'I can't breathe!': The federal government's responsibility

More aggressive government interventions are needed in order to mitigate the precarious and life-threatening existence of black and brown bodies.

"I can't breathe!" were the last words Eric Garner managed to say as he was detained in a chokehold by New York City police officers. Although this utterance was particular to the moments of his last breaths, it can also be symbolically interpreted to refer to the marginalized existence of black and brown bodies in the United States.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have been undermined by the deeply ingrained ideologies of difference. Ideologies that both construct and make assumptions about those persons, individuals and bodies that do not conform to that which is constituted as normal, appropriate, proper, acceptable or includable. Those persons, individuals, and bodies that have historically included those that have been deemed as other, "deviant" or different such as blacks, Latinas and Latinos, women, the poor, the disabled, the sexualized, the linguistically and culturally different, the undocumented, and the assumed terrorist, among others. These ideologies have resulted in a precarious existence for those who are considered "other" in the dominant public discourse.

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The government, the media and the public have all participated in these dominant discourses, whether via active voice or complicit silence. Historically, the cultural construction of difference materialized via ideologies of meritocracy and exceptionalism, theologies of the sacred and the profane, the psychologies of the normal and abnormal, and the psychic ordering of xenophobias in order to maintain hierarchies of acceptability, respectability, privilege and expendability. To be clear, difference, per se, is not a problem at all; it is the false and pejorative ideological assumptions and manifest actions and interactions that are a problem.

My focus of concern is that at no point, until recently, has there been an interrogation of ideologies of difference by the federal government. In fact, on the one hand, the Reagan administration's response was for a society blind to the spectrum of difference; on the other hand, it also contributed by producing the empirically false narrative of the "welfare queen." Many studies have found evidence of unconscious bias in everyday acts such as teaching practices, the differential responsiveness of school service providers, the discriminatory hiring practices toward applicants with a criminal record and racial or ethnic names on a resume.

Many of these unconscious acts of bias often have unintended (and sometimes life-threatening) consequences. My colleague, John Jackson, talks about racial experiences in everyday situations which he refers to as "racial paranoia," a sense of racially based distrust that produces unintended consequences. While the majority of these unintended consequences are low in risk, there are times when they do become life-threatening. We know of such situations with the continued killings of unarmed black and Latino victims such as Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Noel Polanco, Reynaldo Cuevas, Renisha McBride, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, among many others. These are lives that the law constituted as not just "deviant," but expendable.

Assumptions of difference have a substantial influence on the experience, life conditions and treatment of marginalized youth. It's imperative that the false and pejorative ideologies are challenged and contested. As I argued in a recent article, "Deviance as Pedagogy," we need to move away from a politics of respectability posture that overlooks, shuns and polices the deviant and move toward a more serious consideration of the transformative pedagogical possibilities in marginalized youth cultures.

Over a year ago, President Obama spoke about the problem of race, racial bias and prejudice in light of the Trayvon Martin decision. In a historic speech, he spoke to the urgency for doing something, but only really emphasized the importance of having conversations. Pejorative ideologies persist due to the lack of critical dialogue, which can be attributed to being precluded by political correctness. But there's much more that needs to be done.

There are at least three areas in which transformative work can take place:

1. The federal government needs to take a stronger position, with more vehement sanctioning of violence against unarmed suspects. The questions need to be asked: Is it justifiable to take the life of an unarmed person for petty crimes such as jaywalking or selling of cigarettes? Why do antagonistic relationships exist between marginalized communities and those who are supposed to protect and serve them? And, why are the lives of so many black and brown bodies taken by the police?

A USA Today report estimates that at least two black persons per week were killed by a police officer from 2005 to 2012. This evidence is symptomatic of the social policy shifts from the nation's former "War on Poverty" to punitive policies of mass incarceration, which position the marginalized as deviant, oppositional and a problem. Assuming any body or an entire community is a problem ... is a problem. The federal government must lead the nation in shifting toward more humanizing social policies and just practices.

2. The federal government must change social and education policies to ones that foster community dialogue and facilitate the breaking down of falsely assumed ideologies of difference. I don't mean the organizationally gratuitous diversity training. Beliefs are deeply engrained in the psyche and materialize in our everyday interactions. They cannot be changed in a few hours in a diversity or multicultural training session. What is needed is the kind of longstanding experience and process of deconstructive questioning that comes from the critical teachings of social justice education. This means the nation needs to invest more in professionals in social work, social policy and education who are trained to lead the ongoing work that is necessary to challenge and contest such pervasive and taken-for-granted ideologies of difference.

3. Given that ideology permeates daily conversations, thinking and practices, everyone should question false ideologies in their everyday lives. The protests in Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island, N.Y. and other parts of the country are important examples of this. As David Wall Rice eloquently states, "The turn, then, is that the protest, the anger, the rage is the truth. It is healthy and justifiable."

In order to construct new possibilities, ideologies of difference need to be challenged and contested in everyday interactions. But we also need the federal government to lead and promote more humanizing social policies and practices.

We need a cultural shift in the understanding of difference: one that moves from seeing someone who is different as the "radically different other" to viewing difference as the relational and connected constitution of ourselves. Only then will everyone's breath be affirmed.

Dixon-Román is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice.