Systemic racism is killing us

Legislatively speaking

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Lena C. Taylor

In 2014, Eric Garner struggled to utter the words “I can’t breathe” as a New York police officer held him in a choke hold. Accused of selling cigarettes in bulk, the NYPD officer knocked Garner to the ground with his arm firmly around his neck. At least 11 times the phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ was uttered by Mr Garner before he died of neck and chest compression. In the days and months since his death, those three words have become a rallying cry.

Protesters flooded the streets chanting and demanding change, under the mantra of “I can’t breathe”. Listening to activists and supporters, it was clear that the pain they felt was deep. The call for change went beyond this moment. It extended to other facets of black life. It encompassed policing, corrections, housing and education. Changes were needed in food deserts, employment, urban infrastructure, drinking water and economic development. “I Can’t Breathe” metaphorically represented all of the inequalities, in a variety of systems, that have unfairly affected black people.

In fact, it’s overwhelming when you think about all the ways in which inequality manifests itself. A mass shooting in Buffalo revealed the affected neighborhood had waited nearly 40 years for a grocery store, after a freeway system was built through the heart of their community. Months before Eric Garner’s death, city and state officials in Flint, Michigan, made Taylor’s decision to disrupt the water supply for the mostly black community. State-appointed emergency officials mandated a switch from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River as the city’s drinking water source. For 18 months, residents faced smelly, discolored water. Many lost their hair, developed rashes, and children in the city experienced increased lead in their blood.

Deliberate decisions were made to put some people at risk. Just as Garner sold these cigarettes in bulk, black communities were targeted by tobacco companies. Federal regulators barred them from advertising to their primary customers – young people, so the industry put the black community in their sights. Today, approximately 45,000 African Americans die each year from smoking-related illnesses. Additionally, African American children are more likely to be exposed to second-hand smoke than any other racial or ethnic group. WE CAN’T BREATHE!

I want you to understand that I could do this all day. I could connect dot after dot, policy after policy, and system after system, that incorporated racism, intentionally harmful actions, or unintended consequences directed at black people. Jackson, Mississippi and their water crisis is just the latest episode of willful neglect. The predominantly black capital, made up of more than 150,000 inhabitants, has been deprived of drinking water for a month. Residents and officials had known for decades that the main water plant needed upgrading. Like Flint, officials have been slow to respond. As in the Garner case, the systems that should be in place to protect us are killing us. Not one to throw the first stone, Wisconsin certainly comes with its share of problems too. Bias and inequalities in public services, the allocation of dollars and resources, and in the maintenance of infrastructure have a cost. It’s a shame that many decision makers don’t realize that we all end up paying the price.

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