Do Black Lives Matter?

blacklivesmatter1As I have come to understand it, racism as it is experienced in America, is not primarily about hatred toward a particular group or about deliberately wanting to harm certain people. It is about those in control seeking to protect their own privileged status by denying those privileges to others.

This would also be what lies at the root of sexism and the denial of equal opportunities to women. And, I believe, it underlies much of the negative attitude toward Hispanic migrants and refugee claimants. The charge is that these people are undermining the rights enjoyed by the majority, and those rights must be kept exclusively within the existing group or they will cease to exist – or at the minimum they will become diluted if spread too broadly – and we will all be the worse off for it.

nametag-white-privilegeWhat we are really talking about here, however, are not “rights” but the “privileges” enjoyed by the dominant group. As I stated in a recent blog, with others now clamouring for fair treatment and access to the same privileges enjoyed by the majority, these

privileged individuals now see themselves and their traditional values as being under attack. They complain of a supposed “war against Christian values.” They claim that immigrants are taking away their jobs, that whites are being discriminated against in the workplace, that women should keep in line, and that homosexuals and transsexuals somehow threaten heterosexuals’ own identity.

There is a fear on the part of the dominant group that the privileges they are accustomed to may disappear. But, they argue, they have a right to their accustomed way of life, and no one is going to take that away from them. And so to secure those rights – those privileges – for themselves, they attempt to deny them to others.

Mapping The Problem

lincoln-emancipation-proclamationThis, in a nutshell, is the story of what happened to Black Americans after emancipation. The Reconstruction project was systematically dismantled throughout the South to deny Blacks economic opportunities. No longer slaves, they were soon reduced to indentured sharecroppers. After federally being given the right to vote, new eligibility laws made it virtually impossible for them to do so. Segregation (“separate but equal”) removed fair access to education, employment, wages, and living conditions. The Ku Klux Klan, with the backing of local police and government officials, systematically terrorized the black population to keep them in their place. This continued without opposition from those in power for a hundred years. Finally the demands for justice and fair and equal treatment led to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

Johnson-Civil-Rights-ActAlthough new civil rights legislation was passed under President Lyndon Johnson, it polarized the country. Johnson admitted that he had probably lost the Democrats the southern vote for a full generation. (It has actually been much longer than that.)

Once again the gains were contained, and then rolled back. I was amazed to learn the story of how George Romney (Mitt Romney’s father), while serving as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon administration in the early 70s tried to use federal regulations to dismantle segregationist housing policies at the state and local level. He was rebuffed by Nixon and his advisors, blackballed, and ultimately removed from Nixon’s Cabinet.

In reflecting on the racially-charged events in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, Joshua Holland, writing for, stated that

White America has come up with a number of rationales for these enduring pockets of despair. An elaborate mythology has developed that blames it on a “culture of poverty” — holding the poor culpable for their poverty and letting our political and economic systems off the hook.

However, his interview with Richard Rothstein of The Economic Policy Institute details how

throughout the last century a series of intentionally discriminatory policies at the local, state and federal levels created the ghettos we see today.

It is well worth the long read.

In recent decades new tactics were developed to keep American Blacks marginalized. As Michelle Alexander notes in her recent book, The New Jim Crow,

New Jim Crow book_cvrIn the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African-Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination— employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

Donna March similarly reported in the New Republic in February this year,

In the 1980s and 1990s, incarceration became de facto urban policy for impoverished communities of color in America’s cities. Legislation was passed to impose mandatory minimum [sentences], deny public housing to entire families if any member was even suspected of a drug crime, expand federal death penalty-eligible crimes, and impose draconian restrictions of parole. Ultimately, multiple generations of America’s most vulnerable populations, including drug users, African Americans, Latinos, and the very poor found themselves confined to long-term prison sentences and lifelong social and economic marginality.

As shown on the following chart, America’s prison population jumped 800% between 1970 and 2010.

US Prison Population

Writing for The New Yorker in 2012, Alan Gopnik revealed the astonishing fact that

Prison-Blacks-mass-incarceration-150x150More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.

The “broken windows” policy followed by many police departments in the U.S. beginning in the 1990s (vigorously prosecuting misdemeanors to discourage more serious crimes) didn’t just result in lengthy incarceration of many young black men for minor offenses and their and their families’ loss of the social benefits described above. It also resulted in the systematic harassment of black and other minority groups by police. In a survey conducted in 2009,

more than half of African-American millennials indicated they, or someone they knew, had been victimized by violence or harassment from law enforcement.

In fact, many local police forces use the courts to open prey on these minorities.

