Systemic injustice and racism have deep historical roots in this country. Broadly speaking, these terms are defined as deeply ingrained racist thinking, practices, and actions embedded in the core foundations of American society that have persisted over centuries and continue today.
The struggle against racial injustice in America boiled over once again in 2020 following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black men and women. Attorney Ben Crump – a fierce advocate for equality, justice, and civil rights – represents the Floyd, Taylor, and Arbery families, and many more families of those killed, harmed, or marginalized due to systemic injustice and racism.
This article highlights racial injustice in America and reveals the many ways that it affects Black people’s health, education, livelihoods, and lives. Readers will come away with a heightened awareness of how the web of systemic inequities in America works against Black Americans.
A Brief Overview of the Roots & Evolution of Institutional & Systemic Racism in America
If you think of contemporary forms of racism such as police brutality, racial profiling and racial disparities as the leaves or fruit of white supremacy, then the roots of this metaphoric tree would be colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, and other past structural inequalities that have subjugated Black people and people of color.
The terms institutional racism and systemic racism are now often used interchangeably to describe broad systems of racial oppression that occur in social and other institutions. While some contemporary forms of discrimination or racism may look or seem new to some, anti-Black racism is fundamentally unchanged.
During the Black Power movement of the 1960s, activists Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton coined the term institutional racism in their book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (1967) to distinguish between individual and institutional racism. As Michael Eric Dyson reminds us in Tears We Cannot Stop, “Institutional racism requires neither conscious effort nor individual intent.”
In short, racism is deeply ingrained in all aspects of our society, producing social, economic, and political inequalities that are inextricably connected to the past. In 1939 Billie Holiday sang about “strange fruit” hanging from trees, a reference to lynched Black bodies in the South. Systemic racism tells us that the seeds of this “strange fruit” were sown long ago and that this fruit continues to rot in our present.
The tragic killing of George Floyd is a modern day example of that.
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Discrimination Is Pervasive in American Life
Some people assume that racism happens primarily on an individual level or that only people enact racism. They see racism as the use of racist epithets like the n-word or in overt displays of white supremacy like the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. However, racism is also insidious; it is clear that how or where (or even what) we live, breathe, eat, drink, learn, work, and die is often determined by our skin color.
According to a 2020 Urban Institute report, “Lower housing equity contributes to less overall wealth for Black and Hispanic households. In addition, Black and Hispanic homeowners rely more heavily on housing equity to increase their overall net worth” (Neal and McCargo). Consider the 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report which determined that Black people disproportionately make up almost half (40%) of the homeless population, while only making up 13% of the U.S. population.
The point is that racism impacts almost every facet of American life and systemic racism can be seen all over: in unequal access to housing, in health care and educational inequities, in the gentrification of our cities, in the policies, programs, and practices instituted by our government, in the political arena, in corporations, in the surveillance and mass incarceration of Black and Brown people. The list goes on and on.
Environmental Injustice in America
An often overlooked example of systemic racism is environmental racism which Robert Bullard, “Father of Environmental Justice,” defines in his article “The Threat of Environmental Racism” as “any environmental policy, practice, or directive that differentially effects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individual groups, or communities based on color.”
A prime example is the Flint water crisis in Flint, Michigan where many of the victims (most of whom are Black and all of whom are low-income) were poisoned with lead in their drinking water. According to a report from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission: “racism played a significant role in creating the conditions that allowed the lead contamination to happen and in the failure to recognize and address it in a timely fashion.”
Civil Rights attorney Ben Crump (who donated water and other services to the Flint community) said it best in his Time magazine article, “Flint Officials Must Pay for Poisoning Black, Poor Community”: “Politicians, judges, prosecutors and police all proclaimed this [the War on Drugs in the 1980s] was done because drug dealers were poisoning low-income communities and communities of color. In Flint, elected officials played a role in actually poisoning a community of Blacks and poor people.”
Poisoned water is not the only environmental hazard Black people are exposed to disproportionately; studies have shown Black people are more likely to breathe polluted air. Water and air give life; however, in some communities, Black people cannot safely drink water or safely breathe the air.
