“I can’t breathe.”
Eric Garner, July 17, 2014, as he was being strangled to death by New York City police, for selling single cigarettes on a streetcorner in Staten Island
“I can’t breathe.”
Elijah McClain, August 24, 2019, as he was being strangled by Aurora, Colorado police, for no reason, resulting in cardiac arrest in the ambulance and death days later
“I can’t breathe.”
George Floyd, May 25, 2020, as he was strangled to death by Minneapolis, Minnesota police, for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill
“Once you get to the other side of it, you can breathe a little bit better… You think you’re gonna die during one of those episodes, I mean, you know you’re gonna die.”
Kevin Harris, after recovering from the coronavirus infection that almost choked him to death
These four men had two things in common: being African-American, and having someone or something strangling them. Kevin Harris did not die gasping for breath as the others did, and he was not strangled by police. But he was being strangled by racism.
I’ll come back to this and to the number 16,000, but first consider another number: 3,446. That’s the number of black people who were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, accounting for 72.7 percent of the lynching victims in that time frame—when they made up around a tenth of the population.
We don’t have a record of what most of these 3,446 people said while they were dying, but most of them were murdered by being hanged by the neck until they were dead. They were not dropped to break their necks quickly as in a movie prison. They were usually “strung up” so that the group or mob could watch them struggle. Many were tortured and mutilated before and during the process. It was festive. Children were present. People took photos. They made postcards to send relatives and friends.
Some of the victims proclaimed their innocence before being hanged for crimes they did not commit. Some spoke messages to loved ones. On March 9, 1892, three black men who had started the new People’s Grocery in Memphis, Tennessee were dragged out of their store by a white mob and lynched; it was simply too much of an affront to white rule for black people to have their own grocery store. One of them, Thomas Moss, said before he was murdered, “Tell my people to go west. There is no justice for them here.”
We don’t know what lynching victims may have said or tried to say while they were actually being strangled by the noose around their necks. They must have known there was no point in begging. But you can bet they were thinking: “I can’t breathe.”
A lynching is defined as a premeditated extrajudicial homicide by a group intending to punish someone or make an example of them. We don’t yet know whether the policemen who killed Eric Garner, Elijah McClain, and George Floyd intended to kill them, but we know that they showed utter disregard for these men’s humanity in their excessive, brutal, completely unnecessary, and ultimately fatal use of force—in each case in the face of victims and even bystanders begging them to stop.
I think it’s fair to say that they probably wanted to kill some black man some time, and this was their chance; otherwise, why would they have shown such disregard for black lives? The police were acting in a criminal manner toward each of these men; and ordinarily, when a homicide is committed in the course of another crime, it’s murder.
We also know that black people are killed by police at a rate between 2.5 and 3.5 times that of whites. We know that many white police officers, not just “a few bad apples,” are overtly or even proudly racist. And we know that the inadequate, even chaotic patterns of selection and training in police departments across the United States at best allow and at worst foster such racism.
This is all part of a pattern that anthropologists call structural violence: day to day destruction of human life by authorities as part of the normal course of things in, for example, colonialism, or the domination of one religious group over another. But if the victims of structural violence commit acts of violence themselves, even in protest or self-defense, only those acts are considered violent, not the day to day acts of the people in power oppressing them.
Today’s heedless murders of black people by white police extend the structural violence of lynchings, which in their day extended the structural violence of slavery, going back 401 years to 1619, when America first became a slave society. No one can doubt that centuries of whips and chains, hanging trees, and police brutality—all condoned or even depended on by the larger society and its day to day need for intimidation and control—deserve the name “structural violence.”
But what about Kevin Harris, who couldn’t breathe because of a new coronavirus?
Well, it turns out that structural violence—including American structural racism—requires a lot more than whips, chains, nooses, guns, and the knees and choke-holds of policemen. It requires a system that relentlessly maintains huge disparities, day by day and generation to generation, between white and black people—in wealth, education, job opportunities, income, education, incarceration, and perhaps most painfully, health and illness.
Are unprevented and uncared-for diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, asthma, AIDS, influenza, and now COVID-19 less violent to a human life than whips, nooses, and chokeholds? I don’t think so, and neither do the growing number of physicians and public health experts who see the structural violence of untreated, preventable disease as just as much or even more an extension of slavery than police brutality is.
