We Can’t Breathe


I was wondering what might crowd COVID-19 off the news.  The historic economic devastation caused by it has been subsumed into it, just another casualty of the pandemic.  In better times, perhaps SpaceX’s efforts would inspire us.  But, no, it took the police killing of yet another person of color to take our attention away.  

Now, let me say right off that I am not the best person to discuss George Floyd’s death and the woeful pattern it is part of.  I have certainly been the beneficiary of white male privilege.  I’ve never been unjustly pulled over or arrested.  I haven’t taken part in the protests.  But people like me need to speak out.  Writing about anything else right now seems almost irresponsible.  

OK: you’ve seen the video. You’ve heard Mr. Floyd protest that he can’t breathe, that the officer was killing him.  You’ve seen other officers stand by and not do anything — some even assisting — even as bystanders pleaded for them to let Mr. Floyd breathe.  It’s disturbing, it’s distressing, and it’s nothing new.  

I saw a video from one of the resulting protests where another officer restrained a protester — a black man, of course — in exactly the same way, although in this case another officer eventually moved the officer’s knee off the protester’s neck.  He’d learned what that video looked like.

There now have been protests in over 140 U.S. cities, with the National Guard mobilized in almost half the states.  Most protests have been peaceful, but there has been looting and there have been shootings. It’s a level of civil unrest not seen since the 1960’s.

And we thought it was bad when we just wanted the grocery stores to have toilet paper again, when wearing a mask was considered a hardship.

It’s a shame that some protests have ended up in destruction, and it’s a tragedy that others have ended with violence.  It’s possible that there are extremists who are seeking to use the protests as an opportunity to sow their own kinds of chaos.  But let’s not use that as an excuse not to understand the justifiable frustration and anger that underlies the protests.

The New York Times profiled how Minneapolis might have a reputation as a diverse, liberal city, but “there remains an extraordinary racial gap for Minnesotans when it comes to education outcomes and health care.”  Lawrence R. Jacobs, a professor at the University of Minnesota, explained:

“Racism has been around for a very, very long time.  You can see it in the redlining of neighborhoods, the education system, the transportation system and, obviously, policing.”

Similarly, The Washington Post called racial inequality in Minneapolis “among the worst in the nation,” noting that: 

The typical black family in Minneapolis earns less than half as much as the typical white family in any given year. And homeownership among black people is one-third the rate of white families.

It’s not just Minneapolis, of course.  African-American and Latino populations dramatically trail whites in income and wealth across the country.  Those populations have long lagged in employment, and in the current recession are taking the biggest hits. They’re also more likely to be in low wage, essential jobs that can’t be done from home, leading them to greater exposure to COVID-19.

Ironically, the very protests about police violence and the underlying inequalities may serve as fertile ground for further spread of COVID-19, and hit minority communities hardest of all.  

Still, those are not the main reasons why minority communities are the hardest hit by COVID-19, especially African-Americans.  Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, director of Equity Research and Innovation at Yale School of Medicine, told NPR

“I’ve been at health equity research for a couple of decades now.  Those of us in the field, sadly, expected this.  We know that these racial ethnic disparities in COVID-19 are the result of pre-pandemic realities.  It’s a legacy of structural discrimination that has limited success to health and wealth for people of color. ”

Greg Millet, director of public policy at amfAR, agrees: “There’s a structural issue that’s taking place here, it’s not a genetic issue for all non-white individuals in the U.S.”  

One of those issues, sadly, is our justice system.  Here’s a fact: police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in America — and that is especially true of African-American men.  In research published last year, Edwards, et. alia concluded:

“Police violence is a leading cause of death for young men, and young men of color face exceptionally high risk of being killed by police. Inequalities in risk are pronounced throughout the life course. This study reinforces calls to treat police violence as a public health issue . Racially unequal exposure to the risk of state violence has profound consequences for public health, democracy, and racial stratification.”

Credit: Edwards, Lee, Esposito/PNAS

The problem goes beyond police violence.  We incarcerate far more people than any other country — per capita or in absolute numbers — and those prisoners are much more likely to be minorities (especially men).  Black men have a 1 in 3 lifetime chance of being imprisoned, Latino men 1 in 6, versus white men’s 1 in 17.  Most of those imprisoned are there for drug offenses, and here the inequalities matter: whites are, in fact, more likely to use drugs, and about as likely to sell them, but are much less likely to be arrested/imprisoned for drug offenses.  

Trevor Noah clarified the underlying problem: when Amy Cooper, the Central Park woman who called the police when a bird-watcher politely asked her to put her dog on a lease, she simply expected that, as a white woman, she’d be believed, and the African-American man wouldn’t be.  We’re all facing COVID-19, Mr. Noah reminds us, but African-Americans are facing COVID-19 and racism. 

President Trump wants to just lock up the protesters, while seemingly not minding that COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on minorities helps his election chances.  He and other so-called conservatives are happy to continue to allow the wide disparities that resulted in, among other things, George Floyd’s death and COVID-19’s impact on minority populations.  Even those of us who are offended, even outraged, by these inequalities have, for the most part, been too complicit in them.  

The protests and even the pandemic will pass — somehow, sometime, and with catastrophic damage.  But history will judge us by whether we took the opportunity to address the problems that underlie them. 

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

4 replies »

  1. Looks like whites are suffering a lot of Asian/Pacific Islander privilege from the graph displayed. Seriously, why aren’t the corporations that promote unhealthy foods being protested? It’s a lifetime of unhealthy food habits that is the greatest contributor to poor health outcomes that in turn reinforce poor economic outcomes. Sure, there is more to the story. Poor people are being trampled on by the economic interest of agribusiness interest with the aid of government subsidies. It’s simple, make quality foods cheap and unhealthy foods expensive. The country has been using the opposite incentive for too long. Solve the food problem and most of the health issues will diminish.

  2. Sadly, the compelling need to protest this outrage during the pandemic means African Americans will continue to bear a disproportionate share of COVID-19, perpetuating inequity and injustice.

  3. Thank you for being brave enough to shed light on what is REALLY happening in America and the importance of exposing the root cause!

  4. “It’s possible that there are extremists who are seeking to use the protests as an opportunity to sow their own kinds of chaos. ”

    As opposed to Trump’s sowing of chaos? What kind of chaos would “they” be trying to sow? Why is not Trump an “extremist”.