[Research]“I Can’t Breathe”: The Death of George Floyd and the Survival Dilemma Facing African Americans


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Center for the Study of Human Rights at Nankai University

The violent police enforcement in Minneapolis, Minnesota led to the death of African-American man George Floyd from suffocation, which immediately triggered a wave of protests across the United States and even around the world. The fallout from the related incidents is further brewing. On June 5, 12 United Nations special rapporteurs, 3 working groups on the issue of human rights and the Chairman of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued statements, saying that the killing of African Americans including George Floyd showed “serious disregard or malice towards human life and the use of public space for racial control” and was a modern-day “racial terror” lynching. Law enforcement is both a field severely affected by American racial discrimination and an important part of institutional racism in the United States.

I. Is the Death of George Floyd a Mere Accident?

On the night of May 25, 2020, 46-year-old George Floyd was handcuffed and tackled to the ground by several policemen for suspicion of using counterfeit money to buy cigarettes. White policeman Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. During that time, Floyd kept pleading and struggling due to breathing difficulty before he fell into a coma and was rushed to the hospital where he died. This footage of the police enforcement filmed by a passer-by has gone viral, reigniting global outcries and sparking outrage among African Americans. Starting in Minneapolis, people walked to the streets in many cities across the United States to protest police brutality against African Americans, leading to intense conflicts and riots in some areas. As of June 5, protests had taken place in all 50 states of the United States, involving hundreds of cities. Many cities were forced to impose curfews. Twenty-five states deployed national guards to maintain order. Several states declared a state of emergency. Even the White House was surrounded by angry demonstrators. It has evolved into the largest nationwide anti-racism protest since the civil rights movement in the 1960s. From the way things are going, the death of George Floyd has developed into an incident with huge global impacts.The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Bacheletissued a statement condemning the killing of African American George Floyd by US police in the course of law enforcement and urging US authorities to take serious measures to stop such killings. The African Union and African countries have unanimously condemned the brutal killing of George Floyd by the US police and called on the US government to eliminate all forms of discrimination based on race or ethnic origin. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Germany, France and other countries had demonstrations successively staged in response to the incident. People in some countries even encircled the local US embassies and consulates.

This incident followed a similar pattern with the New York police chokehold case that happened in 2014. On July 17, 2014, several white police officers in New York suffocated Eric Garner, an African-American man illegally selling cigarettes, to death by the banned chokehold action. Unarmed and with his hands raised, the deceased complained several times he couldn’t breathe, but police officer Daniel Pantaleo kept stranglehold him from behind and other officers pinned his head against the pavement, causing him to lose consciousness and eventually die. Since then, “I can’t breathe” has become synonymous with African-American opposition to police violence and even racism. Images of Floyd screaming “I can’t breathe” and pleading for mercy before his death in this incident reawakened the tragic memories of African Americans as unbearable pain in their hearts. In terms of impact, this incident has surpassed the Ferguson incident which caused a sensation in recent years. On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American, was shot six times to death by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking ongoing chaos and riots in the local area. Protests erupted again in hundreds of cities across the United States after a Grand jury in Missouri decided not to indict the white police officer. The legacy of this protest is the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and its social movements.

African Americans dying in police brutality is not rare to be seen, because law enforcement and justice have historically been overshadowed by racial discrimination in the United States. In 2012, 21-year-old African American Chavis Carter from Arkansas was frisked by police and brought into a patrol car. He was later found shot on the head while handcuffed. In 2013, Jonathan Ferrell, a 24-year-old African-American youth, sought help after a car crash and was shot several times to death while unarmed, by the police rushing to the scene. In 2014, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy playing with a toy gun in a park, was shot multiple times after the police arrived. In 2015, Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old African-American man from Minnesota, was shot and killed by two police officers while being subdued in handcuffs. In 2016, Sterling, a 37-year-old African-American man, was involved in a conflict outside a convenience store in Louisiana, and later, he was restrained on the ground by the arriving police and shot at point-blank range several times to death. In 2018, Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old African-American man, was killed by more than 20 shots in his grandmother’s backyard by Sacramento police, and the only thing found next to his body was a cell phone. In 2019, six police officers fired about 25 times at Willie McCoy, a 20-year-old African-American young man, “in the head, ears, neck, chest, arms, shoulders, hands and back”, leading to his death. Such cases of violent killings of African Americans by police officers are not unique. A large number of similar vicious incidents occur every year. According to incomplete statistics on Mapping Police Violence, hundreds of African Americans are shot and killed by police officers every year, and many of them are killed unarmed. There were at least 291 such killings in 2013, 277 in 2014, 305 in 2015, 279 in 2016, 276 in 2017, 258 in 2018 and 259 in 2019. The study revealed that African Americans are being killed by the police at an alarming rate compared with other ethnic groups in the United States. According to a federal statistical analysis of fatal police shootings, African-American young men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts. The fatal shooting rate of African Americans aged 15 to 19 by the police is as high as 31.17 parts per million, while that of white men in this age range is 1.47 parts per million.

