Welcome another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that attempts to reintroduce rational thought during a time when all sense of American history has somehow been forgotten.
In this week’s post, we’ll discuss the large-scale American cultural melee that has erupted from the recent court decisions in St. Louis and New York not to indict the police officers who had killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner, respectively.
As is usually the case, the national media and most analysts have put forth a reactionary canard that only attempts to rationalize the situation in a snapshot and does not take into context the historical ramifications of these events nor the consequences for the country.
By revisiting difficult issues as well as recognizing that our melting pot experiment has several serious cracks in the pewter, we can explain much more about the widespread feeling of injustice from all parts of society.
The Current: Injustice and Sensationalism
Thousands poured out onto the streets from their homes, dormitories, offices and shopping malls to protest. They held signs that read, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”, “I Can’t Breathe”, and “Black Lives Matter.”
Athletes, having been silent on many political issues for years, joined the voices of dissent and made statements with their attire, entrances, and post-game conversations. Even the President joined the fray in support of the athletes and their statements.
People were mad. People saw evil triumphing over the helpless with a Justice System that was blind. People didn’t understand it. People created labels to help them understand, fueled by Twitter hashtags, TV headlines, and talking heads.
But instead of actually understanding the issue, we’re left with pure sensationalism that will be forgotten by most, just as the Asian Airliner disappearances and the American Ebola scare were. Once media giants realize people are not tuning in as often to read a scary headline with all CAPS, they will move on to the next highest ratings generating story.
How can we explain the travesty of the police killings of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford III this year – not to mention the injustice following the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012?
We must view our society in a less reactionary form – which is difficult – it is in our nature to try and react and explain in a quick, easy, and catchy way. The roots of injustice from our fractured and messy history help to explain and offer a semblance of solution for people’s anger.
The Creation of Race as a Marker of Class and Servitude
The creation of race, the scaffolding of a hierarchical society, and divisions based on color are just some of the many legacies of slavery in the U.S. that have yet to dissolve. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, slaveholders in the agrarian sectors of the U.S. out-competed small planters and sharecroppers which left the majority of the laboring class as slaves of African descent. Family labor, indentured servants, and wage labor (mostly labor of European descent) declined significantly, leaving slavery (and inferiority) to be exclusively identified with or equated with people of African descent. Thus race and class structure was a manufactured social phenomenon.
White abolitionists would be tainted by this racist structure in objecting slavery not for the negative effects on black slaves, but the effects on the white conscious – a phenomenon only affecting a dominant group. These racialist beliefs easily survived the Civil War post 1865 and gained new life especially in Northern cities where freed blacks joined an already competitive labor population with European immigrants – leading to segregated societies both North and South of the Mason – Dixon line.
The legalization of segregation, confirmed by Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) validated the lifestyle desired by the lost culture of servitude and cemented the division between blacks and whites physically. While the “in your face” racism and forced segregation is often associated with the Deep South only, blacks were segregated and faced significant issues in the North through discriminatory housing, lending, educational, occupational, and zoning practices that led to defacto segregation, if not legalized.
The frustration of blacks in all parts of the country was seen through race riots in cities like Chicago in 1919, 1950, and across several cities in 1964. In a new, manufactured way outside of the legalese of slavery, African-Americans had become subjugated in a different way.
***Side note: If the idea of segregation in the North is incomprehensible to some, consider the riots in Boston of whites in the 1970’s over the busing of blacks in order to integrate schools. The “white flight” that followed in Boston and elsewhere is easily seen today where minority groups are living in specific areas that were at one point neighborhoods of investment.
Across the country, North and South, blacks and people of color were living in separate worlds from caucasians – but certainly not equal worlds as Thurgood Marshall proved as the plaintiff in the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954.
The forced integration of public facilities most immediately affected the South and the ensuing upheaval through the Civil Rights campaigns in the 1960’s is what is usually remembered: Dr. King leading peaceful sit ins, marches, boycotts, and giving tremendous speeches, lunch counter sit ins led by student protesters, federal troops forcing the integration of schools in Arkansas, and the high profile killings of blacks, eg. King and Medgar Evers.
These events and people of the Civil Rights movement should of course not be forgotten. But what needs to be highlighted is the less clear, less direct racism and discrimination in the North along with policies that have kept poor people, and specifically black Americans, separated through mass incarceration.
