Ever since I can remember, I've had a condition called asthma. When the weather gets chilly and the air is crisp, my airways arbitrarily decide that the best way to keep me alive is to constrict to the point where little to no air gets to my lungs. Though I've outgrown dealing with the symptoms for the most part, occasionally a spurt of hard running or a cloud of dust can bring back that old, familiar feeling. Gasping for breath.
Unable to fill my lungs.
Desperately hoping something will stop the physiological emergency causing the panic visible in my eyes.
I’ve thought about asthma more in the last couple of weeks than I have in several years. It's not that the weather has taken a turn for the cold, though you wouldn't find me complaining if Abilene suddenly returned to 90 degree days. It's that asthma links me to a man I wish was still alive.
Eric Garner couldn't breathe. I can't bring myself to watch the video of his death, but I'm guessing he struggled against the officer's choke-hold. If that's the case, I can't fault him. I've been in situations in which I was struggling for air while wrestling with kids in a pool, and I've felt legitimate terror when I thought I wouldn't be able to get them off my neck in time for me to draw a breath. There's nothing I've experienced worse than being unable to breathe.
Which means Garner's final words haunt me. Nine times he chokes out the words, "I can't breathe." Nine times.
Eric Garner and I have something in common. And yet, our experiences in the world have been so different.
Things aren't as fair as they should be in the world. Whether you examine the ways racial minorities are treated in the workplace, how they are portrayed in the media, arrest statistics, or any number of other issues, I have it easier because of my skin color. Institutions are naturally going to favor the groups that built them and the people that continue to control them, and even though positive strides have been made and continue to be made, the process of changing institutions is hard and slow.
Institutional biases affect us all. I'll give an example from my own life. I served as the Camp Director of Camp of the Hills for four years, and during that time I was in charge of hiring counselors. I had been trained by former directors not only to value diversity, but to seek out counselors who would be more representative of our campers. (CotH typically hosted campers from major metropolitan areas such as Houston, D/FW, and Oklahoma City, with a racial breakdown of about 40% Latino, 30% Black, and 30% White)
Despite this belief in who I should be recruiting, I mostly sought out counselors from groups I already new well, such as Abilene Christian University students and college groups in my hometown of Bryan/College Station. These were all mostly White spaces, and though I worked to recruit People of Color from those locations, I look back and regret not visiting more Historically Black Colleges/Universities and predominantly Black churches. My desire to recruit from a place of comfort hurt Camp of the Hills by not exposing a more diverse group of people to the opportunity to minister to those awesome kids. I could have done more. I should have done more.
I believe that well meaning people, organizations, and institutions can all be tainted by these biases. It's often unintentional, but that doesn't mean it's alright.
I wish I had some sort of really deep and magical solution to these challenges, but to be honest, I am woefully unable to change anything. Eric Garner is dead, like so many others whose death can, at least in part, be attributed to the racial biases that still plague our society.
The only thing I can think to suggest to White folks is to do a better job of listening. Sit down at a table with a friend who doesn't look like you and have some conversation. Ask some questions that might make you uncomfortable. Figure out how race has affected their life. Be willing to sit quietly and truly listen to someone else. It's a worthwhile skill to practice anyway.
I hate to ask for more time and patience from folks who have collectively been forced to wait for a more just world for a long time, but if you're on the other side of the table on one of these conversations, I'd ask for a little more grace. Speaking autobiographically, I would never have made it to where I am today if it weren't for some spectacularly kind and patient People of Color who walked alongside me while I tried to better understand the world beyond my own perspective.
Which brings me back to Eric Garner. I cannot fully understand all the anger and frustration of the Black community. As someone who has always felt safe around police officers and have the privilege to work alongside some of the best in my efforts at community development, I often feel an inclination to remain silent when there is any dispute about justice with regards to law enforcement.
But today, I can't help but to raise my voice. I can't stop myself from saying that it's not fair that the man who killed Eric Garner was not at least indicted. I can't pretend like this is acceptable.
I can't breathe.