According to Radley Balko of The Washington Post, some towns in St. Louis County [Missouri] collect 40 percent or more of their revenue from fines levied by their municipal courts for petty violations. The town of Bel-Ridge (population 2,700, and more than 80 percent black), for example, was projected to collect an average of $450 per household in municipal court fines in 2014, making those fees its largest source of revenue.

And so is it any wonder that we hear African-Americans today calling for justice while at the same time viewing the police as primary agents of injustice? And it is not just that Blacks fear the police. The police and many ordinary citizens have been taught to fear Black Americans. One has to be careful. Look at where and how these people live. They are all potentially criminals.

Mapping a Solution

So, how does one break the cycle? How does one create hope and generate self-esteem within this group without also providing access, training and actual opportunities? Crispus_Attucks_Public_School,_ChicagoEducation is just the first step, and from what I can see, Americans have abandoned the public education system, leaving it to those with money and means to send their children to private schools while the rest are left with a crumbling educational system, inadequate resources, and under-salaried teachers. America had a long way to go in accomplishing even Step One.

slum neighborhoodStep Two addresses the Black communities themselves. How can one begin to change their circumstances without repairing the conditions that they live in, without having a strong local economy, secure jobs, reasonable wages, decent housing and reliable community services? This would require an enormous public investment, something akin to what was spent on the Space Race back in the 1960s, or the trillion dollars that is scheduled to be spent in modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal over the next decade. It’s not that America can’t afford such a massive social renewal project. It repeatedly commits this kind of money to other projects that are deemed in the national interest. It’s a matter of priorities. And the consensus seems to be that these people aren’t worth spending money on. After all, since the Reagan and Clinton eras, funding for the social support structures they rely on have been reduced in every administration.

113th_congressIn the end, however, nothing will be accomplished without a fundamental change of a very different kind. I am referring here to the understanding of privilege by those who currently maintain privilege, who hold the reins of power, set the policies, make and enforce the rules, and distribute the resources. As long as they pursue policies that make privilege an exclusive “right” available only to some and not others, nothing will fundamentally change.

Because with privilege comes power, especially the power to withhold privilege from others. Those with privilege see this as their fair and reasonable “right,” while those without it see it as injustice.

And now, just as in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, we are once again hearing their impassioned pleas for Justice. We are hearing their vehement assertion (often, it seems, falling on deaf ears) that their lives do matter. They know that their lives matter. But do we?

We whites (and particularly we white males) are the ones holding the power, the ones who through our majority elect the officials, set the policies, make the laws and distribute the resources. The ball is in our court. Nothing will change unless we act.

Photo credits: PA; AP; Shannon Stapleton/Reuters; Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

“We Can’t Breathe”

Times Square protestFor the second time in two weeks a grand jury has refused to indict a police officer involved in the needless death of an unarmed Black American male.

Two weeks ago a grand jury decided not to take any action against Officer Darren Wilson who shot and killed Michael Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Mo. It was an unusual hearing with many blatant irregularities that called the entire judicial process into question and kept justice from being served.

Then on Wednesday of this week a grand jury in Staten Island, N.Y. decided not to pursue charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. A video, now widely circulated, clearly showed the officer holding Garner in an illegal chokehold and disregarding Garner’s pleas saying, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

New York protestsTo these two deaths, we can add many others:

Twelve year old Tamir Rice who was gunned down on sight by a police officer two weeks ago while playing with a toy gun in a park in Ohio.

John Crawford III who was shot on sight in August while holding a packaged BB gun in a Walmart store near Dayton, Ohio.

Levar Jones who was shot by a trooper without provocation in his car for a seat belt violation in Columbia, S.C.

And the list goes on and on. These are not isolated incidents. An analysis of FBI data shows that

White officers kill black suspects twice a week in the United States

In addition, the ACLU has documented a disturbing pattern in which

SWAT teams and other heavy-handed tactics are much more likely to be used against minority suspects than white ones

I have commented on the scope of this targeting of minorities by police in other posts

4 Disturbing Revelations in the Wake of Ferguson

Still Waiting for Justice in Ferguson and Beyond, and

[5 More Revelations Following Ferguson], so will not go into further detail here.

We should note that this blatant miscarriage of justice in now receiving international attention. In August, the U.N. Committee on the elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the U.S. to halt the excessive use of force by police in dealing with racial minorities. And last week the U.S. Committee Against Torture harshly criticized the U.S. over “police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials.”

With such widespread and persistent abuse of police authority in the U.S. the real casualty is not just the racial minorities who are targeted, but Justice itself.

