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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

(Op/Ed) Explaining “I Can’t Breathe” to White People

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By Michael Allen of the Blog Allen Insight's

“I Can’t Breathe” is about more than police brutality. It is about the basic unfairness many African Americans experience every day in America through no fault of their own. Let that sink in for just a moment.

Through no fault of their own, African American shoppers (even Barack Obama) are suspected of being shop lifters and are stalked by store owners or store security. Though no fault of their own, African America drivers are often targeted by police and pulled over and harassed without probable cause. Through no fault of their own, African Americans who want to rent an apartment in a nice neighborhood with good schools are told that there are no apartments available.

 Or, that the apartments have just been rented. Through no fault of their own, the average African American child who acts out in school is given a more punitive punishment than the average white child who acts out in school. Through no fault of their own, African Americans who are completely qualified for a particular job are told untruthfully by employers that they are not qualified. If you had to live in this reality, wouldn’t you feel like, “I Can’t Breathe.”

Many white Americans cannot accept this truth – that African Americans are treated unfairly in America through no fault of their own. And yet, each of the examples above has been documented and studied over and over by scientists who study racism. When testing for housing or employment discrimination, these researchers use both white and black testers who are equally matched in education, language skills, and demeanor. And the results are always the same.

Whether it is for a job interview or an application for rental housing, the bias is always there. Not every test run results in discrimination against the black tester. But over many test runs, the bias to the white testers is measurable, consistent, and strong. And there is nothing the African American tester can do to overcome his blackness. Nothing he can do to be treated as an equal to his white counterpart.

And it gets worse. The researchers who study racism have also found that many employers offering entry level jobs often prefer a white tester who just got out of prison for felony cocaine possession over a black or brown tester with no criminal record. If you had never done anything wrong, and desperately needed a job to support yourself and your family, but still had to struggle against this strong racial discrimination, wouldn’t you feel like, “I Can’t Breathe.”

The final insult to injury for many African Americans comes from the criminal justice system. African Americans are incarcerated at much higher rates and given longer prison sentences than whites FOR THE SAME CRIMES. And the basic reason for this is that white suspects are most often given the benefit of the doubt and African American suspects are not. And when seemingly clear cut cases of police misconduct and abuse present themselves, the justice system almost always sides with the police.

Being black in America is not easy. It is very difficult. And still, many elected mayors and other local officials deny this reality. Wouldn’t that make you feel like, “I Can’t Breathe.”

And this is why the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner resonate so strongly among African Americans. Each of these victims represents the unfairness that many African Americans must live with each day in America. Before he was shot to death, unarmed Trayvon Martin was stalked by a neighborhood watchman who was carrying a concealed handgun. And before unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer, some witnesses said he was on his knees with his hands in the air in the universal gesture of surrender.

True or not, this image rings true with the unfairness that many African Americans (who have done nothing wrong) face when encountering police officers. And finally, unarmed Eric Garner’s last words while being choked to death by a police officer were: “I Can’t Breathe.” A simple plea he repeated over and over for help and for mercy. And yet his pleas were completely ignored by the police officers standing around him. In all three of these homicides, the white perpetrator received no criminal punishment. Not even involuntary manslaughter.

And to top this all off, the dismissive rhetoric from many white Americans and conservative media toward the valid complaints from African Americans about racial discrimination gets louder every day. Surely that would make you feel like “I Can’t Breathe.”

Racism is ingrained in American culture and will be part of American life for a while longer, but racial discrimination does not need to be. We can enact government policies to expand economic and educational opportunities for those Americans (of all races) who need it most. This would greatly reduce the economic impacts of racial discrimination. And we can enact government policies to greatly reduce racial profiling and abuse by the police.

Strong government efforts in both of these areas would level the playing field for many African Americans and give them a fair chance to participate as equals in American society. But to make these changes we need to elect leaders who recognize that racial discrimination is a real thing in America. And we need to begin this political work now before the next election so that someday we can all breathe again.

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1 comment :

Monica RW said...

Can you imagine how Obama must have felt when Bill Clinton said to Ted Kennedy "A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee,"?

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