The American Lung Association cites EPA research which finds Black people in low-income areas “faced higher risk from particle pollution” (“Disparities in the Impact of Air Pollution”). And according to a 2017 study by Princeton University, Black children are more likely to suffer from asthma than children of other races (they had doubled the rate when compared to non-Black children in 2010) because residential segregation makes them more exposed to polluted air.
In short, various forms of systemic racism can make it difficult or impossible for Black people to breathe. These two examples of environmental injustice demonstrate how inequalities Black people face are rooted in longstanding systems of oppression including economic disenfranchisement, unequal access to housing, segregation, and limited political power.
Black LGBTQ Discrimination in America
While Black people from all walks of life are victims of systemic racism, certain marginalized groups face particular hardships, especially low-income communities and members of the LGBTQ community. In addition to dealing with racism, Black LGBTQ people must contend with homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and anti-queer discrimination and violence. Often, the wider LGBTQ community reinscribes white privilege. At the same time, Black queer people may face homophobia, bias, bullying, or violence within Black communities.
Black LGBTQ Youth
Black queer youth are a particularly vulnerable group. Studies show that queer Black and Latinx people are at risk for more suicide attempts than their white peers; see “Increased Risk of Suicide Attempts Among Black and Latino Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals” from the American Journal of Public Health. In April 2019, fourteen-year-old Nigel Shelby committed suicide after being bullied for being gay; he was reportedly told that being gay “was a choice.” Nigel’s mother hired Ben Crump and others to investigate the circumstances of his death. Crump’s work on this case affirms his belief that being treated as equal is not only a civil right; it is a basic human right.
It is clear that depression and anxiety among queer Black youth is only intensified by racial disparities that marginalize and oppress Black communities. Teenagers like Nigel deserve the necessary resources needed to combat institutional racism and institutional homophobia. In Killing Rage, Ending Racism, bell hooks maintains, “All our silences in the face of racist assaults are acts of complicity.” Our silences as they relate to Black LQBTQ injustice are also acts of complicity.
The economic disenfranchisement of Black LGBTQ people is shaped by discrimination, housing inequities, and healthcare. Scholar Cathy J. Cohen writes in “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics,” “While the politics of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered activists of color might recognize heteronormativity as a primary system of power structuring our lives, it understands that heteronormativity interacts with institutional racism, patriarchy, and class exploitation to define us in numerous ways as marginal and oppressed subjects.”
For example, a 2012 report, “LGBT Families of Color: Facts at a Glance,” reports that “32% of children raised by gay male Black couples live in poverty, compared to 13% of children raised by married heterosexual Black parents and 7% of children raised by married heterosexual white parents.”
Black Transgender Rights
Black transgender people face even more precarious socioeconomic conditions. According to the American Medical Association, violence against transgender people of color is an epidemic.
Thirty-four percent (34%) of Black transgender people live in poverty compared to 9% of non-transgender Black people (“Injustice at Every Turn”). Violence against Black transgender people, particularly Black transwomen, is on the rise. According to the Human Rights Campaign, there were at least 26 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed in 2019; 91% of these deaths were Black women. However, this number does not accurately reflect the true number as data collection pertaining to transgender or non-binary people is incomplete or unreliable.
Just as Black Lives Matter, Black Trans lives must matter.
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Racism and Discrimination in Sports
Although some Americans view sports as somehow immune from racial politics (or think that racial politics don’t belong in sports), it is clear that the history and culture of sports are deeply affected by racism and racialist thinking. A perusal of scholarly titles on race and sports like William Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete
(2006) and Billy Hawkins’ The New Plantation: Black Athletes, College Sports and Predominantly White NCAA Institutions (2010), underscore the connection between sports and past racial subjugation, namely slavery.
Sports continue to play an important role in the maintenance of white privilege and wealth. At all levels, sports and sports culture can reproduce unequal power relations and expose racial power imbalances. At the same time, sports can also provide unique opportunities for Black protest.
