All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the stop-and-frisk numbers in New York City, as of March, had dramatically declined, but the NYPD was arresting increasing numbers of subway dancers, panhandlers and those caught on minor violations such as drinking beer in public. The long fight against the unconstitutional stopping, questioning and frisking of black and brown youth had yielded results, but the NYPD simply shifted strategies to ensure their continued criminalization.
The week before that, Anna Lekas Miller wrote here at The Nation about the disbanding of the NYPD’s Zone Assessment Unit—the outfit responsible for spying on Muslim communities. Again, the work of activists and grassroots organizers resulted in what appeared to be progress. But Lekas Miller wrote at the time:
Yet, as much as the demise of the Zone Assessment Unit signals a step in the right direction, many Muslim community members question how significant the move really is. They worry that the change is more cosmetic than actual, a splashy declaration that obscures the way surveillance continues by other names. And after more than a decade under the NYPD’s watchful eye, who can blame them for the suspicion?
And, as luck would have it, this weekend we learned about the Citywide Debriefing Team, described by The New York Times as “a squad of detectives [that] has combed the city’s jails for immigrants—predominantly Muslims—who might be persuaded to become police informants.” Here’s more:
Last month, the Police Department announced it had disbanded a controversial surveillance unit that had sent plainclothes detectives into Muslim communities to listen in on conversations and build detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped. But the continuing work of the debriefing team shows that the department has not backed away from other counterterrorism initiatives that it created in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
These informants differ from traditional police informants, who are often asked to provide police with information about criminal activity. The Citywide Debriefing Team recruited people solely on the basis of their Muslim identity, with no prior knowledge of any crimes necessary. So while the NYPD has ended its practice of mapping and spying on Muslims using plain clothes police officers, it’s producing the same results with a different tactic. Not much different from what has happened with stop-and-frisk.
And this keeps happening because we, as American citizens, refuse to question the fundamental goals of policing.
We often find ourselves caught in a debate about the particularities of certain egregious police tactics. And while it’s important to protect communities and people in the here and now, what we miss is a larger discussion about the role police should have in law enforcement. Right now, we seem to have conceded that the police ought to play a preventive role, pre-empting crime by aggressively seeking out potential lawbreakers. That means that the police are granted discretion to determine who constitutes a potential lawbreaker. In a country built on suspicion of the “other,” that more often than not means black and Latino youth, and in a post-9/11 world, Muslims of Middle Eastern descent. As such, police are given tools (stop-and-frisk, surveillance) that abuse the rights of the already marginalized, under the auspices of serving and protecting the greater good.
Then those communities fight back. They take to the streets and to the courtrooms in a fight to be treated like human beings and not presumed to be thugs or terrorists, under whatever definition of those terms that is being used to justify police overreach. And sometimes they win. But the wins are fleeting because the police adopt new, some may say more refined, approaches to doing the same job of terrorizing these communities.
The cosmetic changes to the police state give us the false impression that the nature of policing has changed, that somehow it isn’t about monitoring, arresting and locking away the “other” as a way of “protecting” the true citizenry. We honestly believe that if we do away with the most blatantly destructive, racist, xenophobic, sexist etc. police practices then we do away with the problems of police abuse. Not if the philosophy doesn’t change.
Yesterday, it was reported that the “New York Police Department will significantly limit the practice of seizing condoms for use as evidence in prostitution-related cases, ending a procedure that health officials had long criticized as undermining their efforts to protect [sex workers] from disease.” Now, how long before the police find a way around this, too?
Read Next: No one cares if you never apologize for your white male privilege.
A 20-year-old college freshman who wrote an essay for one of his college publications has been interviewed on Fox News, written about in The New York Times and had his essay republished by Time magazine. Yet he doesn’t understand why anyone thinks he benefits from white male privilege.
Tal Fortgang of Princeton University wrote the piece, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege,” as a response to the (according to him) many people on his campus who tell him to “check [his] privilege” when engaging in debates. But Fortgang doesn’t want to check his privilege. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that his privilege exists. He would like to keep going through life believing that everything he and other white men like him have achieved is the result of their own hard work.
Or, if not the result of their own hard work, then that of their ancestors. Fortgang’s rebuttal to the idea that he is privileged as a white man in America was to tell the story of his grandfather who escaped Poland after the Nazi invasion, as well as his grandmother who survived a concentration camp, then made it to the United States and started a “humble wicker basket business.” Fortgang’s father “worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living.” He challenges us, after telling these stories, “Now would you say that we’ve been really privileged?”