The United Nations has repeatedly expressed grave concern about racial discrimination in law enforcement and judicial practice in the United States. In its 2016 work report on the investigations of the United States, the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent heavily criticized the police violence and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. A large number of cases have testified to the problem of law enforcement officials’ violence and excessive use of lethal force, which are largely exempt from criminal penalties. “Police shootings of African-Americans and the psychological trauma caused are reminiscent of lynching acts of racial terrorism in the past. Impunity for state violence has caused the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.” The report also stated that police killings of unarmed African Americans were just the tip of an iceberg of widespread racial prejudice in the judicial system. In 2019, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance again pointed out that the number of killings and brutal abuse of African Americans by the US law enforcement authorities remained alarming and rarely prosecuted. African Americans are more likely to be identified as criminals by the police and to be treated cruelly.

II. Why Is the Death of George Floyd So Influential?

As noted above, the scale of the protests and riots following this incident was unprecedented in recent four decades. Despite statements by four former US presidents trying to calm the protesters, there is still no sign of complete calm. So why did the death of George Floyd trigger such a huge anti-racism protest movement? Based on the incident itself and the current social situation in the United States, we can make a rough analysis as follows:

First, the inhumanity of the incident itself. After Floyd was handcuffed and pinned to the ground showing no intention of resistance, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for a long time. Despite the victim’s entreaty and attempts by passers-by to dissuade him, the officer remained unmoved, even after the victim completely fell unconscious. Just as onlookers said, the expression and body language of the white police officer showed that he was enjoying the torture and killing of this African-American man. A white police “kneeling down” to kill an African-American victim in the street reveals the enormity of cruelty, long duration and abominable nature, arousing tremendous anger among the general public, especially African Americans.

Second, the transmission method of social media. A full footage lasting six minutes and thirty four seconds taken by a passer-by was posted on social media and quickly spread online and among people all over the world. The widely circulated online video reproduces the helplessness of the victim and the ruthlessness of the perpetrator, rendering all of the police explanations meaningless. The footage clearly shows how the victim was handcuffed and wrestled to the ground until he completely fell unconscious. The white officer’s knee remained tightly on Floyd’s neck until the first aid staff arrived. “I can’t breathe” “Please don’t kill me” “Mama, Mama...”, these real and vivid images showing Floyd’s pleading before his death deeply touched the soul and conscience of every video viewer, creating a powerful empathy effect and fostering an important emotional force to push people to walk to the street for protests.

Third, frequent occurrence of recent incidents of racial discrimination against African Americans. On February 23, 2020, 25-year-old African AmericanAhmaudArberywas jogging near his home in Georgia when he was chased by a white father and son who suspected him to be a burglar, and was eventually shot dead at point-blank range. For more than two months, however, the police let the killer off the hook, even arguing that he had “fired in self-defense”; the prosecutor in charge of the case also said the father and son acted legally. A recently released cell phone video shows the white father and son ambushing Arbery. When Arbery tried to run past their pickup truck, he tussled with them and was shot with a scattergun. In another wide-reaching incident, Amy Cooper, a white woman walking her dog in New York’s Central Park, was angered by an African-American man’s well-intentioned warning to keep her dog on a leash. The white woman called police, insisting hysterically that the African-American man was threatening her life. The video recorded by the man trying to prove his innocence went viral on the Internet, and the white woman’s frenzied racism sparked widespread anger among African Americans. Some analysts indicated that the two incidents themselves had been brewing strong mass sentiments, and the news of Floyd’s death due to police violence immediately became a bursting point of anger among the African American public, eventually triggering grand intense protests.