During the 2016 NFL season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick infamously kneeled during the national anthem to protest Black oppression. His and other athletes’ activism on and off the field follows a long line of athlete-activists (Wilma Rudolph, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Jim Brown to name a few) and highlights the continued intersection between race and sports.
In 2016, Kaepernick launched a youth empowerment program titled “Know Your Rights Camp,” founded “to advance the liberation and well-being of Black and Brown communities through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization.” To this end, his camp has chosen an impressive array of speakers since its founding to encourage and inspire camp participants. Ben Crump proudly wore a “I Know My Rights” t-shirt and spoke to Black and Brown youth at the camp in 2019. Families of several Black male youth killed by police have sought Crump’s counsel, and his participation in such programs is a powerful testament to his commitment to social justice outside of his legal counsel.
Injustice in the Workplace
Workplace environments don’t provide respite from racism. This is the perniciousness of systemic racism: you can’t escape it at home, in society, or at work.
Studies show that Black applicants are less likely to get interviews for jobs in the first place. For example, a Harvard Business School Study showed that Black and Asian applicants with ethnically sounding names were less likely to be called for interviews (“Whitened Résumés: Race and Self-Presentation”). When they do get jobs, Black workers can face microaggressions, stereotyping, discrimination, and/or hostile work environments. When they speak up or file complaints, they often fear retribution.
Racial power imbalances in the workplace position Black people at all kinds of disadvantages (financial, social, and emotional). The average Black worker earned 62% less compared to what his white counterpart made in 2018. Even worse, a Black woman earned 66% less than her white male counterpart (Business Insider).
It should be noted that Black women face a double bind as they lack the most power and wealth due to their gendered and racialized position. In her book, You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, Tsedale M. Melaku discusses how the “invisible labor clause” affects Black female lawyers at work though the term applies to most Black people in work environments. She defines the “invisible labor clause” as the “added emotional, mental and physical labor” Black people take part in so they can more easily navigate their work environments.
While Black people often put in extra or invisible labor, they get compensated less for their work.
Racism and Black Mental Health
What is the toll of racism, discrimination, and prejudice on Black people? They are unfairly burdened by the many ways institutional and individual racism affects their day-to-day lives. Social media, along with the 24-hour news cycle, makes it such that we are constantly hearing and seeing Black bodies victimized and under attack. The ubiquity of racism on our phones and televisions can be traumatic and triggering.
There is no question that there is a link between racism and one’s psychological health.
Indeed, the American Psychological Association advances, “Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety, and other serious, sometimes debilitating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. Moreover, the stress caused by racism can contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and other physical diseases.” The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that African Americans are 20% more likely to suffer from mental health issues.
In addition to the emotional and psychological effects of racism and discrimination, Black people must contend with institutional racism and racial disparities in mental health care including less access to care and services, provider bias, and misdiagnosis. There is an overdiagnosis of some mental illnesses in Black populations (like schizophrenia) and an underdiagnosis of others. As Ben Crump said in defense of a mentally ill Texas woman, Pamela Turner, killed by police officers, “Just because you are Black and you have a mental illness shouldn’t equivocate that you should receive the death penalty.” (CBS News) Turner’s family, who sought Crump’s representation, said that Turner suffered from schizophrenia and was shot by police when picking up trash in her neighborhood at night.
The way law enforcement deals with all people with mental illnesses regardless of race is problematic; however, Black people with mental illnesses are at particular risk when it comes to policing.
Black protest has taken many forms in the 20th and 21st centuries: sit-ins, boycotts, marches, demonstrations, militant resistance, and other economic, political, and social protest activities. Although #BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013 and gained nationwide attention following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it follows a long and rich tradition of Black people organizing and fighting for Black equality. Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, “Historically, incidents of police brutality have typically sparked Black uprisings, but they are the tip of the iceberg, not the entirety of the problem. Today is no different.”
Recent Black Lives Matter protests demanding change after the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are, of course, about these senseless killings of Black people by police and racist vigilantes, but they are also responding to a history of Black lives not mattering in this country. When protestors chant “No Justice, No Peace,” wear t-shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe,” and demand that we say his/her/their name, they are also condemning and responding to the extensive social, educational, political, economic, legal, and psychological effects of racism that have circumscribed Black lives.