Fortgang’s essay is part of the reason you can count me among the camp that believes we should spend less time discussing privilege. It’s not that it’s not a useful concept. There are clear and present advantages to being born and continuing to be recognized as a (cisgender heterosexual) white man in America. But the discussion has its limitations.
This paragraph from Fortgang is a prime example:
I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive. Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. Forget “you didn’t build that;” check your privilege and realize that nothing you have accomplished is real.
When people with privilege hear that they have privilege, what they hear is not, “Our society is structured so that your life is more valued than others.” They hear, “Everything, no matter what, will be handed to you. You have done nothing to achieve what you have.” That’s not strictly true, and hardly anyone who points out another’s privilege is making that accusation. There are privileged people who work very hard. The privilege they experience is the absence of barriers that exist for other people.
In Fortgang’s telling of his family’s history, he fails to recognize that it is his grandfather’s proximity to whiteness that afforded him his opportunities here in America. It made his story possible. It doesn’t mean there has never been any discrimination or hatred of Jewish people, but that Jewish identity doesn’t present the same obstacles to whiteness, and therefore power and privilege, as, say, if Fortgang’s grandparents had been fleeing German occupation in Namibia.
There are no American institutions of power that are, whether by law or by custom, founded on wholesale discrimination against white men. That’s not the case for the rest of us. For white men born in or welcomed into this system, it is an unearned privilege.
Fortgang can go through his years at Princeton—or better, the rest of his life—and never have to acknowledge that, let alone apologize for it. But no one is asking him to. An apology would be useless. If a discussion about privilege serves any purpose, it is so that the privileged recognize their own and are then compelled to work to dismantle the structures that have bestowed privilege upon them. In order to do so, one would have to recognize the call to “check your privilege” as less of a personal attack, because it is not. It’s a wake-up call to action.
Read Next: “Who Takes Care of the Nanny’s Kids?”
In March, we learned that under the new NYPD police commissioner, Bill Bratton, the number of stop-and-frisks police were making dramatically decreased. The New York Times reported that in the first two months of 2014 “police officers recorded making 353 stops for behavior deemed suspicious, compared with 5,983 last year.” And while that’s a welcome change from the sky-high number of racist and unconstitutional stop-and-frisks the city saw under Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, it does not spell the end of an overly aggressive police force. The Times also reported that “the arrests of peddlers and panhandlers on subways have more than tripled over the same period last year, with the police recording 274 such arrests as of March 2. By this point last year, they had made 90 such arrests.” Arrests like these effectively penalize the poor and homeless for the ways in which they survive. Additionally, notes the Times, “Police statistics also indicate a noticeable spike in arrests for low-level violations in public housing developments.” While felony arrests were down 5 percent and misdemeanors flat, the number of arrests for violations, “a category that includes drinking beer in public and riding a bike on the sidewalk,” were up 21 percent.
One of the groups targeted in this new crackdown: subway break dancers. Almost anyone who has taken the subway in NYC has seen them, usually a crew of about four or five, typically young black men, who play loud music and perform in the subway car in hopes that passengers will be generous enough to tip them afterward.
So far this year, NYPD has arrested forty-six of them and charged them with reckless endangerment.
Admittedly, the dancers can be, at times, a little annoying. The instant they shout “Showtime!” and turn on the music, what could have been a quiet train ride is transformed into a party, whether you signed up for it or not. But the minor inconvenience they may pose for the few minutes they dance is certainly not worth an arrest. I also find it hard to be mad at them, knowing that school budgets, particularly for the arts, have been slashed to the point that few creative outlets exist for these kids, and we make next to no effort to create the jobs that would replace the money they earn from their dancing. If subway riders are complaining about the disturbance they cause, there must be another way to deal with them that doesn’t involve giving them arrest records.
Commissioner Bratton said of the subway dancers, “Those activities create a sense of fear, or that we’re not paying attention to disorder.” Those scary, disorderly, dancing young black bodies. Always causing fear.
And how long before that fear results in what happened to Nubia Bowe in Oakland?
