Black People Are Canaries in the Coal Mine

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canary in coal mine photo Black people are canaries in the coal mine

Photo by Michael Sonnabend under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 2.0

Black People are the Canaries in the Coal Mine

Hey, fellow white people: “Black people are the canaries in the coal mine”. So said @Erika_K_Wilson in a reply to @ShaunKing when he shared the video of the white nurse in Salt Lake City who was arrested for protecting her patient’s rights. Y’all white folk aren’t listening to Erika and Shaun, so maybe you’ll listen if another white person says it.

Black people are the canaries in the coal mine. See, it’s exactly what Erika said, but now my white skin gives it weight in your brain. And it was true when *she* said it. Authoritarians try their tactics first on the most marginalized among us. It’s only if the tactics are successful with them that they move on to less marginalized groups, and then to the majority.

#BlackLivesMatter is about being a canary in a coal mine. It’s not about wanting special privileges, or about anything other than *not dying* simply for coming in contact with a police officer. How many Black professionals have been harassed and arrested by police officers and you did nothing? When the case manager for a developmentally disabled man was shot for trying to talk down his client who was sitting in the middle of traffic and refused to move? Philando Castile killed with his hands in the air, a respected public school employee. Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy playing in a park, murdered by a police officer. And now suddenly we care when the professional is blond and female and white.

And guys, these are just the easiest to identify with. Imagine your friend, you know, the one who is *always* stoned and always broke, but essentially harmless, (imagine him with long, flowing, dark blond hair, if you must) makes a little extra cash selling loose cigarettes, gets assaulted by multiple police officers and dies begging “I can’t breathe.” Imagine that thousands of people take to social media and mock him for pleading for his life, laugh at you for calling it injustice and point out that he was breaking the law. Imagine how furious, helpless, disgusted you would be.

Black people are canaries in the coal mine. For those of you who don’t know the reference, before modern times, miners would take small birds, often canaries, into the mines with them as indicators on whether the air was safe to breathe. If the bird died, it was time for the miner to hightail it out of there. Wow, what a tremendous privilege it is for us white folk to have *other human beings* who test the air for us, unwillingly and too often unwittingly, to see if it is safe.

When the GOP went after voting rights, it started in Black neighborhoods and precincts. We didn’t pay attention, and now the air is bad in white precincts that are known to be blue, too, as shown last week in data released from Google’s voting assistance app from November 2016.

Martin Niemoeller’s famous poem applies here. In the United States, the first sentence should be: “They came for the Black people, and I did nothing, for I wasn’t Black”. It can be followed by gay and transgender people, by immigrants, by disabled people, by liberals and progressives, by union members. But us white folk, even white women? We can sit and do nothing, safely for us, for a long, long time before we are forced into action.

Black people are the canaries in the coal mine. And fellow white person, even if you’re crass enough to not care that Black people are dying of injustice, that LGBTQ folk are dying of injustice, that immigrants and progressives and union members (Heather Heyer was a member of IWW) are dying of injustice, even if none of that moves you, it’s time to move. It’s time to hightail it out of the coal mine and work to clean the air before diving back in. Because we’re next, you and I.

Black people are the canaries in the coal mine. And we need to listen for their voices.

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