Fourth, the enormous impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on people of African descent. The protests are taking place during the COVID-19 epidemic, which has undoubtedly hit people of African descent hardest. On one hand, in the health field, African Americans have far higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death than other ethnic groups; on the other hand, in the economic field, the epidemic has left many people of African descent in dire straits. The fear of disease and the economic shock have built up strong negative emotions, which are also manifested in the protests. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet issued a media statement saying that, COVID-19 has had a particularly severe impact on racial and ethnic minorities, including African Americans, exposing longstanding racial inequalities in some countries, which has become the “fuel” for the ongoing mass protests in hundreds of cities in the United States.

On April 2, 2020, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services became the first to release data on the racial makeup of confirmed and fatal COVID-19 cases in the state, drawing worldwide attention. African Americans make up only 12% of the state’s population, yet they make up 33% of confirmed cases and 40% of deaths. According to American media reports, African Americans being “disproportionately” affected by COVID-19 is extremely common in US cities with a large African descent population such as Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and New Orleans. In New York City, the epicenter of the epidemic in the United States, of 100,000 COVID-19 infections, 243.6 are of African descent and 121.5 are whites; with a death rate twice as high for whites, more than 30% of deaths in New York City are of African descent. In addition to these localized data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated national statistics on June 3, 2020, showing that African Americans account for 23% of deaths, far higher than their 12.5% share in the total population, also indicating that this group is worst affected by COVID-19. In the agency’s state-by-state data on COVID-19 deaths, African Americans rank among the highest in almost all states. According to the current data, in at least eight states including Kansas, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and South Carolina, the proportion of African Americans in COVID-19 deaths is twice or more than its proportion in the total population, and for Kansas and Wisconsin, the figure reaches a staggering 4 times and more.

Table 1 Proportions of African Americans in COVID-19 Deaths and the State’s Total Population in Some States of the US


Proportion of African Americans in COVID-19 Deaths (A)

Proportion of African Americans in the State’s Population (B)






























South Carolina




The Whole U.S.




The greater impact on African Americans in the COVID-19 epidemic can be attributed to their overall weak socio-economic status. Long-term statistics show that the unemployment rate for African Americans is about twice that of White Americans, that the median weekly salary for full-time African American workers is nearly 30% lower than that for White Americans, that 62% of African American households do not owe a pension fund, and that the average wealth held by African American households is 1/12 that of White American households. African Americans’ socio-economic situation of insecure work, low economic incomes and no savings makes them vulnerable to risk. A large proportion of them work in the grass-roots service sector including supermarket cashiers, bus drivers, cleaners, nurses and porters, and these low-end services are actually the hardest hit by job cuts during the epidemic. There are an estimated 40 million unemployed people in the United States, including a large number of African Americans, many of whom can no longer afford daily necessities. Therefore, some analysts point out that, other than racial significance, the protests also have strong class and economic significance.

Fifth, the white supremacy image of the Trump administration has taken hold, for which many African Americans have lost basic trust for it. Donald Trump stated the death of George Floyd a tragedy and unacceptable after he died in police custody, but he failed to demonstrate his firm condemnation of police violence. Immediately afterwards, he called the protesters “thugs” and “scum,” and repeatedly posted on social media that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” and threatened to use “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons” on protestors against the White House. Also, he called on the police to toughen up and even threatened to send troops into the city to quell the unrest. In addition, he ordered the police to use rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters gathering outside the White House. There is no doubt that Donald Trump’s words and deeds have made reconciliation with the protesters less likely.

In fact, there has been a lot of talk in the United States, especially among racial and ethnic minorities, that Donald Trump’s racist tendency are fueling the white supremacy. Donald Trump’s racist statements, from his presidential campaign to his presidency, have aroused heated social debate. In 2016, African-American football player Kaepernick refused to stand while the American national anthem was playing, and instead, he half knelt before the national flag in protest against the racist practice of police shooting African Americans. Donald Trump’s offensive remarks about this incident by calling African-American athletes “shameful”, have drawn a large number of politicians, mainstream media and sports figures into the debate. After the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacy parade and subsequent racist terrorist acts, Donald Trump “condemned the hatred, bigotry and violence from many parties”, and claimed that the white supremacist demonstrators included “some very excellent people”, which were seen as favoring the white supremacy.

. What Are the Implications of George Floyd’s Death?

