The gruesome death of George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis, while pleading to be let go as he could not breathe, has made daily headlines ever since. It happened during a pandemic, which has already claimed more than 117,000 American lives and is showing no signs of subsiding. Floyd begged for his life saying he could not breathe, while the police officer’s knee was firmly entrenched on his neck.
The Memorial Day tragedy was reminiscent of a similar incident in 2014 when Eric Garner died after a police officer put him in a chokehold for several minutes. Garner repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” but to no avail. Are people of color unable to breathe only when strangled? Technically, maybe so. It is my belief, however, that this section of society is choking and gasping for air even on a crisp, clean day. Numerous research studies show that there is vast disparity — albeit sometimes subtle — in how they are treated versus the elite strata of society that is white.
During coverage of the protests that ensued Floyd’s death, a black Latino reporter was arrested while his white colleague was untouched. The “stop and frisk” policy of several years ago, and which President Donald Trump has often endorsed, disproportionately affects people of color. His admonishing of Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee, while deeming violent white nationalists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, as fine people, was nothing short of racist. Declaring via a tweet that “when there is looting, there will be shooting” in response to protests in Minneapolis, while turning a blind eye to gun-toting white people at the Michigan state Capitol demanding relaxation of stay-at-home orders, does not endear him to all citizens whom he represents as president. Numerous other instances of sometimes blatant discrimination on the basis of skin color exist.
Ingrained racism, 150 years after the 13th Amendment
Four hundred years after the first slaves were brought to America, and 150 years after the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was passed by Congress, the belief that blacks are less than human and do not deserve equal rights is ingrained in society. Nothing is more profound than the glaring differences in the socioeconomic status of people of color and their white counterparts. Blacks, for example, predominantly occupy the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, resulting in their inability to afford housing, health care, and sometimes basic necessities like food and good schooling.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated Americans’ differential treatment of people of color, and compounded the tragedies in their communities. The infection and mortality rates have been disproportionate to their populations in all states. Inherent poverty has resulted in abundant co-morbidities prevalent in this section of society. Overall, people of color have higher unemployment rates than the national average, and less assets to weather an economic downturn.
A recent survey showed that a vast majority of working Americans would rather not go back to work than risk being infected by COVID-19. We fail to understand that many of these have enough resources to combat the COVID storm without having to step out of their homes. Nothing wrong with that. Concurrently, however, many who want to return to work, for lack of choice, are denigrated. For, if they don’t they will starve. The problem lies in the lack of empathy by the well-off for those in dire straits.
An intangible stranglehold
I am a first-generation immigrant with brown skin. I have personally experienced white hatred when I was told many times to go back to my country, or go back to where I came from, during my ownership of a retail store. My children have been addressed by the derogatory term “brownies” in school. This sometimes makes it difficult for us to breathe, albeit nowhere in comparison to Floyd and Garner’s cases.
To imply that people of color suffocate only when physically strangled is an anomaly. Their lives are worsened by the racial hatred drilled into the minds of some of the white population. Set them free from this intangible stranglehold. Let them not drown in unseen waters. They deserve better.
My heart bleeds, and my soul weeps when I see the punishment meted out to human beings based on their skin color. Unless one understands that the same red blood flows through the veins, irrespective of skin color, one cannot claim to be colorblind. As a race, we humans can, and should, do better.
Milind Sohoni, Ph.D., is a first-generation immigrant from India, having settled in the U.S. for 37 years. He has two grown children working in the education field, dedicated to marginalized communities.
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