Justice - I can't breatheWhen I was a kid growing up in the U.S. I would recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible. with liberty and justice for all.

These days the last part of that pledge rings rather hollow.

Photo credit: Julia Cortez/AP

Still Waiting for Justice in Ferguson and Beyond

Ferguson protestsThe streets of Ferguson, Missouri erupted in violence last night with the announcement that following a three month investigation, a state Grand Jury had decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on Aug. 9, 2014.

As Ben Casselman noted in writing for FiveThirtyEight that same evening, it is incredibly rare for a Grand Jury not to indict a defendant. Casselman wrote,

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor who has written critically about grand juries, added,

If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong, It just doesn’t happen.

But it does seem to happen when an on-duty police officer is involved in a killing. Casselman notes that,

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment.


 Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings.

In his defence, Wilson’s attorneys claimed that Wilson had “followed his training and followed the law” in the shooting death.

The kind of training police officers receive was an apparent factor in the police shooting of John Crawford III just five days earlier, on August 5, 2014, in Beavercreek, Ohio. Crawford was seen carrying an unpackaged BB/pellet rifle in a Walmart store when police officers, responding to an emergency call from another shopper, shot him on sight.

According to the family’s attorney,

Surveillance video showed Crawford facing away from officers, talking on the phone, and leaning on the pellet gun like a cane when he was “shot on sight” in a “militaristic” response by police.

surveillance footageIt was later revealed that just two weeks prior to this incident the local police had received a training “pep talk” in what to do when faced with an “active shooter threat.” Instead of evacuating the area and calling in a SWAT team, the officers were encouraged to “engage first” and ask questions later.

tamir-riceThen there is the alarming story from just this week of police in Cleveland, Ohio fatally shooting Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old black boy, who was playing with a fake gun in a city park. According to the reports, police fired on him “despite the fact the suspected weapon was not pointed at them and no threats were made.”

The ugly fact is that according to seven years of FBI data,

White officers kill black suspects twice a week in the United States, or an average of 96 times a year.

An analysis of 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 shows that

Young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white peers, mainly at the hands of white police officers.

hands up … don't shootAs Tom McKay recently reported on News.Mic,

the number of white cops shooting black people is just part of a larger problem. Black people across the United States are more likely to face discrimination in the criminal justice system and be harassed, arrested and shot by police. Sadly, even the most extreme cases of police excess often end in little punishment.

In a country where “open carry” laws allow white citizens to walk through their neighborhoods and enter businesses and even churches armed with assault rifles, it can be a death sentence for a black person to be seen with a gun even if it is a toy.

The Scope of the Problem

There is a great deal of truth in Zeeshan Aleem’s statement in Policy.Mic yesterday that in much of the U.S.,

race determines whether you’re viewed as a citizen or a problem.

To illustrate this point, I return to the statement of Paul Waldman cited in a previous post [4 Disturbing Revelations in the Wake of Ferguson] whre he recalls that as a white person,

in all my years I’ve never been stopped by a cop who just wanted to know who I was and what I was up to. I’ve never been accused of “furtive movements,” the rationale New York City police use for the hundreds of thousands of times every year they question black and Hispanic men. I’ve never been frisked on the street, and nobody has ever responded with fear when I got in an elevator. That’s not because of my inherent personal virtue. It’s because I’m white.

This is in stark contrast to Jonathan Capehart’s recollection of the crucial lesson his mother drilled into him as a black youth of

How I shouldn’t run in public, lest I arouse undue suspicion. How I most definitely should not run with anything in my hands, lest anyone think I stole something. The lesson included not talking back to the police, lest you give them a reason to take you to jail — or worse. And I was taught to never, ever leave home without identification.

The systemic oppression faced by black individuals – especially male black youth – in the U.S. is almost unimaginable to white Americans. Zeeshan Aleem reports that,

Black men not only encounter constant surveillance, violence and shockingly high chances of correctional supervision for matters that the rest of the population does not, but they also then face discrimination in housing, employment, financial services and political rights after they exit prison.

The following shocking statistics reinforce this claim:

  • the U.S. currently incarcerates a far greater percentage of its black population than South Africa did under apartheid.
  • more than half of the young black men in many large American cities are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records)
  • more black adults live under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole —than under slavery in 1850.

It is no wonder that many African-Americans seriously mistrust the American system of justice. Under current laws and legal practices systematic injustice has become the norm.

For many white onlookers, the recent events in Ferguson have helped to lift the veil on this sordid side of American life. But for black Americans it was no revelation at all. It was a reality they were all too familiar with.

Photo credits: AP. CCTV