The word “I can’t breathe” describes not only the physical sensations of George Floyd or Eric Ghana before they die, but also the overall survival dilemma or psychological experience of African Americans in the United States. Fundamentally, what makes Africans “unable to breathe” is the institutional, systematic and structural racism that has long prevailed in American society. The so-called institutional nature is that racism is embodied in state institutions and state systems; the so-called systematic nature is that the supporting force of racism comes from the whole social system; and the so-called structural nature is that racism has formed a systematic and structural network. For example, violence, fatal shootings, entrapment and interception checks in the street by law enforcement agencies targeting ethnic minorities have become the norm. Employment discrimination, promotion discrimination and pay discrimination against ethnic minorities by large corporate bodies have become an implicit rule. In addition, it has become a tradition for financial institutions and real estate agents to conspire to maintain racial residential segregation. Former US President Obama admitted: “Discrimination still exists in almost every system we live in. It is far-reaching, and still in our genes.”

More than 150 years after the abolition of slavery, the legacy of slavery continues to have a profound impact on the social standing of African Americans, according to a report called View on Race in America 2019 released by the Pew Research Center on April 9, 2019. “Racial discrimination in the United States is systematically reflected in poverty rate, housing, education, crime rate, justice and health care,” the report said. More than half of African Americans believe that, “racial equality is an unreachable dream in the United States.” Because of the systematic involvement of state institutions and social systems, racial and ethnic minorities in the United States inevitably suffer discrimination in political, economic and cultural levels, and social life. In addition to the above-mentioned areas of law enforcement and justice, racial discrimination against African Americans remains the most pronounced in the areas of employment, financial and housing markets, daily life, health care and education.

African Americans face a serious disadvantage in the labor market in terms of wage earnings. The Center for American Progress website reports that slavery and racial segregation concentrated colored workers in low-paid occupations, and that occupational segregation and continued devaluation of colored workers were a direct result of deliberate government policy. Discrimination in employment reinforces inequalities in economic well-being, particularly for African Americans. For the past 40 years, the unemployment rate for African American workers has been twice that of white workers, and the median income for African American households have been 25-45% lower than that for white households. The expansion of the US labor market over the past decade has failed to eliminate the systematic racial disparities in the labor market. African Americans face systemic barriers to employment compared to White Americans, resulting in higher unemployment rate, fewer job opportunities, lower wages, fewer benefits and greater job instability. From November 2018 to October 2019, the unemployment rate for African-American college students was 40% higher than that for white college students; in September 2019, the unemployment rate for African-American women was 5.1%, compared with the 2.7% for white women in the same period; and among full-time workers in 2018, for every dollar earned by white men, African American men earned 70.2 cents, white women earned 78.6 cents and African American women earned 61.9 cents; from July 2019 to September 2019, the median typical weekly income for full-time African American workers was USD 727, while that for white workers was USD 943.

African Americans face serious racial discrimination in the housing and financial markets. As reported by Los Angeles Times on May 27, 2018, according to statistics released by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, African American applicants were more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic white applicants to be rejected for all types of loans. The overall rejection rate for African American mortgage applications in 2017 was 18.4%, compared with 8.8% for non-Hispanic whites. The rejection rate for housing loans averaged 9.6%, with yet 19.3% for African Americans, compared with 7.9% for non-Hispanic whites. African Americans were also charged with higher interest rates on loans, typically 1.5 percentage points higher than the annual average. Surveys show that 45% of African Americans were discriminated against when renting or buying a house, compared with the 5% of white Americans who say they are discriminated against in this regard. Racial discrimination affects not only African Americans’ access to housing but also the value of property. Due to racial prejudice, houses in African American communities are undervalued by an average of USD 48,000, resulting in a cumulative national loss of USD 156 billion.

In addition, African Americans face serious racial discrimination in public places and the workplace. On April 12, 2018, two African American men entered a Starbucks in downtown Philadelphia and asked to use the restroom, but the clerk refused them and asked them to leave. As the two men refused to leave, the clerk called the police, and the two men were arrested. This act of racial discrimination caused widespread protests. As the commentary notes, the Starbucks incident brought the discrimination that colored people, especially African Americans face in everyday life into the spotlight. Racism in the workplace is even more appalling. For example, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, after a nine-month investigation, declared that General Motor did allow racially discriminatory working environment. African-American workers were subject to attacks and threats of racist remarks; toilets in the workplace were claimed as “for whites only”; African-American employees were called “monkeys” and warned to “go back to Africa”; white workers wore shirts with Swastika under their work clothes; the nickname “Nigger” could be heard everywhere.