On March 21, 19-year-old Bowe was arrested and sent to a county jail for four days after BART police (now infamous for the killing of Oscar Grant in 2009) responded to a complaint of loud music and dancing. After a witness who initially identified Bowe and two of her friends as the people who played the music recanted and told officers they weren’t the right group of people, the police still proceeded with the arrest. Bowe told Oakland’s Post News Group, “Once they pulled me off the train, I was first slammed to the ground and then thrown against the wall. The officers pushed me back down and continued to elbow and knee me in my back. My mouth was full of blood by then. The whole time this was happening, I repeatedly said ‘I am not resisting arrest. You are violating my civil rights.’”
Bowe says the aggression didn’t stop with the arrest, but continued when she reached Santa Rita jail, where “three male guards and one female guard came in my cell and beat me up. They hit me and then said that I assaulted one of them. So they chained my wrists to my ankles and tipped me over onto the urine-soaked ground so I couldn’t get up.”
The ease with which we criminalize and abuse black youth in this country would be astounding if it weren’t so routine.
Read Next: Ohio early voting cuts violate the Voting Rights Act.
By now you’ve no doubt heard about the recordings of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling (allegedly) saying some pretty disgustingly racist things. In his latest vlog, Jay Smooth raises an important question about the aftermath: “Why do racist words bring more accountability than racist practices?”
I believe the answer to that question is that Donald Sterling broke the rules of politeness when it comes to American racism. The lesson that this country has gleaned from centuries of freedom fighting and resistance and pushback to slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, economic exploitation, rape, theft and cultural/historical erasure is that you shouldn’t say mean things about black people. So long as you don’t say mean things, everything else is fine. Everything else, in fact, is necessary, in order that the United States remains a place where white supremacy thrives.
In the recording, Sterling tells his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, that he doesn’t want her to be seen at Clippers game (the word he uses is “my” games, as if he plays in the games himself) with black people. With that, he crosses the line with which Americans are comfortable. You shouldn’t judge anyone by the color of their skin, we’re all the same, etc. etc. His impolite racism breaks the rules of decorum. But it also sets the incredibly low bar by which Americans can judge themselves and their own adherence to racism. Now, if you’ve ever sat next to a black person at a basketball game, your antiracist cred is solid, because those are the terms on which we’re holding the discussion around racism. Are you polite enough to share a social event with a black person? Congratulations, you’re not a racist. As long as you’re not Cliven Bundy, or Paula Dean, or Bill O’Reilly, you’re not a racist. Sterling’s (alleged) comments absolve the system and everyone else complicit therein.
Luckily, or as lucky as these things get, this incident has shed light on Sterling’s more insidious racist practices, like the housing discrimination suit he had to settle in 2009. But the tapes offer more insight into the structure of American racism and the way it justifies itself. From the transcript provided by Deadspin:
Stiviano: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?
Sterling: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?… Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?
Sterling (allegedly) doesn’t see the Clippers players as employees. He (allegedly) hardly sees them as human beings. He (allegedly) thinks he, because of his money, makes the game possible, not the hard work and talent of the people who go out there and play. They’re no more than the recipients of Sterling’s beneficent philanthropy.
It’s the insufferable marriage between racism and capitalism that allows both systems to continuing functioning and oppressing. According to the recording, Sterling, a wealthy white man, sees no issue with profiting from the labor of “his” black players, because he provides for them the basics of survival. The premium is placed on ownership. Granted, because these are men making millions of dollars it’s hard to see how this relates to trials of the average worker. But as it is at the top of the income scale, so it is at the bottom, where labor is extracted from people and they are expected to be grateful for whatever they receive, even if it’s not enough to provide for themselves. For people of color, that work is devalued even further and the level of gratitude expected even higher. And pretty much everyone is OK with that.
At one point on the tape, Sterling (allegedly) says to Stiviano, about black people, “I want you to love them—privately.” “Love” us privately, exploit us publicly. Just another day in America.
Read Next: Donald Sterling’s willing enablers.
According to a study conducted by researches at the University of Minnesota, nonwhite people (black, Asian, Hispanic), regardless of income, are exposed to higher levels of air pollution than white people. John Metcalfe at the Atlantic Cities reports: “On average, non-white people inhale 38 percent higher levels of air pollution than whites, they say. If non-white people were brought down to the levels of pollution enjoyed by whites, it would prevent 7,000 deaths from heart disease in their communities each year.” This, despite the fact that nonwhite people contribute less to air pollution than white people.