From Trayvon Martin, to Michael Brown, to Breonna Taylor, to George Floyd, Ben Crump is dedicated to demanding justice for Black families. Dubbed “the Black Gloria Allred” (The New Yorker), referred to as the “go-to attorney for racial justice” (The Washington Post), and called “the African-American family’s emergency plan” (PBS News Hour), Crump is a force against anti-Black violence, brutality, and hate crimes. At George Floyd’s Minneapolis memorial, Crump pronounced, “Do not cooperate with evil– protest against evil.” Indeed, protests are and have always been one of the many necessary forms of resistance against white supremacy.
In a July 2020 New York Times article titled “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” the authors note that 15 to 26 million people in the United States have taken part in a demonstration in response to George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter. The protests have gone international, prompting a global rejection of white supremacy and Black oppression on the streets from Paris to Tokyo. The protests have reminded us of James Baldwin’s words: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Recent protests show that many Americans are ready to face this nation’s ugly racial realities and demand change and racial justice.
In 2018, Fortune 500 CEOs, who earned approximately $14.5 million on average, included just four Black people and ten Latinos — less than 3 percent of the total. By contrast, these groups made up 44.1 percent of the U.S. workers who would benefit from a raise in the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Blacks and Latinos comprise 31.7% of the U.S. population.
As of the last quarter of 2019, the median white worker made 28 percent more than the typical Black worker and more than 35 more than the median Latino worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The median Black family, with just over $3,500, owns just 2 percent of the wealth of the nearly $147,000 the median white family owns. The median Latino family, with just over $6,500, owns just 4 percent of the wealth of the median white family. Put differently, the median white family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family and 22 times more wealth than the median Latino family.
Political Inequality & Voting While Black
The 2020 presidential election has brought renewed national attention to the myriad of ways systematic racism affects the electoral system, including general voter suppression, voter intimidation, unfair voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and other practices intended to disenfranchise communities of color.
According to the ACLU, one in 13 African Americans is unable to vote because of disenfranchisement laws in the United States. Unsurprisingly, they report that counties with higher numbers of people of color have fewer polling sites and poll workers. In addition, researchers have used cell phone user data to confirm that those who vote in black neighborhoods wait longer in lines to vote than those in white neighborhoods, as reported in the Washington Post.
The seminal 1965 Voting Rights Act is under threat. A 2013 Supreme Court ruling served a blow to democracy, “freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval,” reported the New York Times. These states have a history of discriminating against people of color; thus, this decision summons past injustices to rear their ugly head in the present.
One of these nine states is Georgia, which presents a particularly appalling example of the black vote being suppressed. In 2018, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp was accused of suppressing the black vote when he was running for governor. Kemp’s “exact match” law flagged over 53,000 voter registrations that his office said showed discrepancies when compared with official state documents. The ACLU reports that 70% of the voters who were purged in Georgia in 2018 were Black. Georgia is just one example of the kinds of voter suppression happening all over the country.
Racial Inequalities in Education
Racial disparities in education continue in 2020, confirming that our nation’s public school systems remain separate and unequal. Black youth are presented with unequal opportunities at school; these inequities can persist over lifetimes. A 2019 New York Times article reported that over half of the children in the U.S. attend schools in “racially concentrated districts where over 75 percent of students are either white or nonwhite.”
In addition, Black students often attend schools that receive less funding and provide a lower quality of education. As reported in The Atlantic, Research drawing on data from school districts in Pennsylvania found that funding was directly tied to race, not poverty: “No matter how rich or poor the district in question, funding gaps existed solely based on the racial composition of the school. Just the increased presence of minority students actually deflated a district’s funding level.” In general, school districts with less funding are likely to have increased class sizes, reduced school services, lower teacher salaries, and higher teacher lay-offs.
Black students are more likely to attend schools where there is less exposure to advanced classes, schools that have lower high school completion rates, and schools that have fewer opportunities for students. For example, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 2014 “Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot” found that Black, Latino, and Native American students had more first year teachers in their schools than their white peers. Black students were three times more likely to attend a school where little more than half of the teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements.