On the day that Kevin Harris described his near-death from strangling by the coronavirus, there had been a total of 182 deaths in the whole United States, yet it was already clear that blacks were affected more than whites. As of this writing, more than 140,000 Americans have died of this virus.
But the number 16,000 is not the total number of African-Americans who have died, not by far. It is the number who have died but who would not have died if black people only had the same death rate as white people. In other words, it is the number of extra black people who were killed by the virus just because they were black.
Thankfully, Kevin Harris did not become one of those unfair, unnecessary, extra black deaths. But 16,000 others did. So far. And it’s not over yet. And proportionately more black people than white are being added to the numbers every day. So the excess of 16,000 is only the beginning.
What explains it? The basic deprivation of health is part of the long story of American structural racism and structural violence. Everything about underlying conditions that makes us more susceptible to COVID-19 is more common in black than white people. That includes, but is not limited to, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, asthma, and a wide spectrum of acute and chronic non-COVID infectious diseases.
And every form of preventive and curative care is withheld from black people but given to whites. Our lack of universal health care is unique among the wealthy countries of the world. We stand out from the world in this exactly the way South Africa did before apartheid ended.
Take a look at the graph in the picture. The American anomaly is astounding. All other advanced countries have had declining maternal mortality for decades. Ours has been rising starkly, and experts agree that a large part of the reason is our gross and growing racial disparity. Infant mortality has declined slightly, but is much higher than in other developed countries, mainly because of how we neglect minorities. Black infant mortality is more than double that of whites. So the structural racism that began in 1619 begins again at the start of every black life.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the great 19th century physician, wrote, “The woman about to become a mother should be the object of trembling care and sympathy wherever she bears her burden or stretches her aching limbs. God forbid that any member of the profession to which she trusts her life, doubly precious at that eventful period, should hazard it negligently, unadvisedly, or selfishly.” We always follow that advice. For white women. Black women and their babies are from that moment guaranteed to be more vulnerable to everything, including COVID-19.
In the pandemic, it’s good to stay home if you can. Most black people can’t. Their work requires that they expose themselves to others on public transportation and at their jobs. They are some of the doctors and many of the nurses and respiratory therapists, but they are also overrepresented among the cleaners and sanitation workers, the delivery people, the workers in groceries and restaurant kitchens, and many others who can’t stay home where it’s safe.
But that’s not all. Crowding is good for the virus, and it is much more of a problem for blacks than whites. Poverty too. Lack of education. Lack of trust in authority (with good reason). Lack of clean air (the virus loves dirty airways). Polluted water. Lack of access to healthy food, which is much more expensive than junk food and much harder to find in black neighborhoods.
Black men are overwhelmingly over-represented in prisons in this country, and given that prisons are well known hot spots for COVID-19, they become another tool of structural racism in the pandemic. Given that incarcerated men are forced to work, manufacturing license plates and the like, incarceration of black men has been seen as a modern form of slavery.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the government was discovered to be pouring lead into black homes and poisoning children’s brains, has proved to be a problem in many other cities. The disparity between blacks and whites in wealth is far greater even than the disparity in incomes; white American families’ wealth is stored mostly in their homes, which many fewer black people own.
These homes, this wealth, is passed from generation to generation among whites, and in every generation it becomes a more solid foundation for permanent disparities in education, because schools in America are funded locally, from taxes on homes that whites are much more likely to own.
But in addition to the structural racism that withholds health, medical care, wealth, homes, education, opportunities, fruit, vegetables, and water, we have to add air: “I can’t breathe.” So said an unknown number of black police-chokehold victims, 3,446 black lynching victims, and 16,000 excess black coronavirus victims, so far.
If you have easy access to air, be grateful. Not everyone does. Breathe out. Breathe in. Don’t take it for granted.
Stay safe and be well, if you can,
PS: Many of you have been asking me whether I think you should come back to campus. This article should help you decide. As always, you should weigh the risks and difficulties you may face where you are staying now; some people may be better off on campus, assuming it really is open to you a few weeks from now.