“Law and Order: The Hysteria of Tough on Crime”
Out of the development of the New Left movements of the 1960s in the U.S. came a response from politicians that has stymied the dreams of Civil Rights leaders: “Law and Order.”
No not the television drama, but the new policy initiated by Barry Goldwater and the new look Republicans of the 1960’s that sought to woo voters who were afraid of social progress and the elimination of their (white) society where blacks were subjugated as second class citizens.
The rise of violent domestic groups, such as the Weather Underground, radical student groups, drug using counter-culture groups, and anti-Vietnam war protesters stirred the pot for much of conservative America, but what really frightened many conservatives was the impending societal change if blacks were able to escape the fences of second class citizenship. In order to win over this large voting block, the Republican Party did two things: attempted to wrest control of the historically Democratic South, and create a “Tough on Crime” rhetoric and policy which was specifically meant to comfort whites (and themselves) in response to nonviolent civil disobedience of the Civil Rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Tonight there is violence in our streets, corruption in our highest offices, aimlessness among our youth, anxiety among our elderly. …Security from domestic violence, no less than from foreign aggression, is the most elementary form and fundamental purpose of any government, and a government that cannot fulfill this purpose is one that cannot command the loyalty of its citizens.” – excerpt from a Campaign stump speech by Barry Goldwater.
The roots of this idea of Law and Order came from the Presidential election of 1964 when Goldwater – seeing the rise of the racist Governor of Alabama George Wallace winning significant numbers of voters away from Lyndon Johnson during the Democratic primary – saw an opportunity to woo voters to the Republican side. Southern Democrats and many conservatives in the North had shown their hand in that the “tough on crime” rhetoric resonated with them.
Though LBJ ended up winning the election and pushing for the passage of further Civil Rights Legislation in 1965, 1964 was a watershed election year for the Republican party as it became entrenched in the South and their policy of Law and Order would become the norm in the administrations and Congresses to come.
New sets of Republican constituencies were thus courted through the use of racially charged code words—phrases and symbols that “refer indirectly to racial themes but do not directly
challenge popular democratic or egalitarian ideals.”
When Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, he and many Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress brought Law and Order (the euphemism for slowing social change through law enforcement) to the forefront of their directive. After all, it had been what their party platform had been about:
John Ehrlichmann, Special Counsel to the President, described the Nixon administration’s campaign strategy of 1968 in this way: “We’ll go after the racists. That subliminal appeal to the anti-African-American voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.”
It is difficult, Nixon discovered, to change law enforcement from the Federal level when it is managed and carried out at the local level. To clear this hurdle, he funneled massive amounts of money into executive agencies that specifically targeted drugs: one area where the Feds have direct control. Drugs, it was argued, were the principal cause behind the crime that was committed:
In 1971, Nixon claimed that drug addicts steal more than $2 billion worth of property per year. According to the FBI, however, the total value of all property stolen in the United States that year was $1.3 billion.
And so drugs, and locking up users, became the goal of law enforcement. Imprisonment, not therapy and rehabilitation became the goal. Crime, so the tale went according to the Conservatives, was a result of individual choice and not the result of poverty, necessity, social ills, or mental incapacity.
Nixon’s policies were intimately copied in the Reagan administration, again using the rallying cry of crime in the streets and suggesting that again it wasn’t the issue of poverty or social ills, or lack of opportunities which forced individuals into turning to crime:
“Here in the richest nation in the world, where more crime is committed than in any other nation, we are told that the answer to this problem is to reduce our poverty. This isn’t the answer…. Government’s function is to protect society from the criminal, not the other way around.”
This without a majority of public backing. In 1981, 58% of Americans believed that the roots of crime lay with unemployment and poverty. The War on Drugs continued; the support for the addicts diminished: 78% of funds allocated for combating drugs went to law enforcement, while the other 22% went to prevention. The frenzy increased in 1986 with the first Anti-Drug Abuse Act which required the military to be involved in narcotics operations and mandatory minimum sentences.
