OPINION: I’m tired and I can’t breathe either

Tiana Day wears a mask that reads I Can’t Breathe before speaking in San Francisco June 6, 2020, at a protest over the Memorial Day death of George Floyd. AP PHOTO / JEFF CHIU

Tiana Day wears a mask that reads I Can’t Breathe before speaking in San Francisco June 6, 2020, at a protest over the Memorial Day death of George Floyd. AP PHOTO / JEFF CHIU

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In the nearly three weeks since George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, thousands of people of all colors and stripes have been calling on America to finally live up to that ideal.

Please, listen to them, to us.

We can’t breathe.

The last time we heard this cry for air, a New York City police officer had Eric Garner in a chokehold. That was in 2014. Garner died. Police didn’t listen then and they didn’t listen three weeks ago when George Floyd pleaded for his life.

If you’re wondering if things might be different had we listened four years ago to former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, had we joined him in taking a knee instead of taking his protest out of context, I hear you. I’ve been wondering the same thing.

Sadly, I saw this coming. We’ve been picking at this scab for so long, it was bound to break open sooner rather than later.

This is what happens when we can’t be bothered hearing the cries of the oppressed, when we keep electing politicians devoted to maintaining the status quo, who’d rather mischaracterize kneeling as an assault against the flag than attend to the suffering of fellow human beings.

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Ahmaud Arbery is chased down and killed. Breonna Taylor is assassinated in her own home in the middle of the night. And George Floyd dies with his face pressed in the pavement, his hands cuffed behind his back for all the world to see.

It was one more time in a long line of instances when I wanted to switch off the television because it just hurt too much to watch. I felt the same way when I witnessed Buffalo officers shove a 75-year-old white protester to the ground, then keep walking as blood pooled around his head.

It was another case study of not only black life, but also of the state of America’s heart.

I’ve been writing about this kind of injustice it seems my entire adult life. I won’t apologize for that but I’m so tired, I can’t breathe either.

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We don’t want to believe that our racist history is actually an ongoing, racist reality. We blame black culture instead. Black people are lazy. Black people commit more crime. And black people like me have chips on our shoulders.

Young Roman Thomas, 7, stands with his father, Ro Thomas. More than 1,000 people gathered for an Atlanta Community March in honor of George Floyd’s funeral on June 4, 2020. It started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta. The people were dressed in their “Sunday best” as an “artistic and peaceful protest/march.” RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM

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White denial hardens the hearts and obfuscates the vision of far too many whites and in so doing blocks the chance of any change or reform. It is as the great James Baldwin said: “(i)t is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

Truth is even those of us who manage to carve out some semblance of success have done so by ducking and weaving around racist systems that in the end contribute to the high rates of stress, diabetes and hypertension in our community.

I’m bombarded by well-meaning whites who like to point out to me that they grew up poor, too, that they had to struggle, too. I’d never discount the struggles of anyone, but which of them have had to struggle just because of the color of their skin?

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There are a lot of whites, of course, who get it. They understand how white privilege automatically affords them certain advantages and opportunities blacks are less likely to enjoy. They’ve even joined with protesters, decrying police brutality and systemic racism.

I, for one, appreciate that more than you know.

And I’m heartened by the hundreds of companies, including this one, that have made public statements against racism and injustice and announced donations and other support since the death of George Floyd unleashed protests across the United States.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Atlanta protests

I hope it isn’t just talk. I hope that after pledging to support social justice organizations, they will seek to hire more people of color, afford them the same opportunities for growth as whites, make sure their wages are on par with their white counterparts, and when they are not, do something about that.

There have been protests in Atlanta in the wake of deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans. The sign held by this protester on May 29, 2020, is a reaction to the Minneapolis police officer who had his knee on Floyd’s neck before Floyd died. JENNI GIRTMAN FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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I listened intently when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted the league was wrong four years ago in its handling of players’ protests against racial injustice and police brutality. I listened for the name of the player who started it all, but Goodell never mentioned Colin Kaepernick’s name.

He should have. It was Kaepernick after all who lost his job, whom the NFL blackballed.

The apology was a good first step, but if Goodell is sincere, he’ll see to it Colin Kaepernick gets a contract.

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And he’ll remember hopefully that the current state of our nation is not only because there are active avowed racists in America, but also because of the passive acceptance of an unjust system by the racially indifferent, whose apathy is as deadly as the active racists’ hatred.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

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Borrowing former Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum’s metaphor, if we visualize systemic racism as an airport conveyor belt along which active racists gallop ahead, passive racists end up the same place as the active ones if they just stand still on the same walkway, even if they turn around. In her words, “unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt — unless they are actively antiracist — they will find themselves carried along with the others.”

Honestly, indifference isn’t just limited to white folks. Until injustice happens to them, a lot of black folks explain away systemic racism, too. Are they just as guilty of putting a knee on the neck of blacks?

Sad to say but yes, they are.

Witness the video of the Morehouse and Spelman college students being tased, dragged from their car, and arrested by black officers for, well, being black.

It’s unclear what preceded the incident, but Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields told reporters that “how we behaved is unacceptable.”

I once had a black manager who for nearly a decade withheld a week of vacation from me even though my more immediate white supervisor had given the OK for it. It was only after I sought relief from the newsroom human resources officer that he finally relented.

That was especially hard. It still hurts that he would do that for no apparent good reason except it was in his power to do.

The idea that all men are created equal, that we are endowed by the Creator with the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness is a good one.

It won’t be realized, however, until all of us are allowed to breathe. Unobstructed.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.