Opinion | Wayne Hare: Ain’t none of us can breathe
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that Beverly Whaling was the mayor of Clay, West Virginia.
I’m black, and for years I’ve been saying that if you peel back a layer or two of anything, you find racism.
People usually just look at me with polite skepticism. And I get it. How do you explain racism when it is so subtle and ingrained that it became invisible to white people generations ago?
When Washington politicians cut back on social welfare and safety net programs, it affects poor blacks more than any other group. Is this intentional racism? Or just an unacknowledged bias that comes from living and working in a city that is overwhelmingly black and poor, leading legislators to believe that safety net programs affect not their own constituents, but only poor “lazy” blacks?
After all, in 2011 the DC black unemployment rate was almost 21% while the white unemployment rate was a mere 3.7 percent. What could account for that other than laziness? Those people don’t need safety nets, they just need to get to work!
Do cops start their shift intending to jack up a poor black? Derek Chauvin who took a knee to George Floyd’s neck looked as nonchalant as if he merely had his foot on a cockroach. Did he even recognize that he was killing an actual human being?
How many jokes compared the Obamas to monkeys? Beverly Whaling, mayor of Clay, West Virginia, referred to Michelle Obama as “… an ape in high heels.” Maybe Chauvin, instead of being a racist cop hell-bent on killing black people, simply didn’t see Mr. Floyd as “people.” Just some kind of an ape.
But racism is here. It’s everywhere. It was there when Jim Cooley carried a loaded assault weapon into the Atlanta airport and simply went about his business, no problem. But when John Crawford, a black man, picked up an air rifle that he was considering buying for his son in an Ohio Walmart, he was promptly shot dead.
It was there when Ronald Reagan announced his run for the presidency from the Philadelphia, Mississippi, state fair, the same town where three civil rights workers were murdered by the local sheriff and others 16 years earlier.
American racism was there when the NFL conspired to deprive Colin Kaepernick of his livelihood because he placed his knee on the ground during the singing of the National Anthem, a song of freedom written by a virulent slave owner that nods to slavery in the third verse. He was protesting the kind of violence that later ended George Floyd’s life.
It was there before Derek Chauvin choked George Floyd to death in Minneapolis, and when former New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death on the streets of Staten Island. And it was there in Los Angeles in 1976 when Adolph Lyons was pulled over for driving without a tail light, yanked from his car, handcuffed and then choked. When he regained consciousness he was lying on the street, spitting up blood and dirt, gasping for air, and losing control of his bodily functions. He was issued a traffic violation for a minor offense and released.
When his lawsuit against the police department reached the supreme court seven years later, and the court sided with the police, an astonished and furious Thurgood Marshall wrote a dissenting opinion: “Although the city instructs its officers that the chokehold does not constitute deadly force, since 1975 no less than 16 persons have died following the use of a chokehold by an LAPD officer. Twelve have been Negro males …”
And now, the coronavirus, which kills Americans who are inflicted with the dangerous pre-existing condition of being black in America in far greater numbers than it kills white people. Combine that with the murders of George and Breonna and Amaud and the covers of the “everywhereness” of American racism have been yanked back. Racism is exposed yet again and white Americans are finally mad as hell.
I sense that they are angry not only because of the injustices they see on video, but also because they sense that the customs and institutions and traditions that maintain the hurt of racism, hurts them as well.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … where all men and woman are created equal … give me your tired, your poor, yearning to breathe free …with liberty and justice for all. I think white Americans are figuring out that that’s the country they want to live in. Not this one. They’ve been gamed, and they’ve joined Black Americans in their anger. Racism is suffocating, and finally, ain’t none of us can breathe.
Wayne Hare is a contributor to Writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, and often fights wildfires for the federal government.
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