The first Bush administration 1988- 1992 actually outspent the previous administrations combined on anti-drug spending – which again was spent on incarcerating individuals, not on prevention or rehabilitation. There was no let up on the “Tough on Crime” movement with a Democrat in the White House as even tougher legislation was signed by Bill Clinton in 1994 and 1996. Asked to explain the inaction on other crime prevention legislation
One administration official said, “You can’t appear soft on crime when crime hysteria is sweeping the country.”
Segregation by Incarceration (SBI)
In 1975, there were an average of 400,000 people imprisoned in the U.S. By 2003, this number had increased to 2.1 million – an increase that correlates specifically with “Law and Order” era – or more accurately, the era of Mass Incarceration.
The rise in incarceration has been targeted towards and disproportionately felt by young black men. One Pew Study suggests that one in nine African-American men between the ages of 20 – 34 is in prison on a given day, and that number increases to 1 in 3 for those with less than a high school degree. Many scholars suggest that this situation of racial exclusion is a defacto return to Jim Crow segregation – where whites and blacks are physically separated and blacks are left with an identifying marker as inferior, or “bound for prison.”
The effects of imprisonment are steep on the individuals who experience it, but cost even more to the communities that support them and/or is dependent on them. Imprisonment exacerbates existing racial and socioeconomic inequalities by dividing communities of color from white communities, and making the disadvantaged more so. Upon release from prison, former inmates have less opportunity on the job market, lower wages, and are released to communities with little economic fortitude. Families are forced to make do with only one parent, leaving fewer male role models, and reducing the chances of escaping poverty. The 2 million people in prison may cause some people to react, but not the 20 million others who are indirectly affected by incarceration.
As ESPN writer Jason Whitlock who was writing to comment on several prominent athletes wearing “I Cant Breathe” T-Shirts noted,
SBI is much worse and more corrosive than Jim Crow.
Jim Crow had unintended benefits. It forced blacks to build and rely on their own economic, educational and social systems. SBI is a silent killer with no benefit. It extinguishes hope.
So we see that the era of “Law and Order”, the War on Drugs, and the political mantra “Tough on Crime” has been the era of mass incarceration targeted specifically towards and affecting Black Americans.
Some may argue that yes, arrest rates have increased significantly, but that as a result violent crime rates have also decreased in a big way, and therefore, the era of mass incarceration has just been a roundup of “bad guys.” In reality though, the “tough on crime” movement has focused mostly on drugs, and on rounding up people of color.
Drug Law Enforcement = Prejudiced Law Enforcement
Despite equal rates of drug use across racial lines, communities and persons of color continue to be discriminated against as the targets of drug policies. This is nothing new. Laws against smoking opium in San Francisco (because the Chinese immigrants did) but not against ingesting opium in other, non-foreign forms, Coca-Cola removing cocaine from their product because their customer base feared blacks getting cocaine in any form – which whites believed was causing blacks to run “dangerously amuck.”
Marijuana being portrayed as a dangerous because it brought black and white youth together during the Jazz era of the 1920’s, and black youth being portrayed as traffickers of drugs and a danger to society in the 1960’s, is only a short list of the long history of drug laws and enforcement specifically targeting minority groups.
This is the background, the myriad of prejudice, that law enforcement had as they stepped up drug arrest rates in the era of mass incarceration and began using tactics such as “stop and frisk” that made racial profiling part of the job description.
Because of the continued prejudice, law enforcement continues to target blacks and other communities of color as its main strategy in the War on Drugs and has led to the high profile cases of killings, but more importantly has led to SBI.
Conclusion: What is the state of Martin’s Dream?
In August 2013, on the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, news networks ran a series of discussions about the so called “State of King’s Dream” where various scholars, pundits, writers, and others talked about racial affairs in the present. Most of those on the discussion came up with similar conclusions: that things had gotten much better, but that we still had a ways to go before reaching that dream and some kind of post-racial society.
The way that the segments were put together showed that the network and some of the participants didn’t feel that race was high on the “importance checklist.” This year’s events, however, should certainly show that it should have been and that conversations about race should be had much more often. They would show that there are frightening examples of exactly how far we have to go before King’s dream is achievable.
For those still unconvinced that racial disparities exist in society, or that they live in a “post-racial” world where they “don’t see race”, take into consideration the significant discrimination that occurs in housing in the U.S. or the disparities in school discipline. In the former, the Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that blacks, asians, and hispanics are frequently discriminated against in housing and receiving loans – not in an overt in your face manner, but according to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, “just because it has taken on a hidden form doesn’t make it any less harmful.”
