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'Not being fully free': The toll of everyday racism on black Americans

Analysis: Black Americans have grown tired of being forced to make the case for their citizenship, their humanity, their very survival — again and again and again.
Image: 'I Can't Breathe' Protest Held After Man Dies In Police Custody In Minneapolis
Protesters call for justice for George Floyd outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis on May 26. Stephen Maturen / Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS — By Tuesday afternoon, the intersection of 38th Avenue and East Chicago Avenue where George Floyd died had become a kind of shrine. People — black and white — trying to express something, trying to see something, perhaps trying to wrestle with their feelings.

It was so much a space to see and be seen, to emote and to engage with those of like minds, that a kind of photo backdrop — a black-and-white image of George Floyd's face on plywood — had been stationed on the street. As Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" played on a loudspeaker, a line formed. Many posed and smiled.

But when Corey Yeager, a black man and psychologist for the NBA's Detroit Pistons, approached with a group of young black men clad in T-shirts emblazoned with the words "I Can't Breathe," all five, ages 12 to 19, knelt and raised their fists. Yeager suggested they also bow their heads. Within seconds a crowd of mostly white observers began snapping photos and recording the moment on video. From the crowd, there was even a "Yaaas."

Left to right, Shawn Shipman, Mekhi Shipman, Shawn Shipman Jr., Zach Yeager, Azrie Yeager, Izaiah Yeager and Gregory Yeager in front of a portrait of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Tuesday, near the spot where Floyd was killed. Janell Ross / NBC News

"This, this situation here, is the depths of despair," Yeager said. "Our situation is grave. If you are black, born in America, you have and will experience trauma. This is a country where a black man can be murdered for jogging, a black woman can be murdered while sleeping, and then there is George Floyd and the many, many George Floyds."

In the parlance of the internet, the past week has been a year. So much has happened to shock those optimistic about the state of racial equity and affirm those always in tune with the persistence of racism in American life that the strain of the last 10 days has been extraordinary.

But black Americans are exhausted. They are grieving. They are angry. They have, in many cases, grown tired of being forced to make the case for their citizenship, their humanity, their very survival — again and again over the course of generations.

Different people and circumstances, but the same cause

Just the recent roll call of tragedy is disturbingly long. In Minneapolis, a collection of 49 names — a partial list of black men and women who have died in encounters with police or white private citizens since 2006 — stretches down Chicago Avenue. It also includes the name of an Asian man. Most are not names known to many nonblack people in the United States. The following day, Ben Crump, a lawyer for Floyd's family, recited most of them off the top of his head. They are, for much of black America, a familiar litany.

Names of victims line Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis on Tuesday, near where George Floyd died.Janell Ross / NBC News

"They are all different, different people, different circumstances and cities," said Phillip Atiba Goff, a psychologist who uses data to study race and policing in the United States. "The reason that they feel connected, like part of a long list, is that they all stem from the same thing: that is, America's original sin, white supremacy. It's part of who we are as a nation, and, apparently, even during a period of distress never before seen, it surfaces again and again."

Goff, who is black and the co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, worked to help transform the Minneapolis Police Department, in which the center found vast racial disparities in all sorts of policing activity, Goff said. (The city declined to make the report public.) A previous police chief, Janeé Harteau, was persuaded to make changes after working alongside local activists and some elected officials.

Beginning in 2016, the list of changes included, for the first time, tracking the race and gender of drivers stopped by police and reporting use-of-force data online, requiring officers to activate their body cameras the minute they respond to 911 calls and deeming officer refusal to cooperate with an investigation as a form of misconduct. Officers were also directed to issue repair vouchers to drivers stopped for broken taillights and to stop arresting the homeless for congregating in warm spaces. Those types of tickets and arrests can lead to mounting fines, fees and involvement with the criminal justice system. The changes helped make residents feel that their neighborhoods were safer, researchers found.

The same year, the department implemented its "duty to intervene" policy, requiring officers to stop colleagues from using excessive force. Based on the policy, Medaria Arradondo, Minneapolis' current police chief, fired the three officers who witnessed Derek Chauvin pin Floyd down with his knee for more than eight minutes before he died. (On Wednesday, the three were charged with aiding and abetting murder, and the murder charge against Chauvin was elevated to second-degree, from third-degree.)

The changes were part of a three-year, $4.75 million, six-city initiative funded during the Obama administration. When President Donald Trump took office, funding for the research and field work ended — along with federal consent decrees requiring legal and less abusive ways to police several other communities.

"It's heartbreaking for us," Goff said after a long sigh, "because we feel like they were there and making progress and material changes that were really benefiting the community, and now we are not just back to where we started, we are further back. It's worse than when we started."

One of the fundamental reasons for black America's deep exhaustion is that the dangerous and humiliating encounters are not limited to contact with police.

"The majority of this world, certainly in this country, struggles with white privilege," said Shawn Shipman, who works for Minneapolis' public schools on black student achievement. He and his sons, Shawn Jr., 17, and Mekhi, 12, were part of the group who had arrived with Yeager at the memorial site for Floyd. Yeager brought along three of his four sons, Izaiah, 19, Zach, 17, and Azrie, 14.