Blackness is criminalized regardless of one’s age, and thus it is not surprising that Black students were expelled at three times the rate of their white peers. Stereotypes about Black females likely contribute to Black girls being suspended at higher rates than all other girls (and most boys).
Healthcare Inequalities: COVID
Racial disparities in the healthcare system have devastating effects on Black communities in the United States. Black people often live in neighborhoods where their access to healthcare services is limited and the quality of health care is lower.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Black, Latino, and Native American communities. CDC data has shown that Black and Latino people are nearly three times more likely to be infected than white people (New York Times).
Various pre-pandemic issues and disparities contribute to this high number including income, geography, and occupation. For example, a Center for Economic and Policy Research study reported that Black people make up about one in nine workers in general but account for one in six front-line-industry workers. Black people are disproportionately employed in grocery, convenience, and drug stores; public transit; trucking, warehouse, and postal service; health care; and childcare and social services.
Merlin Chowkwanyun and Adolph L. Reed write in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Covid-19 disparities should be situated in the context of material resource deprivation caused by low SES [socioeconomic status], chronic stress brought on by racial discrimination, or place-based risk.” COVID-19 infections affect African Americans of all ages. For instance, recent data from the CDC suggests that Black and Latino children are more likely to be infected with COVID-19 (13% of infected children were white; 40% were Hispanic; 33% were Black).
These distressing statistics remind us that COVID-19 is not an “equal opportunity” killer as some have suggested. While it is true that anyone can be infected with the virus, people of color and low-income Americans are devastatingly more at risk.
Criminal Justice Inequalities
The criminal justice system in this country generates, supports, and sustains racial inequalities. In Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she calls mass incarceration a “racial caste system” to emphasize how Black people are stigmatized and oppressed by laws, customs, and practices that have been structured to work against them.
The ACLU points out a staggering statistic: today there are more Black people in prison or controlled by corrections departments than there were slaves (see “Race and Criminal Justice”). Black people are disproportionately affected by disparities in policing, sentencing decisions, selective law enforcement, and police brutality. According to The Sentence Project’s report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System, African Americans are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and have longer prison sentences than their white counterparts. In addition, “African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites and Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely.” An NAACP Criminal Fact Sheet notes that although African Americans represent 13% of the population, they make up 35% of all that have been executed under the death penalty in the last 40 years.
A particularly grievous example of racial disparities is the criminalization of drug use and possession for Black people. For instance, although drug usage is about the same across groups, Black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for having marijuana than white people (“The War on Marijuana in Black and White”). Across the board, the criminal justice system assumes Black guilt, disproportionately punishes, and sets up Black and Latino communities to feed into the prison system.
#LivingWhileBlack is a hashtag often used on social media to bring to light all the ways Black people are racialized, stereotyped, and victimized in public spaces (though sometimes also in private spaces as the murders of Botham Jean in 2018 and Breonna Taylor in 2020 attest).
In Racial Formation in the United States, sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant define racialization as “the extension of racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group.”
#LivingWhileBlack critiques how racialization and racism work together to disadvantage, harm, or oppress; it identifies all the ways Black people are discriminated against or racially profiled when they shop, work, exercise, run errands, get an education, or pursue recreational interests.
The news stories invoking #LivingWhileBlack are endless – they detail Black people being questioned, harassed, and profiled when engaging in everyday activities as innocuous as swimming. One recent example was in June 2020 when a white Hampton Inn employee called the police on a Black family who was using the hotel pool in Williamston, North Carolina.
Ednitta Wright, who has retained Ben Crump as her lawyer, was staying at the hotel with her children yet was asked to provide proof of guest status to the hotel and to police who were called. Wright was deservedly indignant and refused to provide her identification (though she provided her hotel room key) since she committed no crime. Police obtained her name from her vehicle license plate, affirming she was indeed a guest.
