I Can’t Breathe and This Is Why

Yvette E. Pearson, Ph.D., P.E., F.ASCE, is the associate dean for accreditation, assessment and strategic initiatives at Rice University in Houston. She has been an active member of ASCE for two decades, taking on a variety of leadership roles for several sustainability, education and diversity committees and programs. She currently chairs ASCE’s Members of Society Advancing an Inclusive Culture (MOSAIC), and recently launched the Engineering Change Podcast.

In today’s Member Voice article, Pearson is not writing about civil engineering. She’s writing about the civil systems that make up civil engineering: the people. She writes about why the recent death of George Floyd and the subsequent civil unrest hits so close to home to her; why racism in this country is something that everyone needs to be working to eliminate; and how people can start that healing process and improve society.

I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the events in our country this past week. As everyone knows (though not all are willing to acknowledge), what we’re seeing and experiencing started long before we knew the names George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Eric Garner, and so many others.

headshot of Pearson

I decided to write this article as an outlet for the stress and the pain I feel and to share insights that will inform people who have not had these experiences with the hope of motivating change. I am not writing this as a representative of Rice University or the American Society of Civil Engineers. I write this as a Black woman in America. The mother of a Black child. The daughter of Black parents. The sister, aunt, niece and cousin of Black men, women and children.

As I drive to and from work every day (pre-coronavirus stay-at-home orders), on road trips, etc., I am constantly mindful of what I should and should not do in the event that I’m stopped by police. I wonder if I’ll be shot for reaching for my crutch to get out of the car. My mother worries about me being killed for not raising my arms if asked – or commanded. You see, I’m disabled. I have limited mobility and I can’t raise one of my arms. One of my hands stays in a fist. I was born with cerebral palsy. It’s been that way all my life. So the thought of the very real possibility of being killed for “resisting” or for an officer feeling “threatened” because of my limitations raises deep concerns every time I get into a vehicle.

Many of you are thinking this will never be a problem if I don’t do anything to get stopped, and you’re wrong. I, like countless other Black people, have been stopped for driving while black (DWB). Years ago I was stopped by two White police officers on a dark, deserted section of I-10 between Houston and Baton Rouge (when I was younger and my limitations were not as severe as they are now), ordered to get out of my car, and when I asked (calmly) why I was being stopped, there was no response. My mom, who was in the front passenger seat, started to get out of the car asking what was going on with her daughter and the cops yelled at her with utter disrespect. How do I know I was stopped for DWB? I was not given any citation – not even a warning. Before finally letting me get back into my car one of the officers said they couldn’t tell if my license plate was a Southern University or an LSU plate. Translation, DWB.

During that same year my brother was stopped in Baton Rouge for DWB by a White officer who held a gun to his head, yelled at him, called him a n*, and threatened to shoot him if he even so much as looked at him. Again, no citation, no warning. DWB. It frightens me to think that if my brother had asked a simple question about why he was being stopped, he would not be with us today. And the officer would have certainly come up with a lie and he would have been believed because cameras were not ubiquitous at that time. And now, even though they are, cops still get away with murder.

Years later, when my brother moved to Dallas, he was stopped again for DWB. He was headed to a friend’s house and was stopped, handcuffed, and forced to sit on the curb while the officer searched his car and ran his license all while saying things like, “You need to tell me if you have warrants. Are you sure you don’t have any warrants? Why do you have all these clothes in the back of your car?” It’s very clear that this officer stopped my brother because he was fishing for an arrest, and he assumed a young Black man would have warrants. And if having a junky car was a crime, lots of folks would be in trouble. Again, no citation, no warning, nothing. After yanking him up from the ground by his arm, hurting his rotator cuff, the officer ultimately told my brother the light above his license plate was out. And for a Black man, that results in a traffic stop, being handcuffed, and a vehicle search. Translation, DWB.

When I see situations like those with George Floyd and so many others, I think, “There but for the grace of God go I, or my brother, or my friends.” For this reason, our conversations with our children are different from most people’s. I recall telling my daughter at a very young age – as young as 3 years old – not to open her little purse when we’re in a store because there was a possibility that while she was taking something out she might be falsely accused of putting something in.

Fast forward about a decade (give or take) and “the talk” came. Not the talk that all parents have with their kids as they enter puberty; rather, the talk that nearly every Black parent has with their children at some point, many before they are out of elementary school – what to do and what not to do if stopped by the police. Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying all police are bad. Also, not all bad police are White. I have known several good cops, some of whom are family members or family friends; and I’ve been happy to see countless officers speak out against the officers in Minneapolis or even join in the protests. I have also known bad Black cops. The problem is that the system has failed to root out the bad seeds on the police force; not only the perpetrators of crimes like those against George Floyd, but also the people who protect them. Thus, the problem persists. And it leads to other problems.

