We Can’t Breathe: A History of Violence Against African Americans in the US

Co-created with Keri Gray. Video edited by Njaimeh Njie.- https://www.dustinpgibson.com/offerings/wecantbreathe

Dr. David J. Childs, Ph. D.
Northern Kentucky University

Introduction: An all too Familiar Story in My Life
This is all too familiar.” This is the phrase that comes to my mind when I think about yet another slaying of an unarmed black man by the hands of law enforcement. I was a young man right out of high school when Timothy Thomas was shot in the back by a police officer in downtown Cincinnati. I remember back then in 2001, our city was torn up and rioting ensued for several days. Some folks were afraid to go outside, and even then, just like now, curfews were implemented. I was one of the angry black youths that were in disbelief because of the injustice and racism that was all too familiar in our city. I was frustrated with the treatment of black youth as thugs, criminals and inhuman in my city. As a young man I had been harassed by law enforcement, had my car searched for non-existent drugs and apprehended because “I fit the description.” As a poor African American young adult, racism was just a part of the backdrop of my life that I accepted. When I went on to college I began to find the words to describe what was going on and how to better fight against discrimination.

Here We Go Again
Here we are again, yet another death of one of my black brethren at the hands of the so called authorities. But this time seems different with George Floyd’s death. The racist authority figures seem to be getting emboldened, covering up, lying, unabashedly using excessive force, being protected by both the higher ups and by laws of officer immunity. The situation here in the US seems to be at a tipping point. Floyd’s death is a part of a long history of violence against African Americans. The protests are different and there is a sense of desperation mixed with hurt in the air that is very unsettling. It was difficult for me to write about this topic, I could not find the words. I did not feel I would do the situation justice. But to pay homage to my slain brothers and sisters and in my own form of protest I must write.
A few months before Floyd’s death, Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down by two white men who chased him while he jogged in his own neighborhood in South Georgia. This was among other high profile slayings of black men and women in recent past. With the recent string of African American deaths by the hand of law enforcement we must understand that violence against African Americans has always been an ugly part of US history.

Police Shootings as Modern Lynching
Systematic violence against African Americans is nothing new. In fact, it has been a staple in the US since the early days of African American history. Since slavery became widespread in the late 1600’s violence was used to quell the freedom and movement of African Americans. Indeed slave masters, slave ship captains, slave catchers and slave patrollers used unrestricted and unrestrained violence as a matter of course to control and instill fear in the black community. Slaves had hands cut off and various other body parts mutilated to keep them from escaping. Whippings were the method of punishment often used to maintain order on plantations. Slaves often were killed with no due process or punishment implemented by law against slave masters. Perhaps one of the most terrorizing forms punishment for blacks both slave and free during antebellum times was hanging (commonly called lynching). Between 1877 and 1950 there were 4,084 African Americans hanged. But historians have come to see the term lynching as being a term that encompasses more than just hanging. That is (In a historical sense) lynching is any form of capital punishment against blacks without due process, including shooting, burning, torturing or hanging. In this way, all of the slayings by the hands of law enforcement and other authorities can be properly called lynchings. Thus, the killing of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, Eric Garner, and Ahmaud Arbery are a part of the long history of lynching in the United States. Below I have included some references and more resources for students, educators and the general public to learn more information about the history of violence against African Americans by law enforcement.      

Teaching Resources
Teaching Ideas and Resources to Help Students Make Sense of the George Floyd Protests
Teaching the Legacy of Lynching in the United States  
Domestic Terror: Understanding Lynching During the Jim Crow Era
Racial Violence in America: Lynchings, 1877 to 1920
Teaching “America’s National Crime”
15 Classroom Resources for Discussing Racism, Policing, and Protest
Teaching about Race, Racism and Police Violence
Youth and Police
Lesson Plan: Police, Race and Unrest in America’s Cities
Lesson Plan: Every Mother’s Son

References and other Resources
History of Lynching
Minneapolis Police Use Force Against Black People at 7 Times the Rate of Whites
Police killed more than 100 unarmed black people in 2015
Young black men killed by US police at highest rate in year of 1,134 deaths
Number of U.S. Blacks Killed by Police Hard to Pin Down with No Official Figures
Slavery and Violence in the Old South: An Interview with Jeff Forret
Treatment of slaves in the United States
Conditions of Antebellum Slavery


  1. It seems to me the more days that go back, the more despicable things become towards black people in America. This article brought the fact that lynchings are happening to this day, one happened less than 2 weeks ago! The fact that there are people in the world that are not attesting the the Black Lives Matter movement or speaking negatively towards everyone protesting just shows that they are the problem. There IS a race issue in America, and until everyone accepts that and uses their white privilege for good, it will be hard to disperse of it. The references, as well as the article itself, will definitely be used by me to educate not only my future students, but my current peers as well that are not understanding the significance of this matter.

