“I can’t breathe.”
Two weeks ago, I couldn’t have imagined I’d hear that phrase outside the context of the coronavirus pandemic. But two weeks ago, I didn’t know the name George Floyd. Two weeks ago, I hadn’t seen the video of a brutal Minneapolis police officer choking Floyd to death with his knee on his throat while the man pleaded for his life, a breath, and his mother.
In the days since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve seen “I can’t breathe” on demonstration signs and news tickers. On T-shirts and in hashtags. I saw it on a handmade poster my son carried to a protest in Greeley, Colorado. I bet I’ve seen “I can’t breathe” 1,000 times in the past two weeks. And somewhere between one and a thousand, it occurred to me — “I can’t breathe” aren’t just George Floyd’s final words. They’re a testament to how people of color feel in this country every day.
Imagine, living every day without the ability to take a full breath.
But see, that’s our challenge. Most people of non-color can’t really imagine what that feels like. The vast majority of us, don’t know what it feels like to have to work twice as hard. To endure no, after no, after no in a job interview. Not because you can’t do the job. But because of how you look. Or how you sound. Or how your hair looks.
Most of us have never been turned down for a bank loan or an apartment before ever saying a word. We drive where we want. We eat where we want. We shop where we want, run where we want, drink where we want, date where we want and we do it all without ever feeling afraid. But, more and more, I’m understanding that’s not the experience for people of color.
For too long, I’ve insulated myself from the colossal size of the truth, understanding that our country treated plenty of people like this, but not the ones I know. Not the professionals I know and respect and count on and love and work with every day. It was sobering to watch every hand of color in our company go up when I asked who experienced systemic racism on a regular basis. This is not the world I thought I was living in.
I’m not naïve to the existence of racism. I grew up outside Detroit in the 60s and 70s and remember the race riots and how they affected the city. Today, I’m considering how those same race riots affected the people on the stick and tear gas and dog ends of the fight. We want so badly to believe that in the past 50 years America has made real strides when it comes to race. But in retrospect, what we took for progress was really just a series of band-aids meant to stop the bleeding without addressing the underlying cause of the wounds.
When Eric Garner was choked to death by police in July 2014, sadly uttering the exact same words as George Floyd, America was outraged. There were marches. There were protests. There was a national call to do something once and for all about racism in this country. The Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Treyvon Martin murder trial and we had an African-American President. If there was ever a time to genuinely address race relations, that was the ideal time. America was boiling. Until it simmered.
A month later when John Crawford III was killed by police in Ohio, America screamed again. And again four days later when Michael Brown was killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Since August of 2014, the angry, the frustrated, the enraged, and the bereaved have shouted “Black Lives Matter,” “stop the killing” and “this can’t happen again” after the death of Ezell Ford. And Dante Parker. And Michelle Cusseaux. Laquan McDonald. George Mann. Tanisha Anderson. Akai Gurley. Tamir Rice. Rumain Brisbon. Jerame Reid. Matthew Ajibade. Frank Smart. Natasha McKenna. Tony Robinson. Anthony Hill. Mya Hall. Phillip White. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. William Chapman II. Alexia Christian. Brendon Glenn. Victor Manuel Larosa. Jonathan Sanders. Freddie Blue. Joseph Mann. Salvado Ellswood. Sandra Bland. Albert Joseph Davis. Darrius Stewart. Billy Ray Davis. Samuel Dubose. Michael Sabbie. Brian Keith Day. Christian Taylor. Troy Robinson. Asshams Pharoah Manley. Felix Kumi. Keith Harrison McLeod. Junior Prosper. Lamontez Jones. Paterson Brown. Dominic Hutchinson. Anthony Ashford. Alonzo Smith. Tyree Crawford. India Kager. La’Vante Biggs. Michael Lee Marshall. Jamar Clark. Richard Perkins. Nathaniel Harris Pickett. Benni Lee Tignor. Miguel Espinal. Michael Noel. Kevin Matthews. Bettie Jones. Quintonio Legrier. Keith Childress Jr. Janet Wilson. Randy Nelson. Antronie Scott. Wendell Celestine. David Joseph. Calin Roquemore. Dyzhawn Perkins. Christopher Davis. Marco Loud. Peter Gaines. Torrey Robinson. Darius Robinson. Kevin Hicks. Mary Truxillo. Demarcus Semer. Willie Tillman. Terrill Thomas. Sylville Smith. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Terence Crutcher. Paul O’Neal. Alteria Woods. Jordan Edwards. Aaron Bailey. Ronell Foster. Stephon Clark. Antwon Rose II. Botham Jean. Pamela Turner. Dominique Clayton. Atatiana Jefferson. Christopher Whitfield. Christopher McCorvey. Eric Reason. Michael Lorenzo Dean. Breonna Taylor. And George Floyd.
According to The Washington Post’s database tracking police shootings, since January 1, 2015, 1,252 African Americans have been shot and killed by police and that doesn’t include those who died in police custody, or were killed using other methods. That’s not an anomaly. It’s systemic and it’s epidemic to the black community. Worst for those who died. But nearly so for the 42 million African Americans who see it and live every day in fear.
“I can’t breathe.”
For some, this all may seem hypocritical coming from a 55-year-old, white, college-educated CEO of a multi-million dollar company in Dallas, Texas. I am the very definition of white privilege as are most of the people I work with. But as someone who has spent the better part of 20 years studying leadership and culture, I also know the change has to come from within.
The first step toward fixing America’s issues with racism is for everyone who’s not a person of color to admit there are indeed issues. To stop and consider how what we think and say and do could be harmful instead of living out loud, consequences be damned. White Americans will never understand what it’s like to live in skin of a different color. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
Last week at the agency, we held the first of what I hope will be many “LOOMIS Stands In Solidarity” meetings where we had an open, honest discussion about racism, the state of the nation and, frankly, what we can do to help our country, our city, and each other heal and move forward. We are a challenger brand advertising agency. We are “the voice of the underdog.” And we are committed to leaving this world, and this issue, better than we found it. Our expertise is solving problems strategically, creatively, and thoughtfully. We don’t have the answers. And we may not for a while. But starting today, that pursuit will be part of who we are as an agency.
We can no longer ignore the harm we cause, as intentional, or unintentional as it may be. We have to be the solution. It’s time for those of us who have spent our lives enjoying the advantages this country provides, to dig deep, grapple with who, how, and why we are, to look at every person of color with new eyes, and to feel with a new heart. It’s hard to breathe when you’re constantly running uphill.
With a boot on your throat, it’s impossible.
If you’d like a deeper understanding of America’s racial divide and what you can do to make it better, these titles are a great place to start.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
It Was All A Dream: A New Generation Confronts The Broken Promise To Black America by Reniqua Allen
I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin
The Complete Works by James Baldwin
Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo
How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
Race Matters by Cornel West
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Black Boy by Richard Wright
Native Son by Richard Wright