Photo courtesy of Dr. Donaldson.
Anthony M. Donaldson, Jr, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of History at Sewanee: The University of the South. His work explores the intersectionality of race, class, and identity in America.
Earlier this week, Michael Baden and Dr. Allecia Wilson performed George Floyd’s autopsy. Asphyxiation resulted from “neck and back compression,” i.e., sustained pressure, which “led to a lack of blood flow to the brain.” Translation for Black victims: “I CAN’T BREATHE.” Also, reports announced Floyd contracted COVID-19. Shortly after, Hennepin County medical examiner attributed Floyd’s death to “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” In other words, Floyd’s underlying health problems caused his death.
Regardless of medical jargon, Floyd was murdered. Floyd’s tragic death embodied the life of so many Black Americans. Imagine a country where Black people die from sickness and are sick of dying at the hands of law enforcement. Black people are both Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and John Henry’s invincible hand. America not only ignores Black plight, but also perpetuates narratives that Black bodies are impervious to pain. Unfortunately, Black Americans internalize these myths by priding themselves on resilience and an unhealthy code of silence. Black people in America cry without tears. These attitudes allow America to disregard this heinous act against Floyd as a one-off.
America deprived Black people writ large of oxygen with residential segregation, environmental racism, and mass incarceration before Floyd’s public execution. Floyd, a Black father, died not only from asphyxiation caused by Derek Chauvin’s knee, but also suffocated from America’s smoldering hatred. Likewise, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Sam Dubose, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling, Jamar Clark, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and so many others also suffocated from racism well before the final blow delivered by law enforcement. The embers of racism still burn from the Civil Rights Movement. America ignored the smoke signals of a people being choked to death.
James Baldwin warned us to prepare for The Fire Next Time. It’s fascinating how a closeted agnostic/atheist understood prophecy. Today we don’t need Firemen we need fire, man. Revisionist history forgot the legacy of Dr. King, who told activist-singer Harry Belafonte he felt like he led his people into a burning house. King warned, “[O]ur nation’s summers of riots are caused by our winter’s delay.” After King’s death, SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael warned America that they killed their last hope for a peaceful solution. If the 1965 Watts uprising alone did not reflect the hot racial climate in America, other rebellions in Newark (1967), Detroit (1967), several following Dr. Martin Luther King’s death (1968), and Miami (1980), Los Angeles (1992), and Ferguson (2014) provide adequate proof that fire is imminent.
In 1968 historian Lerone Bennet, Jr., warned: “[H]istory arranged that America will have to face itself through Black people or go under.” How long can American capitalism rely on a subordinate class of Black bodies? In 1963, on average white families’ wealth was $121,000 higher than the average wealth of nonwhite families. Today the average white family has a net worth of $171,000, which is nearly ten times greater than that of the average Black family ($17,150). These quantitative data have qualitative implications. Decades of wealth disparities combined with racial inequities have culminated in something worse than uprisings. They have revealed a decaying democracy. Historians and community activists are not surprised by the uprising, but instead, we are more impressed by America’s ability to control its citizens this long.
The federal government suffocated Black people in 1934 when white authorities supplied FHA loans to establish housing for white families, excluding African Americans from the opportunity to process generational wealth. As a result, the FHA developed discriminatory practices like “redlining” to ensure that deserving Black families could not get loans to own a home. According to Elizabeth Cohen’s Consumer Republic, Americans associated the ability to own property with American citizenship. Consequently, Black families were restricted to overcrowded public housing projects and denied land ownership. Bob Self’s American Babylon claims that in 1950, 90% of the cities’ Black population was restricted to 22% of its landmass in West and North Oakland. Similarly, in William Chafe’s Civilities and Civil Rights, in 1960, more than 90 percent of the Greensboro Black population was restricted to less than 10 percent of its landmass.