"All that has happened recently is it's become transparent to more people: the injustice, the lack of handling of human life with care," Shipman said.

The Kerner Commission — appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the causes of 1960s riots across the country — pinpointed the roots of unrest. The commission found that they were present in nearly every major American institution and in the choices of individuals. Banks; the news media; city, state and federal governments; schools; grocery stores and other retail operations; and individual Americans routinely excluded black Americans from the best jobs and neighborhoods. Segregating black Americans, forcing them to the bottom of the ladder and to lead very different lives than white Americans, the commission wrote, was a way of life.

Today, many of those conditions persist, Yeager said. But, he added, there's also this drumbeat, this deep white confusion and unease with anything less than quiet acceptance.

"Too often we are asked to quickly reconcile," Yeager said. "But there is no truth telling. And it is unnerving. There can be no reconciliation without truth."

'Expected to hopscotch while everybody else is walking'

In 2011, J. Drew Lanham wrote about his love of birding and the constant need to try to anticipate, accommodate and push against white suspicion in a publication run by AfroOutdoors, an organization of mostly black outdoor enthusiasts who work to ensure that the beauty and benefits of nature ought to be accessible to everyone. Lanham grew up in rural South Carolina and can remember being fascinated with birds even as a 5-year-old.

"Birds are free to go anywhere they want without any of the limits we know of, and I have always envied that, and I think I'm not alone," said Lanham, who is black. "For black folks, simply being in this country has been an exercise in not being fully free. I think that may be why if you read the narratives of enslaved people and people who were liberated, you will see a lot of references to birds and watching birds. Their beauty, the freedom inherent in their flight, the melody of their songs, is a metaphor for freedom."

Lanham is friends online with Christian Cooper, the black birder involved in the Central Park incident with the white woman who was walking her dog and called police to say she was being threatened by an African American man.

Lanham was not surprised by the details of that encounter, because he has had similar experiences most of his life. He's an endowed professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University, yet he avoids going to the place closest to his home where he could spot his favorite bird because of an experience he had two years ago.

A white man who owned property in the area struck up a conversation with Lanham, telling him that his family had been there for generations, Lanham said, and that the "n------" who used to pick and gin the family's cotton certainly knew how to do the job.

Lanham recalled the man adding: "That's just how it's meant to be. Some people are better at some things than others." He added that he hated trespassers and let Lanham know he was armed. It was a threat disguised as a chat, Lanham said. As Lanham drove away, he heard the man firing a gun behind a nearby barn.

"And I thought about how very careful I have always been about no trespassing signs when I have seen white birders flout them," Lanham said. "Most of us take walking for granted. You walk, you put one foot in front of the other and you go where you want to go, but for us black folk and some other people of color, you don't get to walk. You hopscotch through life. ... There's this constant balancing act and switching feet while keeping your eye on some goal. We are expected to hopscotch while everybody else is walking."

Lanham has had his fill, he said last week. He's more determined than ever to talk about racism and suspicion in birding, outdoor and conservation circles.

Stephanie Jones-Rogers, a historian and associate professor at the University of California, Davis who focuses on race and gender dynamics in American history, said the Central Park encounter brought to mind Carolyn Bryant.

Bryant was a white woman who in 1955 falsely claimed that a 14-year-old black boy visiting relatives in Mississippi had made a pass at her. Bryant's family kidnapped the boy, named Emmett Till, and tortured, mutilated and murdered him.

"What Carolyn Bryant did is the same thing Amy Cooper did, which is she knew there was power in being a white woman and that was to be believed and to be trusted, and then because of that to weaponize police," said Jones-Rogers, who is black. "It just looks different because we are in 2020."

One of the ways Jones-Rogers has found to manage her frustration with the constant onslaught of racist indignities rests in the dark humor of social media feeds collecting and describing some of these events. They have names like "Karens in the Wild."

People stand outside along the street in Minneapolis on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, near where George Floyd died.Janelle Ross / NBC News

"People I know and love and care about are expressing their exhaustion that this keeps happening to black people, and it's not just the murders, the killings," she said. "It's the tarnishing of names, the defamation of character and then the lack of justice. This is what we do to the victim, after someone kills a black person, over and over again."

There are generations of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters who have passed along the advice, the tips, the warnings about how to stay alive in a racist country — their encounters resulting in the most terrifying cautionary tales.

Even young people have seen the repeating cycle of violence, suspicion and maltreatment directed at black Americans and have grown weary.

Izaiah Yeager, 19, came to the corner of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue with his dad. As he talked about what happened to Floyd, what's happened to so many other black people in America, he also rattled off a list of strategies and techniques passed on from his father. On the list: Always remain aware of who and what is watching you. Always take note of the police when driving and, even when going the speed limit, slow down. If you are a passenger in a car and the police appear, make sure to alert the driver.

"It's a constant and everyday thing," he said.

Full coverage of George Floyd’s death and protests around the country