Posted on June 3, 2020

In America, Black Deaths Are Not a Flaw in the System. They Are the System

Derrick Johnson, The Guardian, June 3, 2020

Too many Black people in America are dying.

We die driving our cars. We die playing outside. We die babysitting. We die eating ice cream. We die sleeping in our own beds. We die and die and die at the hands of the police who are sworn to serve and protect us.

Even then, we are not done dying. We die giving birth. We die trying to breathe. We die when doctors under-treat our heart attacks and dismiss our calls for help.

We die because we are overrepresented where it hurts, such as poverty and prisons, and underrepresented where it helps, such as higher educationelected office, and the federal judiciary. We die from many causes, but one stands out from all others: racism.

The expendability of Black lives is not a flaw in the system; it is the system. We are meant to die or, at the very least, we are not meant to be protected, to be respected, to be valued, to be considered fully human. That is how racism works, and it has operated efficiently throughout American history.

It is no accident that we disproportionately work in the lowest paying jobs, and live in communities where the water is unsafe to drink and the air unfit to breathe, where polluters ply their trades, where schools are starved of resources, where green space or even a grocery store can be hard to find.

All of this has led us to a new statistic on dying: we are 3.5 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than white people. Although Black people are only 13% of the population, we constitute about twice that percentage of US coronavirus cases. This is not because the coronavirus seeks us by color; it is because we suffer from an underlying condition.

Say its name. The condition is racism. It is manifest in a lack of opportunity; in economic inequality; in the absence of healthcare; in a biased criminal justice system and mass incarceration; in schools that scream for care; in a denial of truth; and more.

Under no regime but racism could kneeling for eight minutes and 46 seconds on the neck of a man who had already been handcuffed – and who was pleading for breath as bystanders screamed that he was dying – be considered a fitting police response to the suspected use of a counterfeit $20 bill. Five years ago, New York City police choked Eric Garner to death for selling untaxed cigarettes at about $1 apiece. Through such grim arithmetic, we learn exactly how much Black life is worth to America’s police forces.

Each year, more than 1,000 civilians nationwide are killed by police – and Black people are three times more likely to be slain than white people, despite also being more likely to be unarmed. Only 1% of those officers ever face charges. This kind of weaponized racism takes a toll on Black people nationwide. It starts early: the vast majority of Black families find it necessary to have “the talk” with their children. No, not the one about the birds and the bees. This talk prepares them to expect unfair and disrespectful treatment from police – and to accept such treatment because the slightest objection could result in their death.

The racism that is embedded in our country’s policies, systems, and practices may be historical, but it is not inevitable. The Covid-19 crisis, for example, is still young, and the US has time to change the racist form our response is already taking, with people of color standing first in line for exposure but last when it comes to relief. We could ensure that frontline workers – disproportionately Black and brown – have sufficient safety equipment and that employers are held accountable to keep their workers, not just their profits, safe. We could lighten the burden of student debt for a generation that faces interrupted careers and uncertain job prospects. There is much the country could do, if we had the will.

But racism robs nations of the will to do the right thing. If conscience won’t suffice, then power must. And in America, political power comes from the strength and preservation of constitutional democracy and through our votes. There are many paths our country could take to ensure Black and brown people can make their voices heard and their lives matter, and all lead to the ballot box. Today, more than any time in recent memory, the clarion call to all decent, caring people is simple and emphatic: vote! Our lives depend on it!

Across the country, large numbers of people from all walks of life have joined peaceful protests against racist police violence, offering welcomed solidarity in recognition of the searing frustration and anger of Black people who have seen too many friends and family die senselessly. More violence can never be the answer, nor can we allow those of ill will to distract and inflame. Our message is simple: racism is killing Black people in America. And we are done dying.