This single act prevented Blacks from building generational wealth in the form of home equity, which was available to white homeowners. To make matters worse, Black housing conditions were deplorable. White slum lords, who refused to fix leaky roofs even as they increased rent prices, wielded unbridled power over Black communities. Poor Blacks organized to change policies because of these residential roadblocks. By 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, which removed discriminatory restrictions. But this action was too little too late. White families got a 30-year head start establishing equity and financial literacy. By the time Black families joined the homeowning process, prices were unaffordable. The long-term effect of America’s racist land policies were devastating. Black Americans own less than 1 percent of America’s rural land. Conversely, white Americans own more than 98 percent of U.S. land worth more than $1 trillion.
In communities of color throughout America, overcrowded neighborhoods are exposed to air pollution, food deserts, and poisoned water. Black children inherit these unbreathable conditions. The environmental justice movement started with Black bodies. In 1982 North Carolina decided to dump 60,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil in the majority Black area of Warren County. Also, John Hopkin’s reported that minority neighborhoods are more likely located in food deserts. Lack of access to healthy-affordable foods deprives Black families opportunities to pursue preventative care through their diets. Today, the contaminated water of Flint, Michigan, courses through Black bodies. These pollutants choke Black communities and have created health disparities among Black Americans.
While COVID-19 has exposed these health disparities, they have always been there. Black sickness in America is manmade. Black Americans can’t breathe because America will not acknowledge the warning signs. Dr. Sharrelle Barber, Assistant Research Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Drexel University, has helped lead the charge against America’s racial/ethnic health inequalities. According to Barber, Black health disparities are mainly caused by preventable diseases, ranging from diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression. Higher postpartum depression among Black women than that experienced by white women has been reported.
Rather than alleviate these preventable and often manmade health conditions, Black people self-medicate and internalize the pain because of their lack of access to affordable healthcare, mental health taboos, and even forms of John Henyrism (see John Henry black folklore). In the 1970s, Dr. Sherman Leonard Syme first observed that Black low-income families face more stress than more economically privileged families. In 1983 Dr. Sherman James coined the term John Henryism, which posits that Blacks who exhibit high levels of drive and success can be susceptible to various diseases.
On October 14, 1982, President Ronald Reagan doubled down on Nixon’s War On Drugs, claiming that drugs threatened national security. These policies increased surveillance in Black neighborhoods and invaded the personal space of Black bodies. Black men couldn’t breathe without the gaze of law enforcement. After Reagan increased agency funding and created draconian mandatory sentencing laws, media outlets joined the hysteria by releasing images of “crack” houses filled with Black and brown bodies. In 1985 fewer than 5 percent of Americans thought drugs were essential to national security, but by 1989 more than 60 percent of Americans feared an invasion of Black crack addicts into their safe white neighborhoods. Reagan’s drug policies of 1986 represented a shift from drug use as a public health issue to criminalizing Black and brown drug offenders.
There was no rehabilitation or redemption for Blacks during the Crack Era. Black mass incarceration rates rose by more than 900 percent after new drug laws were implemented. In 1971, America’s prison population was approximately 200,000, and today, it is over 2 million. Over the next decade, Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill and its three-strikes provision and Mike Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk laws in New York increased Black arrests. The ramifications of harsh drug laws extended beyond mass incarceration, negatively affecting employment, child custody, student aid, public housing, and voting rights for people with criminal convictions.
Despite these prophetic warnings, America has oppressed Black people without relent. Despite making up 13 percent of the U.S. population, Black Americans are two-and-a-half times as likely as white Americans to be killed by the police. Race relations in America have reached a boiling point. The unemployment rate for Black teens is 28 percent. Trump’s declaration that when the “looting starts the shooting starts” is a dog whistle to those MAGA supporters who voted for him in 2016.
We are at a dangerous crossroads. Too many people think America is impervious to a revolution, and that’s simply not true. Rome fell from within. France lost Haiti to its slaves. In 1917 Vladimir Lenin completed the Bolshevik Revolution within months. America is overextended like the British Empire. But rather than falling from colonial exhaustion, America suffers from a disease more contagious than COVID. As White America burns from racism, Black America chokes from the smoke. The uprising is not apocalyptic but rather its another warning sign from those choking at the bottom. America too will suffocate unless it removes the knees of economic and racial injustices from Black Americans’ necks.