‘I Can’t Breathe’- Race in Everyday America

Antara Ray Chaudhury

‘In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.’- Tony Morrison

George Floyd[1], Breonna Taylor[2], Ahmaud Arbery[3] are no longer mere names for us. They have one thing in common. They were all African Americans, killed by US police or ex-policemen (in case of Arbery) in the span of last 4 months in different parts of USA. However, the video showing George Floyd gasping for breath and saying, ‘I can’t breathe’, while a white policeman kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds did change something not just in America but across the globe. What followed is not just series of protests and civil unrest (reminding us of 1960s America) and revival of Black Lives Matter #BLM[4] but also President Trump warning his own citizens for military action, national guard marching and dominating the streets, curfew across USA, social media platforms like Twitter hiding Trump’s tweet for glorifying violence, amidst of an ongoing  global pandemic with economic recession and highest rate of unemployment since the Great Depression of 1933.

So, how do we think about or talk about #BLM or Race in the current context? Is it a matter of social justice and end of discrimination or is it something deeply rooted in the socio-economic structures which manifests itself economically, culturally, psychologically through various ideological and repressive apparatuses?  Why is it that the site of a black man /woman invokes something related to criminal or illegal?

Let us briefly visit the history of abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement in USA. Though the civil war officially ended slavery, but it didn’t end discrimination against blacks. It is during the period of reconstruction (1863-1877) blacks sought to legislative changes for equality and the right to vote. The 14th and 15th Amendments gave them equal protection under the law and the right to vote back in 1868 and 1870. However, the draconian Jim Crow Laws (in the southern states) ensured that Black Americans could not use the same public facilities as white people, could not live in the same towns or go to the same schools, interracial marriage was illegal, and most of them couldn’t vote because they were unable to pass voter literacy tests. In the northern states, though these laws were not adopted officially but, Blacks continued to face discrimination for jobs, education, and housing. The segregation further gained ground when in 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Plessy v. Ferguson that facilities for black and white people could be “separate but equal.”

During the World War II, when war economy started booming, thousands of black Americans threatened to march on Washington to demand equal employment rights and in 1941 President Roosevelt opened national defense jobs and other government jobs to all Americans regardless of race, creed, color or national origin. All these set the stage for the Civil Rights movement in USA and when Rosa Park got arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man in that bus in Montgomery, Alabama (1955), she sparked The Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted for 381 days. Soon segregation (in schools) was illegal and Civil Rights Act of 1957 was passed leading to the famous 1963 the March on Washington where Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a Dream’ speech, which then became the anthem of equality and freedom. Though later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed ensuring equality for all in public spheres, this amplified backlash by white supremacists which resulted in assassination of leaders like Malcom X and Dr King.[5]

In the post-civil rights era African Americans have made substantial political gains like Jesse Jackson running for democratic party’s presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988; Douglas Wilder got elected as the first African-American governor in Virginia in 1990; Colin Powell was appointed as the first African American to be Secretary of State in 2001 and in 2008 Barack Obama became the first African American to be the President of United States of America. In the cultural front Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win an Oscar for the Best Actor in 1964; Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982) became the best-selling album of all time; in 1993 Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature, to name a few. Similarly, African Americans have been prominent in popular sports like Basketball, football etc.

However, these advancements didn’t radically change the situation on the ground, as in many ways, the gap between the finances of blacks and whites is still as wide in 2020 as it was in 1968. In 1968, a typical middle-class black household had $6,674 in wealth compared with $70,786 for the typical middle-class white household, according to data from the historical Survey of Consumer Finances that has been adjusted for inflation.[6]

In 2016, the typical middle-class black household had $13,024 in wealth versus $149,703 for the median white household, an even larger gap in percentage terms.[7] The economic inequality also manifests itself in health and education apart from problems of living in ghettos (only 44 percent of black households own their homes compared with nearly 74 percent of whites). Hence, it is not surprising that when Covid crisis hit USA earlier this year, the first economic victims were the service industries that employ a greater number of black and brown workers. As a result, with the lockdown, fewer than half of all black adults had a job. This also explains why black people are dying of COVID-19 at twice the rate of white people, why blacks have made up 22% of all COVID-19 cases even though they represent just 12.7% of the US population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Barbara Ferrer, Director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health said, “The root cause of health inequities is racism and discrimination, and how it limits access to the very opportunities and resources each of us need for optimal health,”[8]