I tend to focus most of my time at this blog writing about issues related to racism, but have somehow skipped over environmental justice. Intellectually, I know that climate change is the most important issue facing us all. If the planet isn’t habitable, there will be no fight over how we allocate resources. Yet it feels like such a distant problem when faced with pervasive violence, food insecurity, disproportionate poverty rates, mass incarceration, etc., knowing that those things are killing us right now and the fixes are relatively easy, when compared to battling climate change.
But our environment—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fuel that powers us—is inextricably linked to every other issue we face. As this new study shows us, environmental justice is a crucial aspect of anti-racism work in the United States. Not only that, the fight for our environment is a fight for oppressed populations across the globe. It is the land that we stand on that is most in danger of disappearing.
We’re running out of time. The gravity of the situation requires that we all do our part. Of course there are other supremely important issues that require our attention. This doesn’t mean we drop everything. Our brains can hold more than one thought at a time, our actions can be multifaceted. It does, however, mean that those of us who haven’t been paying enough attention to climate change can no longer take for granted that others will do the work. It’s time for all of us to show up.
Let this Earth Day be the beginning of a new commitment.
Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels
The New York Times recently took an in-depth look at one of the country’s poorest regions, Appalachia, specifically McDowell County, in the piece “50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back.” McDowell County, a rural area in southern West Virginia, is home to a shrinking population of poor, mostly white, residents who rely heavily on government assistance programs for survival. The best jobs that used to be available here, coal mining, have all but disappeared—reflected in the poverty rate. But the county did attempt to find salvation:
Today, fewer than one in three McDowell County residents are in the labor force. The chief effort to diversify the economy has been building prisons. The most impressive structure on Route 52, the twisting highway into Welch, is a state prison that occupies a former hospital. There is also a new federal prison on a mountaintop.
Yes, prison, that tried and true engine of economic progress.
This isn’t specific to McDowell County or West Virginia. Prison economies are prevalent across the country, especially in rural areas that have space for massive buildings. It’s called the “prison-industrial complex” not just because of the low-wage work that’s extracted from prisoners but also because of the industry that springs up around the prison system. First, someone will be contracted to build the prison. Then you’ll need a staff for maintenance. Next comes the restaurants and hotels in the nearby town that feed and house relatives coming to visit the incarcerated in these far off places. When you’re finished, you have an entire local economy dependent on the existence of a prison. If you can’t continue to stuff those prisons full of bodies, the people in these rural communities who have to rely on these jobs for survival will suffer.
Unfortunately for residents of McDowell County, many don’t even qualify for jobs at the prison, as they can’t pass a drug test. They are ravaged by poverty and all that accompanies it, including rampant drug use (which this piece treats as cause of poverty rather than a result). They’re more likely to be incarcerated than employed by their local prison.
Coal mining will never come roaring back as generator of living wage jobs—and good riddance. It’s detrimental to the health of people and the environment. But so is basing your economy around prison. Yet that’s what has been made available to some of our poorest citizens. There’s an intimate relationship between poverty and the carceral state. Our addiction to incarceration doesn’t only make certain poverty’s continuance, but it gives hope to some that their poverty will be alleviated. It’s a sick cycle that’s only fixed by building a more equitable society.
Read Next: We built this country on inequality.
I admit to tuning out most conversations surrounding income and/or wealth inequality in the United States. It’s not because I don’t find these conversations important; they are vital. The problem is that I always hear the issue of inequality situated around what has happened in the last thirty or forty years, which ignores the fact this is a nation built on inequality. The wealth gap didn’t spring up from policy gone awry—it is the policy. This country was founded on the idea of concentrating wealth in the hands of a few white men. That that persists today isn’t a flaw in the design. Everything is working as the founders intended.
The source of that inequality has changed, as the past thirty/forty years have been dominated by the financial class and rampant executive corruption, but the American economy has always required inequality to function. Even times of great prosperity, where the wealth gap decreased, inequality was necessary. The post-WWII period is notable for the lowest levels of inequality in the modern era, but the drivers of that prosperity (the GI Bill, construction of the highway system, low-interest home loans) deliberately left black people out, and the moments of robust public investment that have benefited racial minorities and women have always been followed by a resurgence of concern over government spending and “state’s rights.”
