How Can Death be the Great Equalizer in the Face of Inequality?

Published on: Author: Amy Shea Leave a comment
Photo by: Lujoma ny

Eight minutes and forty-six seconds. That’s how long an officer kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck resulting in his death from asphyxiation. In eulogizing Floyd, Reverend Al Sharpton said, “Since four hundred and one years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck”. Police brutality and the safety of people of color is currently at the forefront of national discussions. It feels as though we are on the precipice of change. This discussion has also begun widening out beyond police treatment of black Americans to the larger issue of systemic racism, which is at the heart of it all. Again, I quote Rev. Al Sharpton’s eulogy,

We were smarter than the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck. We could have run corporations instead of hustling in the street, but you had your knee on our neck…What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country. In education, in health services, and in every area of American life.

People of color don’t need me, a white woman, to tell them systemic racism is responsible for the many injustices they face each day. They are well aware of this. But as white citizens and allies we need to understand and educate ourselves on our privilege and the disparities that exists because of it, in order to be part of the solution and advocate for change.

I’ve spent the last three years researching death and dying for those experiencing homelessness in the States as part of my doctorate. Homelessness in the US is inextricably linked to systemic racism. It is one of many layers that make up the complex nature of homelessness. In the video Homelessness is a Symptom of Racism, Jeff Olivet and Marc Dones from the Center for Social Innovation discuss the institutional racism that has led to homelessness in the States disproportionately affecting black Americans. Dones notes in the interview that 45% – 50% of people in American homeless shelters are black, whereas only 13% of the American population are black. One example Dones points to as a major factor that’s led to such disproportion is redlining. Redlining occurred in the 1960s when the Federal Housing Authority backed policies that prevented black people from obtaining mortgages in certain areas. When asked about solutions, Dones and Olivet said it perfectly, “Stop being racist. We can solve racism and [that will] solve homelessness.”

The tragedy of deaths such as George Floyd’s rightly causes anger. That anger should also extend to the daily, sustained tragedy that is the intersection of racism & homelessness. When we see someone experiencing homelessness, it’s imperative to consider the societal factors that have played a part in leading that person to where they are.

Photo by: JMSuarez

As has been seen at protests, in news articles, and across social media, our job as allies should be to show our support, listen, learn, and advocate. We can utilize our privilege to extend it to all, so that it’s no longer a matter of privilege, but of equity. Just as men had to work to allow women the right to vote, white people need to work to make sure all people of color have the same opportunities to follow their dreams. We need to take our knee off their neck. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds is too long, so is four hundred years. The time for change is now.

If you’re interested in learning more about how homelessness, racism, and inequity intersect or if you’d like to donate to places working with people experiencing homelessness, please see below.

“How Inequality Shortens Lifespans”

End Homelessness: “Racial Disparities”…/racial-disparities-homelessn…/

“How the homeless population is changing…”…

“Homelessness is a Symptom of Racism”

Here are two homeless health care/medical respite units that are doing amazing work to give space and time for healing, as well as love, dignity, and care for those who come to the end of life while experiencing homelessness:


Olivet, Jeff & Marc Dones. “Homelessness is a Symptom of Racism.” Invisible People, 26 Sep. 2016,

Sharpton, Al. George Floyd Eulogy. ABC News, 4 Jun. 2020,

Amy Shea is a DFA student at the University of Glasgow and is writing a doctorate entitled: “Not All Deaths are Created Equal”. She is supervised by Dr Naomi Richards and Dr Elizabeth Reeder, both members of the Glasgow End of Life Studies Group.

Twitter: @shea_writer


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