“I can’t breathe.”
There is more to this chant – the haunting last words of Eric Garner before he died at the hands of New York City police that were echoed in demonstrations around the country Wednesday night – than a protest against the epidemic of police brutality against black men.
African Americans still can’t fully breathe in America under the smog of racism, which permeates the lives of black and brown people from the streets of Ferguson, Mo., to the White House.
The fact that Garner – accused of selling individual cigarettes on the street of a down-and-out section of Staten Island for 50 cents a piece – could be choked to death by a police officer and that incident not even come before a court of law is but the latest reflection of a justice system that is persistently unfair to African-American people.
But it is not only the justice system. It is also an economic system in which African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites, have fewer economic assets, are more likely to be trapped in communities that are literally unhealthy and where selling individual cigarettes on the street is one of the few viable ways to get by.
Few people remember when in the 1970s smog levels were so high in some American cities that there were “red alert” days when people were encouraged to stay off the streets if they had respiratory problems. But the nation showed the resolve – facing the resistance of polluting industries – to put laws in place to control emissions and begin the process of cleaning up the skies. As a result, our air is cleaner, people are healthier, and the economy benefited.
We likewise need to recognize the smog of our racial history that permeates our institutions and inhibits the ability of all of us to breathe. We may not all recognize it, but this is poisoning us all. We have to recognize it, in all of its pernicious forms, and resolve as a nation to do what it takes to create a nation in which all of us – regardless of who we are – can breathe free.