I Can't Breathe

An old college friend living in Texas was traveling east last summer and stopped for a visit. We hadn't seen each other since graduation, many years ago.

After embracing and telling each other how good we looked, we sat side-by-side in my family room and paged through our college yearbook, remarking on news of our classmates, giggling about our wacky hairstyles, etc. She had never seen the yearbook and I hadn't looked at it in a long time.

I turned a page and gasped. The headline on the page was "Blacks." There were photos of the African American students in our class. I was horrified.

I can't breathe, said Eric Garner.

"Can you believe this?" I sputtered. "Why the segregation? And this was the liberal '70s?"

My friend, who is African American, shrugged.

"It happens," she said.

"But this is so offensive," I persisted. "Why in the world ..."

She sighed. "It is what it is," she answered calmly. "You've just got to do your best and move on."

The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson had taken place just two weeks before. How was she processing this, I asked. What were her emotions?

She thought for a moment. There are things most white people can't imagine, she told me. When black people walk into a store, she said, they are often eyed suspiciously by store clerks. White people cross the street to distance themselves from black people. The distrust, if not fear and hatred, is palpable.

My friend taught her son street smarts from an early age so he would know how to act around authority figures. Black mothers and fathers fear for their black sons. They teach them to be on guard, always.

She taught both her son and daughter that prejudice was something they would always face. A fact of life.

I can't breathe, said Eric Garner. Eleven times he said this.

I listened to her stories with sadness. "Call me naïve," I told her, "but this is so difficult to understand. After all these years since the civil rights movement, has nothing changed?"

She didn't have an answer.

In fact, just that morning I had had an eye-opening experience. We have a wonderful dog groomer, Clinton, who comes to our house once a month to give Duncan the doggie spa treatment. As he was finishing up and checking his calendar for the following month's appointment, he asked if he could come earlier than the usual 9:00.

"Of course," I said, "we're up early. Anytime is fine."

He thanked me and explained that in the interest of getting to our house on time, he often left his home on the early end. If he arrived before 9, he parked about a block away and sat in his idling car until it was time for the appointment.

"You wouldn't believe the dirty looks I get," he told me. "Some guy in a car circled the block to come back to stare a second time."

Clinton is African American.

I can't breathe, Eric Garner said, gasping for breath.

I was mortified. "Clinton, I am so sorry," I said. "That is terrible. I can't tell you how angry that makes me."

Like my friend had done, he shrugged. "It's not just your neighborhood," he said. "It happens."