The fact that she and her children’s presence was questioned in the first place highlights how Black people are often viewed as intruders, trespassers, or criminals. The incident at the Hampton Inn is just one example of white employees, hotel guests, or apartment complex residents calling the authorities on Black people at pools — some of whom have received nicknames on social media including “Pool Patrol Paula” in South Carolina in June 2018 and “ID Adam” in North Carolina in July 2018.
It should be noted that the aforementioned incidents are particularly upsetting given the history of whites-only or segregated public pools in this country. In Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, he notes that in the early 20th century, public pool attendants in the North would dissuade Black people from entering. He writes “Enforcement then fell to white swimmers who often harassed and assaulted Black Americans who transgressed the new racial boundary. In this way, segregation was frequently achieved through violence.” When white people question, harass, and/or call the police on Black people at pools, it recalls a long history of discrimination and violence at American swimming pools.
Black people have long suffered racial discrimination from financial institutions, including the practice of red-lining and banks refusing services, denying loans, and raising interest rates based on the race of the patron.
Just like at swimming pools, Black people are viewed suspiciously at banks. It serves bank interests to be welcoming to customers and to project an image of security, success, and safety. However, pernicious stereotypes of Black people as lawbreakers position Black customers as threatening when they enter banks. #BankingWhileBlack means being thought of as a wrongdoer at best or a criminal at worst when simply attempting to use bank services like cashing a check.
One particularly egregious case of racial discrimination at a bank happened in January 2020 when Sauntore Thomas attempted to deposit a lawsuit settlement check he received after being racially discriminated against by his former employer in Livonia, Michigan. Thomas says he was treated as if he was engaging in fraud; the bank called the police. The bank manager, who was Black, repeatedly asked Thomas how he got the money, highlighting systemic racism at play.
In other words, the behavior and assumptions of all bank employees, regardless of their race, can be affected by banking culture where racial biases are deeply embedded, even when the employees themselves are Black. As a 2019 New York Times article asserts, “There are few Black executives in the upper echelons of most financial institutions. Leading banks have recently paid restitution to Black employees for isolating them from white peers, placing them in the poorest branches and cutting them off from career opportunities.” When the culture of a corporation engages in racial discrimination, it is so entrenched that all levels typically follow suit.
#BankingWhileBlack affects all African Americans, regardless of their socioeconomic status. For example, former NFL player Jimmy Kennedy was discriminated against by a JPMorgan Chase Arizona branch in 2018 where he wished to attain private client status but was given the runaround. He was told by a Black bank employee that his race and size made other employees fear him.
A 2019 New York Magazine article on Ben Crump begins with a description of a meeting Crump had with a finance executive who was arrested for attempting to cash a $2,000 check at a bank he mistakenly assumed was the correct one. He spent part of the night in jail as a result of the bank’s wrongful actions. Deciding not to pursue a lawsuit, he signed a nondisclosure agreement for a settlement.
Both examples remind us that one’s level of education, occupation, or personal wealth provides little protection when banking while Black.
Restaurants and stores have historically been places where Black people report feeling unwelcome, insulted, treated differently, or feared. Regardless of geographic locale, income bracket, or age, most Black people know the feeling of being closely watched or followed when shopping. Sometimes a Black person feels that they wait longer for a store employee to assist them; at other times, they may feel overtly harassed or targeted. Shopping while Black means always being presumed to be guilty, being accused of shoplifting, or being regarded with suspicion at all kinds of retails stores from drugstores, to department stores, to high-end designer stores, and malls.
A review of the most recent data (a 2018 Gallup poll), suggests that 59% of African Americans said they are treated less fairly than white Americans in shopping malls and other stores. In that poll, 29% of African Americans felt they had received unfair treatment while shopping in the last 30 days, a higher percentage than those who felt unfair treatment at work or in interactions with the police.
A high-profile story made the news in 2013 when Oprah Winfrey said she was discriminated against in a high-end store in Zurich, Switzerland (CNN). She reportedly went into the store and asked a saleswoman to show her an expensive bag that cost close to $40,000. Rather than taking the bag down to show her, the saleswoman steered her away from the bag (despite Winfrey asking several times to see it), stressing how expensive it was. Although the store and saleswoman claimed this incident was a misunderstanding, it symbolizes how Black people are made to feel they do not belong even when they are eager consumers.