Now add the issue of high rates of incarceration alongside with the problems of jobs, education, health and housing which completes the circle of systemic racism. African Americans have the highest imprisonment rate of any major ethnic group in the United States and are sentenced to death at a rate higher than any other ethnic minorities. The circle of violence has continued whether it is Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice in 2014; Tony Robinson, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Samuel DuBose in 2015 or the recent ones like Floyd, Taylor and Arbery in 2020. Violence against black men and women at the hands of white authority is foundational to its policing culture to this day (Thousands of lynching of black Americans by white vigilantes went unpunished by the judicial system. And during the civil rights era and well beyond, peaceful protest has been harshly suppressed by officers sworn to protect and serve.)[9]

So, the story of blacks in America at a glance looks like one step forward, two steps back. Much of it has to do with the unfinished business of civil war. The defeat of the Confederate states in civil war ended slavery; but it didn’t lead to social and economic emancipation of African Americans- they didn’t get reparations. They had to wage a long and arduous battle to attain their civil rights. What is more, the formal abolition of slavery led to a vicious reaction especially in the southern states with formation of Ku Klux Klan which organised public lynching of blacks. Through last couple of centuries, the mainstream narrative has been to castigate KKK and the like as fringe groups and brush them aside while tacitly providing approval to the fears of the propertied whites about the ‘niggers’ out there to loot their property or rape ‘their women’. And it is this popular imagination that legitimized the bipartisan agreement over ‘tough policing’, militarizing the police, notorious policies like ‘stop and frisk’ (under former NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who was once Republican, then independent, then Democrat supporting Obama and recently ran for Democratic nomination) or campaign against drugs (which targeted petty drug dealers and marginalized rather than the international players and mafia).   

Massive, unprecedented wave of protests happening for the last two weeks, (leading to even having an autonomous zone in the city of Seattle), is not just about police brutality against the blacks. It is a push-back against persistence of white supremacy which is enjoying perhaps its greatest moment in the sun in the form of Trump presidency. (‘Make America Great Again’- his 2016 campaign slogan was not just an abstract call for return to past glory; it was open reactionary incitement against a Black man occupying White House for 8 years; a reaction against immigration and threat of white man losing his hegemonic hold over the land) What is important to note here is the persistent invocation of ‘Law and order’ not just by the President who has long idolized the strongmen around the world and has shown little regard for either law or order ever in his lifetime as he famously thrives on chaos. So why suddenly this concern for ‘law and order’? As the protests were entwined with few instances of looting of shops and arson; the right-wing media and the President desperately tried to delegitimize the movement and protests as rioting by thugs who have taken control of cities run by ‘weak democrat’ officials. Restoration of ‘law and order’ was restoration of racial privilege and property. Hence the inciting tweet ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts’[10]. What is more, it was an open threat to crush the protests and to paint them as terrorist (Trump had threatened to declare Antifa as terrorist) Moral equivalence and relativization have remained classical moves in establishment playbook of liberal world since the Cold War to justify the atrocities committed by the West. Trump and his like are merely extending this liberal trick to restore the fascist, racist, white supremacy. The daily disregard of accepted norms and practices of democratic institutions, flouting of checks and balances, fueling bigotry and conspiracy theories, normalizing sexism and racism, refusal to reckoning over statues of confederate military generals and to be prepared to wage a quasi-civil war over this (as we have seen in the episode of Charlottesville[11] few years back) has been just one of the many signs of how the danger of full blown fascism is no longer a distant threat but one that increasingly looks likely.