Some of the findings of a HUD study showed that
White testers were more frequently offered lower rents, told that deposits and other move-in costs were negotiable, or were quoted a lower price. Taking into account fees, deposits and rents, apartments were more likely to cost whites slightly less in the first year of rental than blacks might pay.
In a test, a real estate agent refused to meet with a black tester who was not prequalified for a loan, while a white tester was given an appointment without being asked if she had prequalified.
Over all, black prospective renters were presented 11 percent fewer rentals than whites… As prospective buyers, blacks were presented 17 percent fewer homes
While door slamming, and blatant discrimination is not present, it is easy to see that blacks and whites are given very different treatment when it comes to housing and lending.
If one in 9 young black men is in prison at any given moment, people grow to associate (wrongly of course) young black men with being criminals, just as 4 centuries earlier, blacks were associated with inferiority through slavery. This association has affected our school systems, with black boys and girls receiving much higher suspension rates than whites:
From 2011 to 2012, black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide were suspended at a rate of 12 percent, compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls… In Georgia, the ratio of black girls receiving suspensions in the same period compared with white girls was 5 to 1.
The pattern also showed that the darker the skin color, the higher the suspension and discipline rate. Overall, the data shows a disproportionate discipline rate for blacks compared to their proportion of the school population:
Black students represent 16% of the student population, but 32-42% of students suspended or expelled. In comparison, white students also represent a similar range of between 31-40% of students suspended or expelled, but they are 51% of the student population.
This fact should resonate with the rate of imprisonment for blacks which is disproportionately high compared to overall population (37% of prison population, versus 12% of the population). Is it any wonder there is a connection? As Catherine Lhamon, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education noted,
“The message we send when we suspend or expel any student is that that student is not worthy of being in the school,” Ms. Lhamon said. “That is a pretty ugly message to internalize and very, very difficult to get past as part of an educational career.”
Discrimination persists and is ingrained at every level of American life, whether we like it or not. It is so ingrained, that we can see it in brain scan images of white people who are encountering someone of another race, using preconceptions and stereotypes that are ingrained in us as soon as we are born and begin observing the world. The preconceptions were made and felt by Darren Wilson. They were made by the officers who shot Tamir Rice. They were made by George Zimmerman. They are made by TSA officers at the airport, NYPD cops using stop and frisk tactics, and officers engaging in unnecessary chokehold tactics.
I am white. The second I was born, I was born into a privileged sector of society, simply because of my skin color. I didn’t specifically ask for this privilege, but it certainly has given me benefits both large and small – least of which has been a lack of discrimination in school, housing, and interactions with law enforcement. No matter how poor I am, where I live, what bad decisions I make, I will still be white, and still born into a privilege that a person of color cannot be in this country. I recognize this fact, as do many other white people, who chimed in with the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag on twitter to show the disparities in law enforcement. But recognizing privilege through a lazily constructed hashtag doesn’t particularly do much.
How does one break down a social construct that has existed for centuries?
Not overnight. But it will happen. People of color have been fighting subjugation for centuries. They have been making the same arguments that I have put forth for a long, long time. What we should hope should come from this tumultuous era in U.S. history is the evocation of honest conversations about what causes our stereotypes, discriminatory practices, and prejudices.
White people who say that they don’t see discrimination, that policing is fair to all, that the recent events don’t constitute any form of this, and that incarceration rates are high for blacks because blacks commit a lot of crimes, just don’t get it. They won’t get it. They will perhaps never get it, because they have never been a minority in this country. They have no experience in the area of discrimination. When they say they don’t see discrimination and that it is not an issue, they are saying that blacks in this country are not telling the truth, and that the experiences of blacks are not real. These people should keep their mouths shut and just listen. Because for once, it’s time white people actually started listening to others.
As always, history has a lens that can help wrap our heads around the present and ourselves to determine who we are and how we interact with our fellow human beings.
Your faithful historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and Further Reads:
U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 2
Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (School Discipline)
March 21, 2014
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Belknap/Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 1998.
Wise, Tim. White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privelaged Son. Publishers Group West, Canada. 2005.