I Can’t Breathe

Posted on: June 9th, 2020 by Sue Bell GALA Articles No Comments

“I can’t breathe.” These are the last words of George Floyd and Eric Garner. It’s also a symptom of the generational trauma experienced by African-American communities during 400 years of systemic racism in the service of white supremecy. In these words we hear the voices of the untold numbers of Black people killed by law enforcement across this country. This needs to end.

Don’t hold your breath—the problem won’t go away until white folks say we’ve had enough. That’s how privilege works—power is never given up without pressure from both outside the system and from within. It’s incumbent upon white people to acknowledge and talk honestly about white privilege, to challenge one another on racist remarks and assumptions, to speak out against all forms of racism, and to offer our support (money, time, etc.) to Black folks who are fighting for change. We need to take this on ourselves. It’s not the burden of our Black friends (acquaintances, co-workers, etc.) to explain the issues or to advise a course of action for us. Although, when they do speak, we need to listen attentively, to learn, to check ourselves, and to go to work. Ultimately, if we aren’t actively fighting racism, we’re enabling it.

A lot of white people say things like “All lives matter” or “Black communities are hurting themselves” or “Slavery ended 150 years ago.” When it comes to race, American culture hasn’t changed all that much in those 150 years. Our country moved from slavery to sharecropping to Jim Crow to mass incarceration for non-violent crimes. Statements that diminish the truth of white supremacy deny both the real experience of people of color and the ways in which white people benefit from the status quo; it’s a way of avoiding responsibility for the consequences of our privilege. The reason people say “Black Lives Matter” is because it is shamefully unclear that they do in our culture. We need to be reminded of this again and again.

While Black people make up 1/8th of the general U.S. population, they constitute more than 1/3rd  of the prison population. 30% of the people killed by police in 2019 were Black. Whether implicit or explicit, there’s a bias among law enforcement that assumes Black people, particularly young Black men, are criminally violent. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 83 unarmed Black American citizens have been killed by police in the first five months of 2020; that’s nearly 5 arrest-related Black deaths per day.

Those of us with white privilege need to recognize the truth and to demand social justice. We can’t ignore race. We can’t say, “I don’t see color.” We need to see it to recognize the intersection of race and poverty, to identify the educational and economic disparities, and the myriad ways that American capitalism reinforces and widens the gap between the privileged and the persecuted. And we need to hold law enforcement officials accountable for damage done and lives lost.

White members of the LGBTQ+ community need to recognize how we too benefit from white supremacy. Our marginalization does not give us special insight into the experience of being Black in the US, nor does it absolve us of responsibility. As LGBTQ+ people of many racial identities, we must join the fight for racial justice. Many of us already have.

As GALA chorus singers, we know the importance of breathing. We know the power of voices raised against injustice. We need to use that power to combat racism as much as we use it to celebrate LGBTQ+ pride.

So what are we doing to promote racial justice? It’s not enough to passively retweet a #BlackLivesMatter hashtag—write a letter to your civic officials. Protest. SHOW UP. Young Black men are being shot while reaching for a cell phone. The very least white folks can do is to call for de-escalation training for all law enforcement officers, accountable oversight of police actions, and independent investigations into all police-involved shootings—for a start.

As Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote in Sweet Honey in the Rock’s ode to Ms. Ella Baker, “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons / We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” So, what are we doing to stop the epidemic of violence? It’s time to take a deep breath and work for social justice so that all of us can exhale.

A sample of organizations working for racial justice:

Some suggested titles for white anti-racism education:

  • How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo
  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? By Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy by Darryl Pinckney
  • Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney Lopez
  • Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
  • Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor by Virginia Eubanks
Sue Bell
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