Racial discrimination in the US health care system is also evident in the response to and treatment of the COVID-19 epidemic. An investigation of the National Public Radio in Tennessee found that the majority of novel coronavirus tests in Memphis were conducted in affluent, white-predominant suburbs, rather than in low-income, African-American neighborhoods; the majority of novel coronavirus tests in Nashville were done in clinics located in white communities, while testing agencies located near minority communities have been unable to obtain testing facilities and protective equipment. The distribution of testing sites in these areas shows that there has long been a marked disparity in access to health care among different ethnic groups. An American biotech data company has analyzed medical billing information from several states and found that for African Americans who reported cough and fever to doctors, the doctors seldom arranged them for novel coronavirus tests which were then rare. For ethnic minorities with high rates of underlying diseases, such delays in diagnosis and treatment are extremely harmful. Marc Morial, president of the National League of Cities, said, “Bias against African Americans exist among health care workers and the medical system, and African Americans receive less and poorer health care than White Americans.” In order to eliminate the discrimination against ethnic minorities in the COVID-19 epidemic, the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent notes in a statement that structural discrimination might exacerbate inequalities in access to health care and treatment, which would lead to racial disparities in rehabilitation outcomes and increase mortality and morbidity among African Americans. It also calls on all governments to commit to ensuring racial equity and equality when providing health care to all during the epidemic.

IV. Will There Be Another George Floyd?

The race relationship between Whites and African Americans remains the core of the race issue in the United States. Taking into account a large number of recent polls in the United States, three general characteristics can be summarized as follows:

First, serious racial discrimination against African Americans still exists in the United States. A poll conducted by NBC in 2016 shows that 77% of Americans believed there existed racial discrimination against African Americans, with 52% considering it very serious. In a poll in 2017, 57% of African Americans said they felt increasingly threatened by whites. According to a 2018 report on the Pew Research Center website, 81% of African Americans believed that racial discrimination was still a serious problem in modern society, and 92% of African Americans believed that whites had an advantage over them in society. A Pew survey in 2019 also finds that about two thirds of respondents believed that African Americans were discriminated against when they dealt with law enforcement and justice departments, compared with whites.

Second, race relations in the United States continue to deteriorate. According to the latest survey jointly conducted by the New York Times and the CBS in 2016, 69% of respondents said race relations in the United States as a whole were poor. 60% of those surveyed said race relations in the United States were deteriorating, up from just 38% a year ago. In a 2017 Gallup poll, 42% of Americans said they were extremely worried about race relations in the United States, 7 percentage points higher than in 2016 and hitting a record high in the 17 years of Gallup survey. As reported by the View on Race in America 2019 of the Pew Research Center, about 58% of the respondents said, “race relations in the United States are very bad.” About 65% said, “racist speech has become increasingly common in American society in recent years.”

Third, the American people are divided in their understandings of racial discrimination. A survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2013 finds that 70% of African Americans believed they were treated less equally than whites when dealing with the police, and only 37% of whites agreed on it; 68% of African Americans believed they were treated unequally in court compared to whites, and only 27% of whites agreed on it. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that African Americans and White Americans are deeply divided in their attitudes toward the police. 64% of African Americans believe that police abuse is a problem in their communities, nearly 4 times as many as 17 % of whites who share this view. Only 48% of African Americans have confidence in police enforcement, compared with 83% of whites. White and African Americans have different perceptions of the recent George Floyd incident, with about 65% of whites and 15% of African Americans considering it as an isolated incident, while 81% of African Americans see the incident as an act pattern common in the United States. A poll conducted just after George Floyd’s death finds that 77% of white respondents said the police were trustworthy, compared with 36% of African Americans, less than half of the former.

As Obama, the former president of the United States, pointed out in his address on the George Floyd incident, the United States cannot eliminate racism overnight which has an over-400-year history, since it involves slavery, the Apartheid Act, and the institutional racial ideology. At the same time, with the changes in the ethnic structure of the population, cultural and religious differences, the continued growth in the number of immigrants, the competition for socio-economic resources, and many other factors developing in step, the resurgence of white supremacy has been a reality. And that’s why race relations will remain the biggest source of division and conflicts in American Society for a long time to go.

Racism in law enforcement and justice is essentially just a part of America’s institutional, systemic, and structural racism, and until the racism in the United States and the roots of racial discrimination are eradicated, police violence against African Americans will continue to occur. As protests continue across the United States over the death of George Floyd, the US Bureau of Prisons issued a statement announcing that on June 3, an African American prisoner at the Federal Prison in New York City, who also happened to be named Floyd, died after being pepper-sprayed by a correctional officer.