An 'I Can't Breathe' sign along 38th St in Minneapolis on Wednesday, after the death of George Floyd on Monday night in Minneapolis, Minnesota
An 'I Can't Breathe' sign in Minneapolis on Wednesday, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Lorie Shaull from St Paul, United States)

If you can breathe, you’re privileged. And I don’t just mean this in a literal sense.

It seems as if the ability to breathe – amid a pandemic where a highly contagious virus prevails and continues to attack the respiratory system of vulnerable individuals – should now be considered a luxury. The opportunity to take a deep breath – whether it is used to ground yourself in an argument or in an effort to eliminate the current stressors in your life – is permitted only for those who are strong enough to withstand the toll of this virus. A now-luxurious act that we once took for granted.

But what if the ability to breathe was a luxury all along?

While our nation’s elderly population is subject to the highest death rate as a result of the spread of COVID-19, we must not dismiss the notion that the virus is disproportionately impacting black Americans at a jarring rate, compared to white Americans. A Washington Post analysis found that predominately black communities hold a coronavirus death rate nearly 6 times higher than predominately white communities.

Nicole Dean
Nicole Dean

Could this disparity be due to a troubling institution in which black Americans do not receive the same access to healthcare as do their white counterparts? A report from the National Academy of Medicine found that minorities receive “lower-quality health care” as compared to white people, all other qualifiers held equal.

Or could it be due to an unjust housing system where black Americans are more likely to face housing discrimination – a situation which presents serious consequences to the health and well-being of these very individuals?

Perhaps this disproportionate access to “air” dates back to an inherently problematic society in which the ability to breathe is considered a luxury – reserved only for those who the air was originally intended for.

Perhaps our systematic way of living, rooted in ideologies stemming from a time of slavery, is why so many individuals – individuals of color – remain gasping for air to this very day. Perhaps the death of George Floyd, who choked out the words “I can’t breathe” in his final seconds, was a subject of an inherently unjust and unequal society that was created only to protect the breath of white individuals.

Perhaps government officials responded to the protests in honor of George Floyd’s life with tear gas because they felt threatened by the fact that black Americans were finally gaining their breath. Perhaps the long-term effects of tear gas on the respiratory system is the only way for leaders of our institutions – the institutions that our country was built on – to take the breath away from those who threaten this very system.

If you can breathe, you’re privileged. And I don’t just mean this in a literal sense.

If you are an individual who has time to breathe in between their sentences – an individual who does not feel the need to be fighting for their human rights in every single breath they take – consider yourself fortunate.

I acknowledge the fact that I can breathe. I acknowledge the fact that I do not need to waste a breath fighting for my rights. I acknowledge the countless breaths I have wasted on things that do not challenge our society to be better. I acknowledge the times that I have actually held my breath, instead of choosing to hold people accountable for their problematic actions.

That changes today.

When you are short of breath, you are commonly told to “just relax”. Maybe you are told to calm down, or maybe you are told to take a deep breath. But black Americans – who are now gasping for air – cannot just relax. They cannot calm down, and they cannot solve this inherent issue by taking a deep breath.

Because the second they do, their voices will no longer be heard.

It is time for those who have the luxury of breathing in society to play a part of a systematic change in which creates a society that protects the breath of all individuals – no matter the color of their skin. That change starts at the polls.

Nicole Dean is a University of Michigan alum and Metro Detroit native. She is a member of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan, and was heavily involved with the Jewish Resource Center on campus.

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