One could say shopping (including window shopping and making purchases) is an American pastime. However, consumer racial profiling can make shopping trips stressful and unpleasant for Black people. Sociologist Cassi Pittman writes, “retail settings are often sites where anti-Black bias is made evident, requiring Black shoppers to navigate racial hierarchies while procuring goods. Second, discrimination alters the experience of shopping, arguably raising the costs and reducing the rewards derived from consumption. When a store’s sales staff is hesitant to serve Black shoppers or suspects that they are prospective shoplifters, shopping no longer becomes a form of leisure.”
Shopping while Black is yet another example of how discrimination affects even the regular daily activities of Black people.
The commercial airline industry has a history of excluding Black people. The first African American flight attendant and pilot were not hired until 1958 and 1964, respectively.
In Louwanda Evans’s Cabin Pressure: African American Pilots, Flight Attendants, and Emotional Labor, she discusses how Black crewmembers experience systemic racism at work, particularly the extra, invisible work that being a Black person in the airline industry entails. Evans writes that the industry “has developed as a white space—a space in which whites, especially white males, created and continue to maintain the ideological and normative frameworks of who belongs and doesn’t belong in the cockpit” and, one could say, the cabin as well. Consider data from the 2019 Bureau of Labor and Statistics that African Americans make up only 3% of commercial pilots in the United States.
Whether a Black person is flying the plane, working on a plane, or traveling by plane, they are likely to encounter racial bias. In Yale professor and poet Claudia Rankine’s autobiographical collection of poetry and prose, Citizen, she recounts being treated as lesser-than when two passengers realize their seats are next to her. One passenger looks at Rankine and tells her mother, “these are our seats, but this is not what I expected.” This brief encounter is an example of the microaggressions and subtle instances of racial prejudice that often go unreported or remain unpublicized.
More overt examples of racism on planes frequently make the news or are shared on social media, accounting for the #FlyingWhileBlack hashtag. Racial incidents on American Airlines were so bad that in 2017 the NAACP issued a national travel advisory for African Americans flying this airline. These incidents happen on all airlines and typically include but are not limited to instances of Black people being removed from flights, being treated poorly by flight attendants and other airline employees, being subjected to racial harassment from fellow passengers, and being questioned when sitting in First Class.
The phrase “I can’t breathe” can be seen on cardboard signs, t-shirts, and face masks; it has been graffitied on walls and unveiled on yard signs. The words have been worn, shouted, or displayed by activists, protestors, allies, artists, professional athletes, and celebrities.
Although Eric Garner was not the first Black person to utter these words before being killed by police, the phrase first gained attention when Garner was killed in 2014 after uttering “I can’t breathe” fourteen times before losing consciousness and later dying at the hands of police.
Tragically, George Floyd said these same words over 20 times when begging for his life in May 2020. Police officer Derek Chauvin continued to press his knee on Floyd’s neck, telling him, “It takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to talk.”
We will never know how many Black men and women have told officers “I can’t breathe” before perishing, but we know that Javier Ambler (TX), Manuel Ellis (WA), Elijah McClain (CO), Derrick Scott (OK), Bryon Williams (NV), Christopher Loew (NV), and others have said these words before being killed (see this New York Times
article for more examples). When we #SayTheirNames, we use our breath, calling attention to the fact that they were tragically unable to breathe at the end of their lives.
One of the basic requirements for human life is breathing. The words “I can’t breathe” have become a slogan that not only condemns the torture and murder of Black people by police, but speaks more generally to all the ways Black people are denied basic human rights. “I can’t breathe” means that African Americans metaphorically cannot breathe; they are still treated like second-class citizens.
Rev. Al Sharpton powerfully said it best when he repeated, “Get your knee off our necks,” at George Floyd’s memorial service in Minneapolis. Sharpton’s words connect a history of Black oppression, protest, and resistance to the contemporary moment, underscoring the fundamental purpose of Black Lives Matter.
Allowing Black people to breathe and matter is one of the least things this country can do for a group of people that has been and continues to be maligned and oppressed.