  2. This article does a great job at bringing light the unjust and unfair treatment of African Americans. It provides personal experience as well as plenty of outside information on the topic. In the article it brings up ideas that I never even thought about having a possible correlation. The idea that by the definition of lynching, the actions of law enforcement in the cases he listed would constitute as lynching. The references/resources are relevant and helpful to teaching people about such a complicated topic.

  3. The unjust slayings of African Americans is a huge problem here in the United States. It has been, and i believe mostly always will be. Each generation I believe it gets better, but I feel there are always certain individuals based on their beliefs or where they’re located geographically, that overcoming stereotypes will just be unrealistic of them. I did not know that the term of lynching could be used for so many different ways to describe “punishments” African Americans were subjected to. If all forms of punishment are included in the term lynching, I think that would defiantly down play the level of cruelty for future students learning about this time in American history.

  4. As more details come out about the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery the state of America today becomes more frightening. It has been reported that a chase occurred before the shooting video that went viral. Arbery was struck by one of the vehicles chasing him as he tried to get out of the neighborhood and away from his pursuers. He changed direction to try and evade the chasers. The new details paint a picture of a prolonged attempt to shoot a black man in broad daylight. It is worth remembering that it took 74 days after the incident for the pursuers to be arrested. It was not until there was a public outcry from the video, that action happened. It makes you wonder how many events have happened over the years with no witnesses.

  5. In recent events this article is very appropriate. America needed to have this discussion sooner than later and it unfortunate that, yet another man had to be killed for these conversations to begin. The systematic racism happening in America is something that I am embarrassed about being well black and American. I want nothing more than to live a life full of opportunity but because the color of my skin I will not be able to be I am brown. No kid should have to worry about things like this but unfortunately, they have to if they are brown. I hope that one day changes are made for the sake of our future African American generations.

  6. Words cannot begin to describe the injustices African Americans have been subjected to, but the reference to slave patrollers, slave catchers and other enforcement bodies is essential for clarification. The antagonistic movements labeled “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” do not acknowledge the long-standing racial bias ingrained in law enforcement bodies dating back hundreds of years. The recognition of this pattern is necessary for deconstruction. When the Black Lives Matter movement began I was young and sheltered from the reality of the world, but now as a young adult I actively stand with and support the movement. The references provided by Dr.Childs above are a great start to educating youth on the systemic prejudice present in their world.

  7. For many decades, the black community has faced means of control from so-called “authorities” in the United States. This violent history goes back through time: thousands of lynchings which still continues today. However, this reality is denied by some Americans, which is a sign of privilege. One cannot “explain away” the issues of someone else. Before I started listening, I also didn’t understand why the law-enforcement wouldn’t protect everyone. I didn’t understand why the Black Lives Matter movement existed. For the past few years, I have been committed to listening and learning. These things are the very least I can do. I’ve realized that this oppression that school had taught me about wasn’t just history; this is the reality for so many people of color. It is not enough to not be racist, but instead be anti-racist. A change is coming and I stand with those who are fighting for it.

  8. Just as described in this article by Dr. Childs, the recent events mirror that of history when it comes to violence against African Americans. In effort to establish and keep control, Childs tells of how force and abuse were used to maintain fear among slaves. I believe this, though in loose correlation is what is going on among protestors and the police force. What started out as peaceful protests, quickly turned into violent riots due to the instigation and brunt force used by police officers. Though there may or may not be other factors that contribute to the violence of the riots of current day, one thing remains true; that’s how people of color and their counterparts had the intent of peaceful protests, but were met by force, in order to maintain the dominance that has historically kept black lives as a lesser. Until we as the white majority come to terms with and change the sins that our ancestors have made and continue to make, history will repeat itself.

  9. Dr. Child’s gives us raw and real personal experiences of racism throughout his life. I think he discusses the topic very well and cuts straight to the truth of the matter. He gives evidence and article’s to further support his article and provides resources for us to educate ourselves more. He gave examples of how the treatment of slaves in the 1800s and the oppression of African Americans today are still relevant. The mistreatment of African Americans is still active and relevant and we are seeing that in the deaths of African Americans by Police Officers.

  10. In light of the recent happenings, Dr. Childs’ article is intriguing and emotionally influencing. His personal connection with discrimination is very educational and using several personal anecdotes really speaks more about this topic. I agree with him that sadly, violence against other races has always been apart of our country’s history. Though it is not right in any way, shape, or form, it happens and there are several stories to prove. Using slavery as an example shows that nothing has changed from the 1800s until now. Slavery was a huge part of our country that we thought got ebolished, but clearly did not because the mistreatment of African Americans still goes on in our country. Dr. Childs’ article is full of information and teaches many valuable lessons based on the traumatic events that have happened forever.

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