We Can’t Breathe: Why We Need to Give Racism a Chance

we cant breathe

In the wake of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner decisions, of the excessive additional unarmed youth who have been killed in the short weeks following the injustice, and in the face of vast disparities facing our country at every level, I believe that there is an important discussion that we need to be having, but one being generally avoided. 

In our society, we’ve demonized the “R Word” so much so, that people pretend it doesn’t exist in our communities, and certainly not in our government, legal system, or other public spaces. That word, and problem, is racism.

A recent public poll found that only 6 percent of whites in the United States believe racism to be a very serious problem. On the other hand, most of people of color report experiencing racial discrimination in their lives.

A similar Gallup Survey on black-white relations revealed that seven of 10 whites believe that blacks are treated equally in their communities; eight in 10 say blacks receive equal educational opportunities, and 83 percent say blacks receive equal housing opportunities. Only a third of whites believe blacks face racial bias from police in their areas. That means two out of three whites believe that black Americans are treated exactly the same as white Americans.

But when you look at the data, it’s appallingly clear that this isn’t the case.

A major national study revealed that people with “white sounding names” are 50 percent more likely to be called back for a job interview than those with “black sounding” names, even when all other credentials are the same. First-time arrests for black youth have an incarceration rate that is 48 times higher than white youth, even when all other factors of the crime are identical. Black Americans are 2,100 percent more likely to be fatally shot by police than white Americans. In fact, the average black male has a one-in-three chance of going to prison in their lifetime.

To explain these staggering statistics either you believe that people of color are naturally criminally inclined, have a poor work ethic and are predisposed to engage self-endangering behaviors, or you believe that we have a systemic wide problem across our political, legal, education, financial and health sectors. Either way, it confirms the existence of prevalent racism.

The civil unrest that is occurring now is only one battle in a long war. Black Americans have been fighting for air since they were dragged here as slaves and treated as property. Think about it: Eric Garner’s murder would have been punished in the 1800s for destroying property but our “justice” system ruled that his life was not even worth that. Native Americans have been dealt with unjustly since immigrants arrived to steal land and commit genocide without retribution. They’re expected to be grateful that they can build casinos while our system continues to hack away at their rights, while major sports teams still see them as savages and mascots. We still have a state (Florida) that has a law embedded into its constitution designed to prevent Asians from owning property. When it was on the ballot, voters elected to keep it there!

People of color have been drowning, struggling for air in a “justice” system that is anything but just to those most affected by its oppression. Racism did not end with the march on Washington, Dr. King’s “dream” seems like a far reality when those who enforce our laws are not held accountable to live by them. It did not end when Obama was elected president. The end of racism could not be captured by a single moment because justice is a process, not an event.

Garner and Brown were just two names published in the media but every 28 hours, an unarmed black man is killed by police. There is a heartbreaking story of racial disparity, of murder, of injustice every single day. I say that these are small battles in a larger war because we aren’t dealing with rogue incidents — we need an overhaul of a system that is unjust, unfair, that is militaristic and upholds racism. If these events of police brutality and murder were occurring in another country, such as China or Afghanistan, you would hear an uproar from our elected officials instead of that indifference that they are showing here. This is why it matters to be informed, to vote, to protest. There is no social change unless people change their behaviors and their attitudes towards society and the system at large.

We need to stop treating the everyday experiences of millions of people like a relic of a bygone era. Racism as a major problem does not live in the past, like polio or smallpox. It permeates nearly every aspect of our society. We need to give it a chance to exist so that we can treat it like the disease it is.

Like any disease, we need to treat the root causes and bring more awareness. As a society, we’ve been so worried about accusations of racism, that we’ve been ignoring the actual realities of it. The symptoms are there, we can’t go on ignoring them.

We can change this pattern, we have an opportunity to develop equity and justice into a practice rather than an afterthought. Begin by having an uncomfortable conversation about race, begin by giving racism a chance to exist. Only then can we begin to work on its root cause.

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4 Responses to We Can’t Breathe: Why We Need to Give Racism a Chance

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  1. Benjamin Thayer December 15, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    Thank you Simon. I’ve been disgusted by people who are so scared of acknowledging our current system as racist that they’ll tie themselves up in logic knots to avoid it. Thank you for stating this as succinctly as possible.

  2. Maria Holt December 15, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

    One small criticism: Black people were not dragged here or anywhere else as slaves. PEOPLE were brought here and forced to work as slaves. Otherwise, great post, as usual.

  3. Bob Lee December 28, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    The following is my response to a young Asian American who thinks that my suggestion to take a stance against cops who turned their backs to DeBlasio is contrary to the goals of Black Lives Matter. I post it here to see if this kind of thinking has support, or if this kind of Asian initiative is thinkable and supportable.

    Black Lives Matter has opened up a space where Asian Americans can find their stance, aligning themselves with the goal of elevating Black Lives above the racism and victimization that makes the Model Minority a tool to perpetuate it. The recent response to keep White Privilege in place are the cops who seek to undermine DeBlasio and his effort to make changes to the police system. The next step for the Model Minority Mutiny is for Asian/Asian Americans to see is that its possible to spark a counter action to cops turning their backs. Asian voices can recognize Wen Jian Liu as a victim too and support changes in the police structure, doing this specifically as a public Asian stance/demonstration. The goal for this visible Asian position would be to spark the majority who elected De Blasio to recognize the need for them to demonstrate a powerful counter action to show support for NYC as a progressive city. In this way Asians can have a visible role and still be aligned with Black Lives Matter.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ferguson and Race, Part 1: Darren Wilson’s Testimony | Criminal Justice News - December 16, 2014

    […] You may wonder how it is possible for people of different races to view the same issue so differently. To understand these distinct points of view, it is necessary to understand how Whites think about race. Whites often view racial and ethic identities as issues of individual choice. We can invoke our specific heritage (e.g. Irish, British, German, etc.) when we decide to (for example, emphasizing one’s Irish heritage for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration) but we can also ignore or minimize these histories when we don’t find value in them. Thus, when we hear a story such as the shooting of Michael Brown, we assume that race is not central to the story because it is not part of our everyday experience. For people of color, however, race/ethnicity is not a matter of choice because racial identification…. […]

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