Look at the situation with Amy Cooper in Central Park. Had Christian Cooper not been videoing her, that incident could have had a very different outcome. Things like this happen because based on the history of racism in this country, people know that they can bring utterly false accusations against Black people and be believed. Too many Black people, especially Black men, have been arrested, imprisoned, executed on death row, hung, shot, or otherwise slaughtered because of false accusations.

When will it end? When will false accusations like Amy’s become illegal? On the surface, it may seem small to some; however, given the painful examples from our history in America, Mr. Cooper could very well have lost his life because of false accusations from a White woman.

This systemic racism manifests itself throughout the fabric of our society, including on college campuses. There have been numerous incidents of police being called for Black students and faculty who were just going about their days, and in most cases, nothing was done to punish the people who made the calls and the false accusations. Here are links to some examples that have occurred very recently (not all were White perpetrators):

  Faculty member calls the police because a Black student won’t change seats after someone else leaves the class.

Custodian calls police to report a Black student who “seems out of place” while eating lunch in the living room of her residence hall.

Faculty member calls police for Black student who put her feet on a chair.

Swimmer held at gunpoint by police while returning from a college swim meet.

Police called for Black student napping in residence hall.

Some of the callers/false accusers got what essentially amounts to a slap on the wrist and were “forced” to do some type of diversity training. I believe this type of misbehavior will continue until laws are passed that make these types of calls and false accusations illegal and accusers are punished for what they do.

All of the incidents I shared above occurred on college campuses or involved college students engaged in campus-sanctioned activities. This shows me, my daughter, my brother, my niece and nephews and my colleagues who are Black that neither our education, nor the neighborhoods we live in, nor anything else matters to people who hold deep-seated hatred for Black Americans. And little has been done by our leaders to hold them accountable for their wrong-doing and to put policies and practices in place to deter this behavior in the future.

Like a lot of parents who have children on the verge of transitioning to college, I’m thinking about the best schools for my daughter to attend – schools that are a good fit for her, schools that offer strong programs in her area of interest, what the cost of attendance is, what scholarship opportunities there are, whether she’ll attend a university near home or far away, and how we’ll both adjust to her being away from home. As a parent of a Black child, I also have to ask questions like: Is this a campus where my daughter will be safe, not just as a woman, but as a Black woman? Will the police be called because someone thinks my daughter “seems out of place” in her dorm or anywhere else on the campus? Will she be able to sit in a campus coffee shop without being harassed? Will she have an equal and equitable opportunity to succeed?

As Blacks, most of us have to work twice as hard to get half as far as our non-minority peers; and we have to do that with the added stress of what we face in society every day, wondering if going about a normal day might ultimately cost us our lives or our loved ones their lives.

Over the past week, I’ve received questions about what we can do to change things. Of course, change will not happen overnight, but here are a few thoughts on how we can move in a positive direction toward effecting the change that is needed.

  1. Recognize and acknowledge systemic racism exists. For too long people have been satisfied with saying that there are a “few bad apples” in police departments or other settings who carry out injustices and they fail to recognize the people who create and support the systems that do not hold them accountable. We cannot solve a problem that we do not acknowledge or that we don’t acknowledge fully. We must acknowledge systemic racism exists and that it impacts every facet of life in America.
  2. Vote. Pay attention to what people are saying (or not saying) and doing (or not doing) not only when racial and other atrocities occur, but also on a daily basis. Most people can say “the right thing” in the moment when something bad happens, especially when they are on camera. But what are they doing and saying when they are off camera? Exercise your right to vote and vote for people who unashamedly denounce and work against all forms of discrimination and injustice toward any groups and who do so “when nobody’s looking.”
  3. Decide what you can do as an individual from wherever you are. If you cannot get out to protest peacefully with the masses or don’t feel comfortable doing so, perhaps you can give to organizations that are boots on the ground (or wheels on the ground) for social justice. Or perhaps you can organize and/or participate in meetings among people in your community – at work or at home – to identify challenges and devise strategies to overcome them. There’s always something we can do.
  4. Don’t leave it up to Black people (or other people who face discrimination) to solve the problem of racism (or any other “-ism”). There are a lot of people who believe that efforts towards justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) should fall squarely on the backs and the shoulders of those of us who are part of marginalized populations, and this can’t be farther from the truth. It’s everyone’s responsibility. Everyone has a role to play, and there’s no middle ground. Either you’re for JEDI or you’re against it. And if you’re a bystander, you’re against it. Speak up and correct your colleagues and peers when you hear a racist (or any other “-ist”) joke/comment. Question why certain people are being weeded out of the applicant pool. Help create policies and/or processes to eliminate inequities at your school or on your job. Report discrimination, harassment, and other unethical or unlawful behaviors when you witness them.

