The brutal and senseless killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officers has become a flash point across America. This black man’s death was one of hundreds perpetrated by law enforcement officials over the past decade, and it has broken the dam holding back the black community’s collective anger.
How would I know? As a black woman who grew up in St. Louis, I’ve seen strong, smart black people held down my whole life.
As a black woman whose first apartment was in Ferguson, Mo., in the Canfield Green Apartments, steps away from where Michael Brown was shot, I’ve felt the ripples of violence against black people from every corner of our nation.
As a black woman who moved to Minneapolis temporarily to work for Prince, then stayed to chase the seemingly endless opportunities this region holds, I’ve witnessed brilliant, hardworking black people reach for prosperity and security only to have them yanked away.
The messages we hear are couched in terms of “not for you.” This type of success is not for you. This level of safety and well-being is not for you. This advantage, resource, accolade … this basic human right: If you are black, it is not for you.
I am black. And like all black Americans, I am suffocating on the injustices America perpetuates. We have borne the yoke of systemic racism for far too long.
Widespread institutional racism has been choking the life out of us for over 400 years, with countless American systems pressing a knee to our necks. In fact, I’m writing this essay during the 99-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. On June 1, 1921, a mob of white Oklahomans attacked the successful and prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, killing an estimated 300 black people and burning more than 1,200 houses, leaving 8,000 blacks homeless and destitute.
It was one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history, but it was actively covered up by state authorities and the press, and omitted from U.S. history books until the late 1970s. Makes you wonder how many unknown atrocities against black communities have taken place over time, doesn’t it? And it calls to mind Will Smith’s astute observation that “racism is not getting worse; it’s getting filmed.”
Violence against black Americans doesn’t just take the form of murder and destruction of property. All of the systems that support “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” have been calibrated to keep us down. Here in Minnesota, the disparities are especially appalling.
According to recent census estimates, blacks make up less than 6% of Minnesota’s overall population, but 35% of our imprisoned population. Standardized test scores for white students are about 20% higher than those of African-Americans, giving Minnesota the second widest educational achievement gap in the nation.
Poverty among black Minnesotans is a staggering 32%. Compared with whites, black residents are disproportionately more likely to have loan applications rejected and nearly three times as likely to be unemployed.
I could go on. I could go on for a long time. Statistics across health care, technology access, legal system treatment and more underline the ubiquity of deep, ingrained racism in our state. In fact, my research and personal experience leads me to believe there isn’t a single category in which black Minnesotans draw level with our white counterparts.
On top of that, our inequities are reinforced by the apparent unwillingness of lawmakers to enact meaningful change. Statistics highlighting racial disparity are public knowledge, yet our standing in Minnesota remains unchanged.
When I look at the nauseating footage of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, I don’t just see his brutal individual sociopathy. I see former officers Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas K. Lane doing nothing to prevent violence and injustice. I witnessed blatant disregard for black life, and it pisses me off.
That’s right, I’m furious about the ways in which our country puts a knee to our necks every day. If you think it’s only poor black people who are angry about relentless, systemic racism, think again. I’m a successful black businesswoman, and I’m livid. I am sick of watching black people get snuffed out by rigged social structures, biased justice systems and pervasive white apathy.
Black people can’t breathe. We’ve been struggling for breath for centuries. We’ve been fighting back against systems designed to choke the life out of us, and we’re still fighting. But without consistent and strategic action from the white majority, we will continue to gasp for air.
So what can white people do? A lot. To channel Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy,” you can ask yourself some tough questions.
Are you open to being in close proximity with people who don’t look like you on a regular basis? Have you reached out to your black friends and acquaintances during this crisis to express your empathy? And if you don’t have black friends, well, now that’s a problem.
How are you bridging the opportunity gap? Do you contribute to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), Way to Grow, or the Sanneh Foundation? When you promote mentorships, scholarships, fellowships and internships, do you make sure those opportunities are accessible to black youths?
White business leaders, policymakers and community organizers, are you championing change or sitting idly by?
Are you having uncomfortable conversations? Do you prioritize your own need for comfort over a just and equitable world?
As I’ve watched the events of this past week unfold, I’ve had one of Prince’s songs playing in my head. In “Dear Mr. Man,” he sings:
Your thousand years are up / now you got to share the land …
Mr. Man, we want to end this letter with 3 words:
“We tired a-y’all.”
Black people are tired. Black people are fed up. This country puts its knee to our necks every day of our lives.
White America, it’s time for you to let us breathe.
Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, of Minneapolis, is CEO of the Rae Mackenzie Group, a diversity, equity and inclusion marketing firm.