“I can’t breathe.” George Floyd said this most recently before his life was choked out of him under the knee of the State. But it has happened before. “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner said it eleven times while his murder was documented on July 17, 2014.
There is a conspiracy afoot to rob black people of their breath. If not at the hands of the police, then at the hands of politicians, policies, everyday white people in a park, in a neighborhood, at a convenience store, in the supermarket, even in their own homes. There is not a place in this country where black people may relax and let down their guard against the mission of whiteness to destroy them. Remaining silent is not an option. I’m pleading with white people, “Stop!”
Stop assuming black people are up to no good.
Stop assuming that you have a right to dismiss the experiences of black people.
Stop voting for politicians who aim to disproportionately incarcerate black bodies in the name of “law and order.” Stop assuming that conformity to white culture is superior and beneficial.
Stop saying, “If only they would comply with law enforcement.”
Stop saying “those individual white people are racist” when all of us white folk continue to benefit from this system that favors our melanin. We must acknowledge our privilege and dismantle the system that empowers this inequality.
As Ashon T. Crawley compels us, this is a violence “that cannot conceive of black flesh feeling pain, a violence that cannot think ‘I can’t breathe’ anything other than ploy, trick, toward fugitive flight.’ When in reality, ‘I can’t breathe’ [is] and ethical charge for those of us who are alive and remain to be caught up in the cause of justice against the violence, the episteme, that produced his moment of intensity, the moment of his assault and murder.”
There is a conspiracy of whiteness that wants to dismiss atrocities committed against black people as isolated events. White people are willing to label these horrid events as individual acts of racism, but refuse to recognize all of these “isolated” incidents are connected by a common characteristic, the death of black people at the hands of white people, often white people in positions of authority. Of course, this is nothing new, since its inception, the United States has endeavored to relegate black bodies to the periphery, even if it means extinguishing their lives. Even a cursory survey of history will reveal that black people were brought to these shores to exploit their labor for the selfish ends of capitalism. They were brought here against their will to enrich white land owners, and to maintain the white social hierarchy by ensuring that even poor white people would vote, behave, and even fight against their own best interest to maintain this white order. Whiteness continues to conspire against black bodies. The conspiracy colludes around a normative white culture that favors white lives at the expense of black lives.
John Michael Vlach’s book The Planter’s Prospect: Privilege and Slavery in Plantation Paintings demonstrates that those who occupied powerless spaces did so because of an active collusion against them. This conspiracy of privilege was so entrenched in the culture that it even showed up in commissioned works of art, which is the subject of Vlach’s book. As Vlach points out in the introduction, “Plantation vistas tended to omit most indications of agricultural labor. The exclusion of slaves from paintings of plantations was, like the choice of the view from below, a powerful tactic that artist used to suggest a planter’s undisputed command over his estate. If there were no blacks to be seen in a plantation landscape, then white people, by default, would have to be recognized as the primary occupants” Vlach’s work reveals the perspective of those who held power and sought to keep it.
The insecure nature of white power demands validation even in its depiction of reality. This validation and justification were provided by various interpretations of the scenery and conditions on the plantations, that often involved a romanticizing or lack of specificity in the paintings. Such was the case with Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. “The absence of specificity helped Smith to idealize plantations as pleasant places that had once been occupied by noble owners and reliable workers. Since she provided only the vague outlines of no place in particular, she could easily project the scenario of a conflict-free past onto her beloved Carolina low country” These works of art depicting plantation life functioned as a form of nostalgic denial of the realities of the horrors of slavery, serving to reinforce the perceived privilege of those who owned the system and the victimization of those enslaved to it. As antebellum artist once sought to push black bodies to the periphery of their art depicting plantation life, if showing them at all, now systemic white supremacy seeks to exile black people from culture by killing them if necessary.
Weak, insecure white leaders are still seeking to abolish black bodies from art, culture, history, life, as recent as President Trump refusing to unveil the official portrait of President Obama. This is how whiteness operates, it conspires to choke out the breath of blackness.
There is a conspiracy of whiteness that refuses to acknowledge that racism infects our institutions. It continues to pollute our churches, our government, our judicial, economic, and educational systems. A conspiracy that calls the peaceful protest of Colin Kaepernick disrespectful, while simultaneously applauding white folks carrying guns and waving confederate flags chanting “Freedom!”
The hypocritical irony! This! The only conspiracy white people won’t believe, is sadly, tragically true.