“I can’t breathe.” These were the agonizing words of George Floyd, shortly before he died last Monday after a police officer knelt on his neck to hold him down on the ground. Pain and anger over Floyd’s death has ignited intensifying protests in Minneapolis, spilling over into multiple cities across the country.
This Sunday is the Pentecost Sunday. What we’ve come to read in our translations of the Bible as “spirit” is translated from the Hebrew word ruah (רוח) and Greek word pneuma (πνεύμα), meaning “breath.” It’s the very breath that God breathed into humans in our creation. God breathed life into the human and the human came to life, according to Genesis 2:7.
The coming of the Holy Spirit marks the birth of the Christian Church and the beginning of its mission to the world. God breathed life into his Church and the Church came to life. The breath of God empowers the Church to go forth and likewise breathe new life into the world.
The novel coronavirus has been threatening lives with shortness of breath. We feared a shortage of ventilators because it’s such a critical resource for patients who cannot breathe on their own. The virus has taken more than 100,000 lives nationwide. The United States, the world’s largest economy and military power, also has the highest COVID-19 death toll in the world. China has a population that’s more than four times the size of the U.S., but its coronavirus death toll does not surpass 5,000. South Korea has fewer than 300. What can explain such a difference?
The character of the nation’s leadership and its values in public decision-making have made a difference. The coronavirus outbreak has affected the finances and health of black and Hispanic Americans more than others. What the crisis has unveiled is the major weaknesses in the U.S. health and social system. We were unprepared for a pandemic than countries with higher social safety net coverage and better preventive healthcare measures, not to mention overall stronger civic responsibility.
Breathing is essential for life. We need improved healthcare for people to breathe. We need living conditions and jobs that will remove the blockage, open obstructed airways, and let people breathe. The coronavirus has disproportionately impacted the low-income communities and workers in manual services, who had no other choice but to go out to work on public transportations. Staying at home and physical distancing during coronavirus has been a luxury not everyone could afford. Likewise, not everyone could vocally express their inability to breathe. Hundreds at nursing homes succumbed to the coronavirus, many without notice to their families. In the midst of these sufferings, a man died in broad daylight gasping “I can’t breathe,” while a police officer pressed knee against his neck.
There are criticisms condemning the civil unrest as protests over George Floyd’s death have turned violent. The disruption of the social order is no doubt troubling, especially because it may give leeway to justify further violence. But while destructive, riots are also the culmination of underlying social issues as per Martin Luther King, Jr. “America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” (The Other America: Speech at Grosse Pointe Farms, MI. 1968)
I agree that we need to hold President Trump accountable for the problems facing the country today. In the meantime, I hear the opinions of Trump enablers and I see how the president resorts to political maneuvers to strengthen the bond between himself and his supporters. Nonetheless, Trump is the elected president of this country, and his re-election is still an open question. Where did we go wrong? Back in 2016, whereas Trump supporters stayed unified to vote for him, many of the people who disapproved Trump chose not to vote at all. In fact, among those who didn’t think Trump was qualified, nearly a fifth voted for Trump anyway, due to skepticism about Hilary Clinton. As Martin Luther King, Jr. points out, “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” Vested interests supported Trump to protect their privileges, while those who wanted to see change were not as committed to fulfilling their voter rights and responsibilities.
White privilege is a weapon for both conservatives and liberals alike. Last week, a white woman made a racially motivated 911 call on a black man in Central Park, falsely accusing that an “African American man…is threatening myself and my dog.” The video of the Central Park confrontation later sparked accusations of racism and as a result, the woman lost her finance job. It was revealed that the woman is a liberal with Chicago Booth MBA, with the previous history of donating to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Yet her display of white privilege implies that she knew the power imbalance at play and sought to take advantage of it, failing to acknowledge that her actions had real racist consequences. The woman apologized, and the man expressed his uneasy feelings about her life now torn apart.
We recognize slavery and racial segregation as shameful and painful parts of American history. Over the past 400 years of African American struggle to survive and to be free of racism, who was hurt and who was helped by their race? Have the black lives done more harm to white supremacists, or could we honestly face the bare truth regarding the crimes committed against black men and women, young and old? If we can acknowledge the truth, why are black men still gasping for breath? Why do so many black men continue to be the victims of racial profiling and disparities in proactive policing?
I am an Asian American. I know the history of discrimination against Chinese immigrant workers who built the treacherous western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. I also know from history how Japanese American citizens were driven off to internment camps as ‘possible enemy sympathizers’ during WWII. I remember the story of Chol Soo Lee, a young Korean immigrant with limited English skills, who was wrongfully convicted for the murder in 1973 and served nearly 10 years in prison. I also remember the tragic death of Vincent Chin in 1982. Racial discrimination is not a forgotten history in the U.S. It is a past challenge and a heartbreaking present-day reality. The coronavirus fears have fueled xenophobia and unveiled the hostility against Asian Americans. The Asian American experience of race and racism may not stem from the roots of colorism per se, but our stories are about social exclusion and marginalization.
At the same time, Asian Americans have regrettably low levels of electoral and civic participation. Especially when it comes to social justice issues, Asian turnout is very low overall – whether it be in support of Black Lives Matter or the rights of undocumented persons. This is our bare reality. What stops us from speaking up? The Minneapolis police officer who knelt on the neck of George Floyd is a white man, but one of three fellow officers involved in the incident is Asian. In the video footage that turned viral, an Asian fellow officer anxiously stands guard, turning away the passersby pleading for Floyd’s life. It’s a heart-rending sight. If the Asian American dream is about mirroring the privilege through maintaining and perpetuating institutional injustices, it’s high time we wake up from such a pretentious dream. Instead, may our hearts and minds be filled with the kind of American dream that Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
“…But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force…”
“…There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. …We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream…I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…I have a dream today!…With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”
On this Pentecost Sunday, I believe God is calling us to dream again: “Let them breathe, for this is the mission of the Church!”