Skip to content

“I Can’t Breathe”: What the Coronavirus Pandemic and George Floyd Protests Have Taught Us About Race

Every day we learn more and more about the disparate impact the coronavirus epidemic has inflicted on communities of color. From an early stage, as the virus wreaked havoc across the country, it became apparent that illness and death disproportionately plagued Black and Brown communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), American Indian or Alaskan Natives are 1.8x more likely than Whites to contract the virus, 4.0x more likely to be hospitalized, and 2.6x more likely to die. For Black Americans that comparison is 1.4x more likely to contract the virus, 3.7x more likely to be hospitalized, and 2.8x more likely to die. For Hispanic or Latino individuals, the numbers are 1.7x more likely to contract the virus, 4.1x more likely to be hospitalized, and 2.8x more likely to die. [1] Black individuals have comprised over 34% of deaths due to Covid-19 even though they comprise about 13.4% of the population.[2]


Covid-19, of course, is a respiratory illness that inflames the lungs, making it difficult to breathe, and in severe cases, destroys the lungs’ ability to process oxygen. As of the time this article goes to press, over 400,000 Americans will have died from the virus, with the numbers increasing by the thousands every day.[3] So breathing was already on my mind on May 25, 2020 when George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was murdered by the Minneapolis police in broad daylight. Caught on video, his death resulted after a White police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds with three other officers standing by. As Mr. Floyd pled for his life, he called out “I can’t breathe” 26 times before dying of asphyxia and other related reasons.[4]


White America might have been shocked, but Black America less so, having been, once again, disproportionately adversely impacted by police brutality. Indeed, the original resonance of “I can’t breathe” as a cry to protest was first heard well back in 2014, after the strangulation of Eric Garner by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who had applied a chokehold to Garner and refused to release him, even after Garner called out 11 times “I can’t breathe” while lying face down on the sidewalk, pinned to the ground.[5] Garner’s death was also ruled a homicide. His eldest daughter, Erica Garner, became an outspoken activist against police brutality. Sadly, she died at 27, leaving behind two young children. The cause of her death – cardiac failure after suffering a severe asthma attack.[6] Asthma, like Covid-19, is a lung condition that makes it difficult to breathe.

Read the article in its entirety at