And finally, I offer this.

I think any good-hearted compassionate human being is hurt by what we’ve seen in America. I also believe that sometimes things do not impact us as much as they should unless they are happening to us or to someone we love or care about. I say that to admonish you to examine your network – personally and professionally. If it looks too homogenous, expand it. There are people in this country who have never engaged with others outside of their race, and that’s unbelievable. Get to know people who have identities, cultures and experiences different from your own. Really get to know them. Open up so they’ll get to know you. Become part of each other’s lives. If more people do this, fewer will be numb to the experiences of others. When things “hit home” people are more likely to take action for change.

I hope this helps.

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  1. Mrs. Pearson,
    Thank you very much for sharing your experience with us. It helps me understand a bit more the unrest and frustration I see out there. It is justified and I hope it continues to grow until real positive change comes about.
    Greetings from San Antonio, Texas (Home of the Largest MLK March!)
    Hernan Jaramillo, PE. ASCE Member.

  2. Thanks for explaining/sharing. I read the whole write up. It was worth it.
    LifeTime ASCE Member. Retired PE

  3. Mrs. Pearson;
    Thank you for sharing your insight about this very serious issue that we all must confront in America. I am listening and I hope others are also.
    We are a diverse culture whether we acknowledge that or not. We must learn how to live at peace with that statement. I think part of that learning curve must come from listening and reaching across the divide between races to close it like the stitches that close a wound.
    Is this possible? It has to be. The future of our nation depends on our closing this wound.
    It is incumbent on all of us to make our diversity a workable ingredient of our society.
    Thank you again.

  4. Thank you. Has ASCE issued or will ASCE be issuing a statement condemning racism and police brutality? ASCE is a large and influential organization and it seems to me that they should take a stand on a matter of such national importance. I did not see anything until I found your letter as a featured article in ASCE News. This is a “front page” matter that warrants a statement from ASCE. Thank you again for your well-written and candid article.

      • Thank you Ben. I don’t know if I missed it before(?) or if it was just posted today but I applaud the statement and the fact that it is “front and center”. Awesome.

      • Ben,

        You’ve done a great job with your COVID series on Plot Points. Consider a series for black engineers to tell their stories of success and struggle, as Ms. Pearson eloquently did above. Awareness of systemic racism is just one thing ASCE can do for its community, but more substantive changes should be championed:

        1. Education. Civil Engineering curricula should have courses that cover how federal, state, and local policies on development from the 20th century to now negatively impact opportunities in communities of color. Richard Rothstein’s “Color of Law” is a great blueprint for such classes. Courses that cover Sustainability could very easily cover how racial justice cuts across sustainability pillars of economic, environmental, and social justice. Licensed professionals would also benefit from continuous education PDH courses covering this important topic.

        2. Advocacy and government. It’s great to know that there are diversity & inclusion committees that civil engineers can contribute to or get involved with, whether at the student chapter or professional level. ASCE encourages policy activism through its Legislative Fly-in, but they could also encourage involvement in local planning and zoning boards so civil engineers can advocate for equitable policies. Bring attention to career opportunities at all levels of government, and even to run for public office.

        3. Drive change at private firms. Demand for civil engineers remains high, so encourage careers at firms that truly abide by their stated values. Are project management opportunities equal? Does the firm target projects that have short- and long-term positive impacts on surrounding communities, or do they carry liabilities that will exacerbate inequities?

        I am not an expert in these issues, and defer to those who have committed their careers to these tackling them, as well as those who can attest to first-hand experience with systemic racism. I believe ASCE can galvanize its members and attract students to the profession if solutions to these issues were given a strong platform for discussion and action.

  5. Thank you, Ms. Pearson, for openly and honestly sharing your story and for challenging us as civil engineers and as a society. As a fellow academic, I’m saddened by the stories that you shared from our universities.

    I’m an active submitter and reviewer for the Journal of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering. I’m curious to know what the ASCE journals are doing to “look under the hood” of their daily operations and policies to root out systemic racism and bias. For example, perhaps some or all of the peer-review should be blind to limit discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, or even institution.

    Again thanks for the excellent article.

    • Thank you for this comment. ASCE Publications is committed to providing an ethical and fair peer review experience for all its authors. An obligation of all ASCE editors and reviewers is to ‘give unbiased consideration to all manuscripts offered for publication and shall judge each on its merits without regard to any personal relationship or familiarity with the author(s), or to the race, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, ethnic origin, citizenship, professional association, or political philosophy of the author(s)’ (ASCE. 2019. Publishing in ASCE Journals: A Guide for Authors. https://doi.org/10.1061/9780784479018). Each of our journals relies on the expertise of an international Editorial Board, and we seek to enhance the diversity of these Boards through initiatives such as the ASCE Journals Early Career Editorial Board pilot program which provides editorial leadership opportunities for the next generation of researchers.

