Time for America to Face the Truth
Enough of the excuses and lies.
He was running, resisting, reaching for a weapon.
A threat, a thug.
Wearing a hoodie. Riding a bike. Playing his music too loud.
He made eye contact with the officer.
He was a “super predator” that needed to be brought to heel.
He was a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun in a park—as little boys do—when he was cut down by a cop who didn’t even pause to take in his small stature and baby face before he pulled his trigger.
Whatever the scenario, this much is certain: he is a Black man (or woman or child) whose existence in America has been endangered, unprotected and unvalued from the very start—living far too often in the margins, frequently forced there by institutions and structures that perpetuate systemic racism.
And even when he isn’t forced to exist on the verge or at the brink, even when he is well-educated and accomplished and as conventional as can be (as many of us are), he is routinely reminded that his presence, while tolerated, is not celebrated.
He could be a well-dressed realtor or a home owner driving his car in an exclusive neighborhood stopped by police because he just doesn’t look like he belongs there.
He could be the leader of the so-called free world, the President of the United States delivering a televised speech to Congress on a topic of national importance; and that will not stop a White man from calling him a liar in public to his Black face.
He could be crying “I can’t breathe” and then never does again because officers of the law have choked the life out of him.
To be sure, the events of recent weeks—Philando Castile’s death at the hands of a police officer in Minnesota witnessed by his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter and the police killing of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police officers in front of a convenience store where he sold CDs and DVDs to make a living followed by what at least appeared to be the strategical campaign of an antagonistic police state to either squash peaceful protest or provoke insurrections—have reminded us of the many others like, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and countless more, while once again bringing to the forefront of this nation’s collective conscience (assuming it has one) the precarious plight of Blacks in America and the tenuous relationship between the Black community and an entire nation.
Here at The New Orleans Tribune, we struggled for some time considering what to do and say about it all. Surely, we needed to lend our voice. Still, we struggled, not because there wasn’t plenty to articulate, but because there was nothing we have not already said…repeatedly. Some of our earliest editions dating back nearly 30 years along with recent editions have tackled issues related to the Black community (with a keen focus on the Black male), its internal conflicts and external strife with racist power structures. We have covered this thing—racism in America—backward and frontward, inside and out, with examinations of current matters, exploration and explanation of historical truths, and solution-oriented reflection on the present-day consequences. So in 2016 as we are forced to declare that Black Lives Matter in one breath and defend and clarify the need for such a movement in the other, we find ourselves shaking our heads in indignant dismay and asserting three things:
This isn’t new.
This is by design, and it is merely an offshoot of the wider issue of systemic racism.
Communities of color and other marginalized people have had enough!
THE GRAND DESIGN
Here are some facts:
According to the most recent State of Black America report released by the National Urban League, the rate of Black unemployment is roughly twice the rate of rate of White unemployment; and has steadily been so for 40 years. Again, when it comes to unemployment rates between Blacks and whites—nothing has changed in 40 years.
A little less than 11 percent of White children were in poverty in 2013, compared to 38 percent of Black children and 30 percent of Hispanic children living below the poverty line.
The income gap between Blacks and Whites has also persisted at the same level for the last four decades, with Black Americans’ median income about 60 percent of the median income of White Americans.
Wealth in Black in America is about six cents on the dollar compared to White America. In other words, for every $1 in wealth White Americans have amassed, Black Americans have amassed about six cents.
The homeownership rate gap has increased to 59 percent.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights division, Black students are more likely to be held back than White students. According to data, the disparity between retention rates for Black and White students swells by the ninth grade. While 12 percent of Black students are held back in ninth grade, just 4 percent of white students are. When all grade levels are combined, Black students are nearly three times more likely to be held back as their White peers, making Black students more likely to drop out of high school.
Disparities in school discipline start as early as preschool and are a key factor in the notorious school to prison pipeline. While Blacks make up 18 percent of students in preschool, they account for 42 percent of students with an out-of-school suspension and 48 percent of students with multiple out-of-school suspensions. Meanwhile, Black Americans are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of White students. They make up 16 percent of school enrollment but account for 32 percent of students who receive in-school suspensions, 42 percent of students who receive multiple out-of-school suspensions and 34 percent of students who are expelled. Black students are arrested more and are referred to law enforcement more. The disparities in punishment even reach to Black students with disabilities, who are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions or to be subjected to mechanical restraint than their White peers.
Here in New Orleans, data still tells that the unemployment rate among working-age Black men is above 50 percent.
These statistics are among the most recent available. They are not from 1619 or 1865 or even 1965. They are from 2011, and 2013, 2014, 2015. So we have had ENOUGH of this talk that country is now some great post-racial paradise when these facts and figures point to the reality of racism and its impact.
These stark disparities on every front—wealth, income, criminal justice, homeownership, education, health care—do not happen by accident. Instead, they are the results of intentional and longstanding policies and systems intended to subjugate and exclude people of color in American society, reminding that equality and equity are as elusive today as they were 151 years ago. They are the result of a destructive cycle fueled by multiple faulty systems of inequality that feed on each another.
Consider that by all accounts Philando Castile was a productive community member, a respected school cafeteria manager and had no felony record, the revelation that 32-year-old man had registered more than 50 incidents of minor traffic violations via run-ins with police in Minnesota exposed what many in the Black community already know—American police forces routinely target Blacks, especially Black men, to harass and hassle, often with two driving motives: the levying of fines and fees as a revenue source and to initiate contact between people of color and the criminal justice system for reasons that are superfluous and unwarranted if not baseless through the overzealous use of authority. Then for anyone who dares question the stop or challenge police authority or just runs into the wrong cop who is scared or bigoted or both, a felony charge of resisting arrest is tacked on, turning contact with the criminal justice system to all out immersion in it.
It’s known as racial profiling. It has manifested itself as stop-and-frisk policies random traffic stops because a person of color “fits the description” or seems out of place. It has even been bolstered by U.S. Supreme Court rulings that dating back to 1968 and that have continued until present today to include the 2016, 5-3 ruling in the Utah v. Strieff case in which the court has decided that evidence obtained from illegal stops if officers search vehicles after finding out whether the subject had outstanding warrants, despite the reality, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her dissent, “it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.”
And it is as old as the Vagrancy Act of 1866 which essentially forced the newly freed back into slavery if they appeared to be homeless or unemployed at the same time that thousands of formerly enslaved African Americans were “wandering” the country, especially the South, in search of family members that had been sold off or to look for work. Basically, the law made it a crime for newly freed people to take a moment after 246 years of American slavery to come to terms with their condition and make decisions about their lives much in the same racial profiling makes the very state being Black a specious criminal act.
More importantly, it is a part of the grand design to disenfranchise and dehumanize people of color. Once a part of the criminal justice system, the ability to have a conventional existence in America is greatly diminished, with job opportunities, access to affordable housing, access to funding for higher education, and even the right to vote all adversely impacted by a criminal record.
As author and attorney Michelle Alexander notes in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness “a former felon has scarcely more rights and arguably less respect than a Black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.”
Now note that African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than White males and two and half times more likely to be incarcerated than Hispanic males; or that according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Black youth account for 16 percent of all children in America, but make up 28 percent of all juvenile arrests; or that in 2013 Black people comprised nearly 35 percent of the population of state and federal prisons in America, but only 12 percent of the nation’s population (U.S. Department of Justice), it becomes very clear that systems, like the American criminal justice one, are being used in America to perpetuate racism and marginalize entire communities of people.
And let’s not forget that according to the 2011 Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation, 98.6 percent of all children arrested by the New Orleans Police Department for “serious offenses” were African-American, while only 1.4 percent were White. While that DOJ investigation and report resulted in a consent decree in 2013, it must be noted that as recently as 2015, 99 percent of all juveniles arrested in the first half of the year were African American, indicating absolutely no progress in the area. Ironically, however, there have been no calls to place NOPD under federal receivership because of slow implementation of the federal order to address systemic issues of racism and racial profiling in the department.