Our job, then, if we’re serious about forming a society of true equality, is to interrogate and uproot the ideologies that created the original imbalance. In other words, we can’t deal with income/wealth inequality without also reckoning with white supremacy and patriarchy.
So far, we haven’t done a very good job of that. Bryce Covert writes eloquently about the gender gap, while Matt Bruenig writes about the failure to address economic disparity along racial lines. Over at Salon, he says:
Although the Civil Rights Act, the landmark legislation which just reached its 50th anniversary, made great strides in desegregating the economy, economic discrimination is still widespread, and anti-discrimination legislation alone can never rectify the economic damage inflicted upon blacks by slavery and our Jim Crow apartheid regime.
He’s right, though I’d quibble with some of the other points in this piece. Later on, he says, “Even if racism were wiped out tomorrow and equal treatment became the norm, it would never cease being the case that the average white person has more wealth than the average black person.” Except that is racism. The persistence of inequality along racial lines is racism. It may seem to be a minor point, but it’s important in constructing a truer definition of racism, in order that we know what we’re fighting against. It’s important to remember that slavery was chiefly an economic enterprise that created a racial caste system out of necessity. Karen and Barbara Fields chart this history in their book Racecraft.
The larger point still remains, as Bruenig concludes:
Thus, those actually serious about righting the wrongs of enslavement and Jim Crow apartheid must support more drastic leveling efforts. Beefed up anti-discrimination, which is both necessary and good, will not be enough. Ideally, we could work towards reparations in the form of redistributing wealth along racial lines. With that an unlikely possibility though, we can at least think about ways to redistribute wealth more generally from those with wealth to those without it, something that would have a similar, albeit more attenuated, effect as reparations given who the wealthy and non-wealthy happen to be.
I would more than welcome a renewed discussion about reparations. It is, however, as Bruenig notes, a long shot. But there are other avenues to explore that would have a similar impact to reparations, like a jobs guarantee and universal basic income. Perhaps this is an opportunity to revisit A. Philip Randolph’s “Freedom Budget for All Americans.” But any conversation about inequality absent one of white supremacy (and patriarchy) isn’t one worth engaging.
Read Next: The “real racists” have always worn suits.
This week we’ve commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the monumental piece of legislation aimed at outlawing discrimination based on race. A three-day-long “civil rights summit” was organized at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, where many past and present activists and politicians spoke on the legacy of the Civil Rights Act.
With the commemoration has come further discussion about the contemporary face of American racism (Chris Hayes hosted a great segment on the topic last night with Salon’s Brittney Cooper and New York’s Jonathan Chait). Over at BET, Keith Boykin wrote:
Despite the progress of the past half century, the struggle continues. “The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.” So said baseball hall of famer Hank Aaron in an interview with USA Today this week, in which he seemed to compare the racist klansmen of the 1960s with the supposedly post-racial cynics of our current generation.
You see, today’s racists don’t wear white hoods and scream the N-word. They wear dark suits and scream about government handouts. They don’t set up racist poll taxes to deter Blacks from voting. They set up voter ID laws to do the same thing. And they certainly don’t defend lynch mobs, which legitimize vigilante justice. Instead, they defend Stand Your Ground laws, which achieve the same purpose.
But I have trouble with this framing. It’s neat and easily digestible for anyone with only a cursory understanding of American history and racism, and therefore popular as a means of telling that history. It has broad appeal, but it’s not accurate. It flattens history and does the work of placing the onus for past bad deeds on a select few. It reinforces the image of “the real racist” as one who expressed their hatred in demonstrably violent ways. It suggests that racists have simply become more sophisticated, changing the tactics of their hatred from burning crosses to writing legislation, from white hoods to business suits, as that Hank Aaron quote contends.
Here’s the problem with that narrative: the architects and gatekeepers of American racism have always worn neckties. They have always been a part of the American political system.
I understand the impulse in wanting to find some way to convey that what we’re dealing with currently is a system of racism that is less overt than it once was. Saying things like “we’ve gone from white hoods to business suits” is one way to seem to speak to contemporary racism’s less vocal, yet still insidious nature. But it does a disservice to the public understanding of racism, and in the process undercuts the mission of drawing attention to contemporary racism’s severity.
