I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. Don’t kill me. Please, sir. Please. I can’t breathe. Mama! Mama!
~ George Floyd
Watching the video was horrifying. I watched knowing these were George’s final words — his final fears. I watched as he called out for his mother. She died two years ago.
Read that again. He called out for his mother.
Today, I’m taking a long look in the mirror because I didn’t want to believe that a cop would do that. I didn’t want to believe ANYONE would do that. There must be something more here; something else. There must be.
TRUTH: I Know Next to Nothing About the Black Experience.
I was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1966. Saginaw is a city 100 miles north of Detroit. It’s a city divided by a river – a city divided by race. When I lived there, African Americans lived on the east side and white people lived on the west side. Of course, there was some crossover, but not much. There was a clear dividing line. It was odd to see a black person in our neighborhood, and I’m sure our looks communicated a question: Are you lost?” Conversely, if we traveled to “their side” of the city, people would come out of their homes on to their porches and stare us down. My parents taught us that people are people, but I grew up thinking separation is normal and probably good.
TRUTH: Black People Are Strangers
From elementary to high school, I’ll bet I had fewer than ten black classmates, and I didn’t know any of them. As I got older, and I discovered I was pretty good at basketball, I wanted to play with the best. We had an outdoor community court near my house that featured some incredible talent. They would drive across the bridge to the west side because it was easier to get a game there than on the east side courts packed with players. It was there I had my first real interactions with black people. I felt like we finally had something in common. They gave me nicknames like “Superfly” and “Larry Bird.” When I’d score over someone, the bench would erupt in screams. Some of the best memories of my life were made at “the courts,” but when it got dark and the games ended, they got in their cars and I got in mine. I didn’t know any of them.
TRUTH: I Was Afraid
I went to college in Detroit. I lived in a tiny apartment near Eight Mile road, 20-minutes from Tiger Stadium and perilously close to a lot of crime. Gunshots were as normal as nighttime crickets in the country, and it wasn’t unusual to see a random burning car light up the night sky. I remember telling my classmates how much I enjoyed running after work. They looked at me like I was nuts. “Wait, you run? At night?” They asked. “Are you f#@** crazy? One guy suggested I run with a $20 bill in my pocket. “They won’t kill you if you have some money,” he explained. So, I did. I put money in my sock every time I ran. I didn’t run very much. I was afraid.
TRUTH: I Live in a Bubble.
After college, I returned to my hometown and began my career in radio and television news. I covered drug busts, shootings, gang violence and murder trials. I interviewed grieving black mothers, crime victims and activists. I saw the poverty, fatherlessness, and lack of hope in the inner-city. I began to understand the bubble I was living in and the biases I had within me. Newsrooms are filled with fun characters and I was educated by some of them. My friend Lloyd told me not to call him African American. “I’m black, man!” He proudly screamed. Ann at WSGW was kind to point out to me that I was calling braids worn by black women “corn rolls.” She flashed her magical smile and said, “Curt, it’s cornrows.” For twenty-seven years, I called them corn rolls. Ann was the only black woman I knew. A few years later, when I was the executive news producer at TV-5, I was writing a story and I asked a black reporter what the black community would think of something. Kelly flashed an incredible smile of her own and replied, “You do realize I don’t represent all black people, right? I can tell you what I think!” I am so grateful for that interaction.
My beliefs, like yours, were shaped by my upbringing and my experiences. I cannot understand hate, but I do understand fear and I do understand ignorance because I’ve been fearful, and I’ve been ignorant. My beliefs can be reshaped. So can yours.
Today, I’m looking in the mirror.
I notice that since the death of George Floyd, white people are doing a lot of talking. We should be doing a lot more listening.
Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in.
~ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar