the marginalized—can fully breathe and take in all that America has promised.
If you are not an African American, if you are not a minority in the United States, if you’ve never been subjected to racism, if you have and don’t recognize that you have white privilege, you may think that you can breathe. You may think that you have experienced all that America has to offer. You may think that you have succeeded, and that you’ve excelled, and that you have achieved the American dream. If you’ve never had a knee on your neck or a foot in your back figuratively or literally, the words “I can’t breathe” may ring hollow to you.
But let me challenge your thinking. What if the freedom and fulfillment and well-being you thought you were experiencing were only a percentage (like within an oxygen atmosphere) of what you could experience? Can you breathe? Can you really breathe? Are you fully taking in all the oxygen that you can? Are you taking in oxygen within a toxic atmosphere? As I previously set forth, we are all tied together by a single garment of destiny: If I can’t reach my full potential, you may reach more, but you will never reach your full potential.
I offer these brief words to encourage you to look deeply into the history of the United States. As a man, although I have not subjected women to sexual harassment, I can acknowledge that women throughout history have been sexually harassed in the workplace, on city streets, at social gatherings, on the subway, and many other places. My acknowledgment of that does not make me complicit in it. I can also take a role as a man to be an ally to women to prevent the harassment from continuing. If you are reading this and you are not an African American and you are in fact white, the fact that you may not have committed an act of racism at any point in your life does not mean you should avoid condemning those acts that have occurred. By acknowledging racism and recognizing that African Americans are harmed by it (as well as all of society), you can begin to play a role in stopping racism. Not only can you choose to acknowledge racism, you can work to ensure that others are not racist, and at the highest level you can commit to being anti-racist. I started this column with the words of Dr. King, and I will end with more of his words from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom, is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
There are “no convenient seasons.” Now is the time for all Americans to stand up and break the back of racism that has held this country in its clutches for 401 years. When a country is founded on an inhumane and unnatural system of servitude, then all of its institutions—economic, educational, political, legal, and property rights—will be infected to its core. You are needed in this fight as allies, partners, upstanders, and anti-racists as we strive to live out the true meaning of this country’s founding. And then, together, we will be able to fully breathe.