Breathing While Black: The Virus of Racism

We had hoped the chokehold of the American police system on a black man, when they killed Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes by choking him, even as he cried “I can’t breathe,” would be the last of such actions. Of course we were wrong. We had to bear witness to George Floyd’s case in Minneapolis also.

We had hoped Trayvon Martin getting shot for being in a white neighbourhood would be the last of such cases. Of course we were wrong. We had to bear witness to Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting too.

We had hoped the endless cases of white people calling the police on black women and black men would fade away. Of course we were wrong. We had to bear witness to the police being called on Christian Cooper this week in New York City.

Like the virus currently affecting the entire world, American racism, police prejudices and police brutality are old viruses that never went away; viruses which seemingly have no vaccine. No one has tried hard enough to develop one, actually.

Like the sly exhortations of ‘getting used to’ living with the coronavirus, there have been a sly suggestions of getting used to living with the virus of racial discrimination. Of getting used to holding a socially-inferior position.

Also read: Harassed and Ostracised: Racist Attacks Against Northeast Citizens on the Rise

All those advocating for revolutionary moral transformations that the COVID-19 “we are all in it together” experience will bestow on everyone will have to recalibrate their idealism. It seems as though not a bit of the old, pre-COVID biases have receded or been tempered even times of such adversity.

Whether in the midwest, the south or smack in the middle of New York and its iconic Central Park, a black body poses the same quantum of threat as before. By just existing. By just being a living, breathing human being.

Scores of articles are calling the bluff on some sort of shared, strengthening experience that the coronavirus represents. If anything, the effects of the virus are only exacerbating social divisions in the US.

As a Boston Review piece titled, ‘We’re Not All In It Together’ puts it bluntly:

“Thus, saying that ‘we are all in this together’ is misleading. It fundamentally ignores the fact that some Americans are ‘in it’ more than others – and need more help. COVID-19 will divide more than it unites, effectively worsening the disparities that have existed for years.”

The virus of racism has lodged itself inside the heads of many white Americans. It is part of their mental makeup now. It has been choking the African-American body for decades now. The black body is gasping for breath. The Senegalese philosopher Achille Mbembe, in a recent piece titled ‘The Universal Right to Breathe’, writes that:

“Before this virus, humanity was already threatened with suffocation. If war there must be, it cannot so much be against a specific virus as against everything that condemns the majority of humankind to a premature cessation of breathing, everything that fundamentally attacks the respiratory tract, everything that, in the long reign of capitalism, has constrained entire segments of the world population, entire races, to a difficult, panting breath and life of oppression.”

America has several viruses it needs to tackle, old and new. The COVID-19 situation has not been the moment of change it is touted as being. Even then, African-Americans themselves, as always, present a gracious and hopeful vision, such as academic Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor when she says: “But even as African-Americans and undocumented immigrants prepare to experience the worst of this crisis, social distance may illustrate a new social connection.”

The philosopher Cornel West has characterised Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work as a part of which he preached “radical love” as pneumatology, a study of the Holy Spirit in Christian theology. The term derives its etymology from the Greek word pneuma, meaning breath or spirit.

King’s work is a kind of prophetic pneumatology in motion – a kinetic orality, passionate physicality, and combative spirituality that wedded mind to movement, soul to sustenance, and body to empowerment. Like his most worthy theological precursor, Howard Thurman, King pulled from the rich insights of Western thinkers, yet he elevated the lived experiences of wounded, scarred, and bruised bodies of enslaved and Jim-Crowed black peoples to enact radical love.

The breath of African-Americans is continually being stifled and it seems even a radical King would have felt a weakening in going about his prophetic pneumatology. At his bidding, African-Americans have endlessly given themselves and their radical love, but the unremitting virus of hate has not ceased sucking the air out of their lungs.

Umang Kumar is a writer in Delhi-NCR. He believes in solidarities with global struggles.

Featured image credit: Reuters