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Learning to Breathe Easier

I am a seventy-eight-year-old white man with three black children, four black grandchildren, and a black great-grandson. And I’m struggling to breathe as I try to grasp the pain of people who loved Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and now, George Floyd. All among the countless unarmed black males, and females, killed by police—or, in Mr. Arbery’s case, police wannabes—in recent years. 

The police excuses boil down to: we feared for our lives. And, video evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the killers are rarely held accountable. To much of law enforcement, black lives don’t really matter.  

Will the murder of George Floyd be different? Perhaps.

There is the irrefutable video clearly showing (1) the only life in danger was Floyd’s, (2) the officer’s disregard for a black life as he dug his knee deep into Floyd’s neck while keeping his hands in his pocket and a smirk on his face, and (3) the disinterest of the other three officers in stopping their leader. 

There is the widespread outrage expressed by people from every racial and ethnic background who now see what black people have always known. 

There are the continuing protest marches involving thousands of people in every state, in every major city, and in many smaller ones. 

And there are the condemnations of the behavior of the four police officers from police chiefs across the country and the criticisms from leading military veterans of the Lafayette Park attacks on peaceful protestors so that the president could march to a church and wave a bible.    

Yet, it still took four days, including two nights of intense protest, for the county prosecutor to arrest the officer with the lethal knee and charge him with murder. The other three police officers? Finally arrested eight days after persistent demonstrations in cities across the country. And once the cases go before juries, there is no guarantee that any of the four will be held accountable.  

People are demanding extensive systemic reforms in policing. Many people also cite the manifestations of racism—unequal educational and job opportunities, health inequities, income inequality, the wealth gap—as contributing to the protests. Surely, we desperately need to address all these issues.

But these are symptoms of a deeper problem that we have never truly confronted as a society: the embedded belief in a hierarchy of human value based on such superficial physical characteristics as skin color and facial features. The essence of the Black Lives Matter movement is the uncomfortable truth that our behavior often reflects the societal belief, whether conscious or subconscious, that white lives matter more than black lives. If we want to achieve enduring racial equity and healing, we must eradicate this racial hierarchy, recognize and embrace our common humanity, and learn to see ourselves in one another. 

We must understand that this is not a black problem; it is an American problem. White people must feel deeply that every black person killed is their brother or sister, son or daughter, father or mother. White leaders must be moved to tears as black leaders have been when watching the video of George Floyd’s life being slowly and agonizingly squeezed from him.

Until we dig deeper and recognize the racial hierarchy that infects virtually all of us, reforming policing and trying to solve other manifestations of institutional racism will only put Band-Aids on a chronic wound that infects our entire body. Unless we confront our true history and its legacy, get to know each other as individuals, and elect leadership committed to unity and equity, the Band-Aids will soon dry up and fall off. And the wound will reappear—unhealed and more acute.

Band-Aids will not protect my children. Only when you can look at my family and see all of us as equally human, when you can see my children as your children, will all of us be able to breathe easily. 

It will require that we reach beyond our comfort zone. Challenge the perpetrators of racial discrimination and reach out a hand to the targets. Learn the truth about our history and how it affects people today. Give our children books that reflect our full history and our nation’s diversity and take them to museums that accurately portray our history—the good and the bad. Stop laughing at racist jokes and challenge the people who tell them. Develop meaningful relationships with people from different racial backgrounds. Vote against any candidate who seeks to divide us. Listen, really listen, with our hearts to people’s stories. Perhaps most importantly, examine our own stereotypes, privileges, and implicit biases and commit to conquering them. 

Not easy. But, as the late theologian Dr. Vincent Harding declared, “If you don’t ever walk through trouble, or confront a risk, or reach beyond your comfort zone, you will never meet the rest of yourself.”

Given the diversity and persistence of the protestors and the fact that the protests are occurring throughout the country, I am hopeful that this time, if we persevere, perhaps we may be ready to meet the rest of ourselves and ultimately breathe in the rich rewards of a society free of racial strife and transformed into one in which we embrace the humanity and unique qualities of every one of us.

Michael R. Wenger is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Sociology at the George Washington University, a senior consultant on race relations with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and a senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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