Every one of these facts are only compounded by the lack of justice in cases of police killings in the Black community. As officers indicted in the Freddie Gray killing have waltzed out of court to not guilty verdicts in recent weeks, the Black community is reminded of the many other cases like Amadou Diallo (1999) in New York; Patrick Dorismond (2000) in Manhattan; Oscar Grant (2009) in the San Francisco; Tamir Rice, Eric Garner; Michael Brown; and others where police officers where either never charged for killing Black men and women or sat through trials
Again, in New Orleans, much of the same is true. The police killings of men like Henry Glover, Adolph Grimes, and Justin Sipp have not been met by justice. And the justice that was rendered in the cases of Ronald Madison and James Brisette was turned on its head with lightweight plea deals after a post-conviction overturning of verdicts due to misconduct by former prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Meanwhile, WHAT CAN WE DO?
Certainly, there are a number of fronts along which work must be done.
The effort of Black Lives Matters to bring awareness to the issues of police brutality in the Black community, which is often coupled with the lack of justice, has been vital. That this process has been led by young people has been inspiring. With that said, we must support and empower this movement and not allow mainstream sources to redefine and misconstrue its aim or its goals.
There are laws that need to be abolished, entire constructs that must be destroyed, and institutions that have to be dismantled and rebuilt, if America is ever going to live up to its promise. To be sure, this a policy issue that must be addressed at all levels of government with keen focuses on laws that have historically and inherently targeted people of color and other marginalized communities. Stop and frisk, stand your ground, mandatory sentencing policies quickly come to mind. To achieve this goal, there is a need to have allies working both inside and outside of the institutions that create, interpret and carry out these policies.
That is why it is imperative for our communities to identify and groom new leadership from all walks of life. Columnist Suzanne Malveaux was spot on several weeks ago when she applauded BLM organizer DeRay McKesson’s run for Baltimore mayor. Although McKesson, who was recently arrested in Baton Rouge during protests there, lost his bid for mayor, his decision to run reveals an awareness of the need for us to walk from both within and without the very systems we challenge to bring about substantive change. His bid for Baltimore mayor follows the examples of Congressman John Lewis and Congressman Bobby Rush and the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court a little more than a decade.
Most of all, we have been buoyed by the awakening to and interest in a philosophy we have long supported—the importance of using our resources to make a statement and to strengthen our communities. We were excited to hear the stories of Black-owned banks across the country flooded in recent weeks with new customers opening accounts. We have been lifted by the renewed local interest in supporting Black-owned businesses and are eager to work with others to increase the reach of tools that help support this process. For more than 20 years, McKenna Publishing has produced The New Orleans BlackBook, a directory of African-American owned businesses, professionals and service providers, and has now added digital platforms, including an app, to provide New Orleanians with access to this information at their fingertips. And we have joined forces with others to bring a public awareness and call to action campaign to the community, encouraging Black consumers to do more to support Black businesses and calling on Black business owners to continue and renew their efforts to sustain Black communities through job creation and resource allocation.
What we do not need is more sensitivity training or racial reconciliation workshops. We don’t need to spend another second defending, justifying and rationalizing—at least this is what we believe. To paraphrase American writer Elbert Hubbard, our friends do not need explanations; and our enemies will not listen to them. As such, we really do not need to waste another second trying to help White folk understand what it is like to be Black in America. We have explained and expounded on it a great length. We have had enough of that. And where has it gotten us? We do not need culturally sensitive police officers—just ones that actually obey the laws they have sworn to uphold while treating EVERYONE with dignity and respect. And when they refuse to do that, when they abuse their authority and brutalize people, especially communities of color and other marginalized citizens, we simply demand justice.