      Although ASCE Journals employ single-blind peer review in which the reviewers are anonymous to the authors, we recognize that there may be potential to further minimize bias in a double-blind system. Our staff and Editors regularly reevaluate our editorial policies based on best practices and current trends. Transitioning our peer review system to a double-blind process presents some challenges in terms of resources and staff workload, but it is an important time for us to revisit this conversation with our Editors and consider what more we can do to eliminate bias. This is a discussion we will explore further with our Editors during our upcoming Editors’ Workshop this fall.

      –Dana Compton, Editorial Director, ASCE Publications

  6. Thank you. Thank you, Professor Pearson, for the clarity and force of your exposition.
    I send you and your daughter good wishes for her college life.

  7. Thank you, Mrs. Pearson, for your straight forward comments. I am sorry for everything you’ve suffered. I was fortunate to grow up in a small Ohio city that had a small black population. We generally did not date interracially, but we did dance together and became friends. I remain a good friend with the only Negro boy that graduated with my class. He had a military career and his children excelled in the military. Generally speaking, I believe the police are good people with families like the rest of us. Yes, there are bad ones, too. I continue to pray for good people of all races.

  8. Thank you for sharing this.
    It’s just so heartbreaking that racism still exists and that POC have to endure so many struggles that White Americans would never face.

    Having to tell your small child not to open her pursue because she might be wrongly accused of stealing. I just couldn’t stop myself from getting emotional

  9. Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective openly and honestly. I plan to be part of the solution in my part of our world. Debra Hughes, P.E., Elkhart, Indiana

  10. Dear Dr. Pearson, Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I see the “just a few bad apples” argument a lot, and it always comes across to me as a week defense and an excuse for not reforming a broken system. I will definitely share your perspective with my networks.
    Sincerely, Rich Juricich

  11. Thank you for sharing your story, Dr. Pearson.
    The stories you shared vividly reminds me of my own experience as a black person living in America. Like your brother, I have also been pulled over for my license plate lights “not being bright enough”, been followed by cops including a turn-by-turn following of my car (brand new car with absolutely no issues. And I NEVER speed) for over ten minutes, the officer eventually turning around and going away when I pulled into my office parking lot.

    I grew up in a third world country, I do not remember ever being afraid of loosing my life to a law enforcement officer. That changed quickly when I moved to the US about a decade ago and really began to understand what it means to be black in America. In eight years of living in the US, I have had the N-word screamed at me from a random white lady with absolutely zero provocation, being followed around in stores/buildings, been accused of being a criminal for simply asking for a refund at a store, not to mention daily micro aggressions such as people frantically locking up their vehicles (as many as seven times!) when I walk or park near them.

    Practicing as an engineer in America hasn’t been any easier. One of my most shocking moments as a black engineer was when I introduced myself once as an engineer at a site and this white lady either thought I was crazy or an imposter and proceeds to ask about my training etc. Although she never said it out loud, she certainly couldn’t envision a black engineer with multiple civil engineering degrees (this was 2016, not 1916).

    I am glad people are beginning to have a tiny window into what it means to be black in America. I hope the events over the past couple of weeks will lead to some change, but I am not too optimistic as to abandon all the additional self preservation measures one has to practice in order to stay alive as a black man in America.

    Thank you once again, Dr. Pearson

  12. Thank you for a powerful presentation of your insights, experience, testimonial, and suggestions for change. It is amazing that society does not yet universally recognize that racism adversely affects all of us. Your statement appeals to all and will contribute to the solution.

  13. Dear Ms. Pearson,
    I cannot thank you enough for sharing your experience. As a white mother of a black son who is 13, I live in terror as to how to protect him. It felt against all my “white mother” instincts to have to educate him (starting when he was just 10 years old!) on how he will be perceived and the potential aggressions he might face just for having brown skin. It still breaks my heart. I remember when he was 10 years old and trick-or-treating with his best friend who is white. His friend spoke aggressively and disrespectfully to a man giving out candy. And, the man yelled at my son, not his white friend….it brought my son to tears – he just didn’t understand it. He is soft spoken and had thanked the man politely before his friend mouthed off.

    And I am acutely aware that I cannot fully understand everything that black people in America have to face because I have never had to live it. So, to hear stories like yours helps so much. I am hopeful that we are beginning to be at a place where people of all skin color can understand how pervasive this behavior is in our society and SUPPORT CHANGE.
    Thank you again,
    Amanda Spencer, P.E., ASCE Member


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