But amidst all this darkness and gloom has been one shining ray of hope: the resistance led by groups like ‘Black Lives Matter’. While there have been several protests over the years against racial injustice, police brutality; there has been a sense of urgency and massive proportions never witnessed before since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The participation of whites (and scores of young people) at the frontline has been a notable feature. There are obvious factors like unfolding health and economic disaster of covid-19, presidential election which is months away, rising unemployment and visuals of police brutality going viral- the brutality which is no longer reserved for blacks or criminals arrested but also unleashed against peaceful protestors, many of whom were white and on camera arrest and beating of journalists. As the protests continue to swell; corporate, entertainment, sports etc. several fields have promised to do more towards racial justice. Democratic politicians have promised to carry out massive police reforms. The change in public mood is so palpable that even the Republican lawmakers are considering to carry out certain changes in policing practices. Even the army had agreed to rename its bases which had been named after Confederate generals (only to be turned down unequivocally by the Commander-in-Chief Trump).

All this is quite heartening. However, a note of caution is necessary. It is one thing to mobilize solidarity on humanitarian grounds against such extreme acts of police brutality that killed George Floyd. It is completely different to build upon that solidarity a campaign for tangible, concrete change such as ‘defund the police’. Although the idea is to invest into public welfare (drug de-addiction, healthcare, education etc.) more as a preventive measure to crime instead of allocating large chunks of budget to policing (resulting in heavily armed and unaccountable policing); it has been immediately picked upon by right wing media to stoke wild fears that ‘Left wants to abolish police’ and ‘this is call for anarchy’. What is concerning is how quickly the Democrats have yielded to this fear mongering. From presidential candidate Biden to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; all have talked of ‘moderate’ reforms while staying away from ‘dangerous’ ideas like ‘Defund the police’! As with policing, so with other issues like reparations. While there have been wide calls for reparations from black, left activists; no major politician has endorsed them. There have been proposals like ‘baby bonds’[12] to address inequality and access to education; however, they fall short of addressing structural injustice meted out to African Americans. If this is the situation in non-controversial issues like education, one cannot begin imagining the long fight to achieve justice for issues like housing, jobs and wealth- issues that would threaten the very core of White American fantasy. Thus, fight against racism or fascism is not a fight to restore the ‘normalcy’ of ‘rule of law and property’; it is a fight to overthrow that rule itself[13].

The author works in academic publishing in New Delhi.


[1] On May 25, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, after a deli employee called 911, accusing him of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Seventeen minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Mr. Floyd was unconscious and pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html

[2] Shortly after midnight on March 13, Louisville police officers, executing a search warrant, used a battering ram to crash into the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American emergency room technician. After a brief confrontation, they fired several shots, striking her at least eight times. https://www.nytimes.com/article/breonna-taylor-police.html

[3] Mr. Arbery, 25, was a former high school football standout who was living with his mother outside the small city of Brunswick. He was shot dead in a suburban neighborhood called Satilla Shores. Friends and family said he liked to stay in good shape, and he was often seen jogging in and around his neighborhood.On Sunday, Feb. 23, shortly after 1 p.m., he was killed in a neighborhood a short jog away from his home after being confronted by a white man and his son. https://www.nytimes.com/article/ahmaud-arbery-shooting-georgia.html

[4] #BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Black Lives Matter Foundation, Inc is a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives. https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/

[5] https://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement/civil-rights-movement-timeline

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/04/economic-divide-black-households/

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/04/economic-divide-black-households/

[8] https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-06-05/coronavirus-kills-black-people-at-twice-the-rate-as-white-people-heres-what-we-can-do-about-it

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/04/american-police-violence-against-black-people

[10] https://www.npr.org/2020/05/29/864818368/the-history-behind-when-the-looting-starts-the-shooting-starts

[11] https://edition.cnn.com/2017/08/12/us/white-nationalists-tiki-torch-march-trnd/index.html

[12] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/24/cory-booker-wants-to-give-baby-bonds-to-every-newborn.html

[13] as Horkheimer put it in 1939: “If you don’t want to talk about capitalism then you had better keep quiet about fascism.”