We have been aware for some time that African Americans and other minorities are taking a much more severe hit from Covid19 than whites: more cases and more deaths proportionate to population. It has been correctly pointed out that the minority population suffers disproportionately from preexisting conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, which make them more vulnerable to the virus. Add to that vulnerability the reduced access to medical care that many poor minority populations suffer.
Many have noticed that these preexisting conditions (including deficient access to health care) are related to poverty, but they are also related to race: poor white people in Appalachia are not, so far, seeing rates of infection and death as high as what we’re seeing among African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Being black is hazardous to your health in America.
This week, with the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman, we have once more been brought face to face with a plague of a different sort: the deeply rooted white racism that has marked our society from its inception. Many, but not all incidents of white-on-black violence involve the police, as in Minneapolis. But there are other cases—Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery—that were self-appointed vigilantes. Most victims are black men, but black women are not immune (Breonna Taylor in Louisville, a very recent example). Most victims are young, but George Floyd was 39.
One way or another, our society still keeps Native Americans, African Americans and Latino Americans down. The police are a principal tool for this mission.
The Minneapolis medical examiner said he found no evidence of strangulation, even though Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The medical examiner said he found “preexisting conditions” such as heart disease that could have contributed to Floyd’s death in police custody. Chauvin has nonetheless been charged with murder and manslaughter. The other officers present were fired, but have not at this writing been charged. Chauvin can certainly use the medical examiner’s report in his own defense when/if he comes to trial.
In almost all cases where a police officer has killed a black victim, extenuating circumstances like the medical examiner’s report permit the officers either to avoid punishment entirely or to get off with reprimands. When officers do go to trial, it is extremely rare that a jury will unanimously vote to convict an officer: jury selection will usually have excluded most black jurors, and white jurors typically will give the benefit of the doubt to the officer.
The problem thus has multiple layers. There are the “bad cops” who actually commit violence on blacks. There is the reluctance or refusal of other officers to testify against the “bad cops.” There is the tolerance of bad behavior on the part of judges and juries. There is the demagogic rhetoric of politicians who advance their careers by being “tough on crime.” The result: being black is to risk your life at the hands of police, anytime, anywhere.
We, all of us white folks, form the innermost layer of this problem. We are the heirs of a society founded on the assumption that white colonists had the right to dispossess and annihilate the Native Americans who were here first, that they had the right to kidnap Africans and enslave them, that they had the right to seize half the national territory of our neighbor, Mexico, and treat the people who lived there as second class citizens. One way or another, our society still keeps Native Americans, African Americans and Latino Americans down. The police are a principal tool for this mission.
Some of us have awakened to the problem and are trying to address it; others don’t see it at all. Some optimists think it’s possible for us finally to eliminate racism from our society. I don’t think that’s possible: racism is too central to who we are. But we are human beings first, before we are Americans. And as human beings we can and must struggle against racism—our own racist heritage and culture.