It wasn’t the KKK that wrote the slave codes. It wasn’t the armed vigilantes who conceived of convict leasing, postemancipation. It wasn’t hooded men who purposefully left black people out of New Deal legislation. Redlining wasn’t conceived at a Klan meeting in rural Georgia. It wasn’t “the real racists” who bulldozed black communities in order to build America’s highway system. The Grand Wizard didn’t run COINTELPRO in order to dismantle the Black Panthers. The men who raped black women hired to clean their homes and care for their children didn’t hide their faces.
The ones in the hoods did commit violent acts of racist terrorism that shouldn’t be overlooked, but they weren’t alone. Everyday citizens participated in and attended lynchings as if they were state fairs, bringing their children and leaving with souvenirs. These spectacles, if not outright endorsed, were silently sanctioned by elected officials and respected members of the community.
It’s easy to focus on the most vicious and dramatic forms of racist violence faced by past generations as the site of “real” racism. If we do, we can also point out the perpetrators of that violence and rightly condemn them for their actions. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that those individuals alone didn’t write America’s racial codes. It’s much harder to talk about how that violence was only reinforcing the system of political, economic and cultural racism that made America possible. That history indicts far more people, both past and present.
Read Next: The function of black rage
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. ” – James Baldwin
When the tête-à-tête between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait over black culture, the “culture of poverty,” President Obama, Paul Ryan and American racism started, it was somewhat fascinating, but has become what Tressie McMillan Cottom described as “a nasty piece of cornbread.” It has left a rotten taste in my mouth. That’s mostly because, as congenial as the two have been toward one another, I detect in Chait’s argument one of my greatest pet peeves: a white person attempting to talk a black person down from their justifiable rage.
One of the issues that has come up in this debate is the way these two men view American history. Chait writes:
Coates and I disagree about racial progress in America. Coates sees the Americas' racial history as a story of continuity of white supremacy. I see the sequence (I’d call it a progression, but that term would load the argument in my favor) that began with chattel slavery and has led to the Obama administration as a story of halting, painful, non-continuous, but clear improvement.
What a luxury it must be to define the history of racism in America through the lens of progress.
He goes on:
Coates associates himself with a quote from Malcolm X: "You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches, and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress." The analogy defines out of existence the very possibility of steady progress. People who subscribe to this way of thinking won’t agree with measures that reduce but fail to eliminate racial discrimination, or those that reduce but fail to eliminate poverty, or reduce but fail to eliminate medical deprivation. I have written before, for instance, about how slavery continues to poison white minds in ways white people are often unaware of. One can believe in the continued existence of racism and still think that the scale of the evil has fallen enormously since the 19th century.
You don't get to define progress in a struggle that is not your own. It’s really that simple. You inevitably bring to that analysis an outsider’s perspective, and from that vantage point, progress of any measure looks astounding. It’s particularly awe-inspiring if it allows you to feel less implicated in the reason for that struggle. But that’s what we call privilege: the ability to observe "improvement" because you're not experiencing the ever present oppression. It clouds your judgment. It deludes you into believing you have the authority of objectivity. It breeds self-righteousness. It impedes true progress.
This doesn't preclude Chait, or other white people, from having an opinion on the state of racism in America. But it must be understood that their whiteness, and therefore distance from the lived experience of racism, affords them much rosier view of what constitutes progress.
Chait previously wrote, with a note of disappointment, “I have never previously detected this level of pessimism in Coates’s thinking before.” He isn’t alone. Andrew Sullivan and quite a few of his readers detect a “profound gloom” in Coates’s writing as of late, a change, they say, from just a few years ago.
Where they see pessimism and gloom, I see anger, an anger I wish we saw more of. Anger helps build movements. Of course, anger alone isn't sufficient, but it has a galvanizing effect. There's an anger unique to experiencing America through blackness that has pushed this country to react. Chait, Sullivan and some anonymous emailers appear to want Coates to feel happier about the progress America has made in eliminating racism. Sure, there are still a few things left to hammer out, but c’mon, you’ve got to admit we’ve gotten better, right? Right?
Here I find it instructive to revisit this passage from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
That is an impatience born of rage. We don’t associate King with anger, as we’ve whitewashed his image to that of a peaceful dreamer, but you can not read or hear him without feeling that palpable sense of frustration, fury and anger. Or perhaps you can, which simply means, to me, you have no way to relate.
And it’s easy to say, “Of course King was angry, this is a different time. This shouldn’t apply now. We’re not dealing with the same things as back then.” But we are. We are dealing with the persistence of white supremacy as an ideology and the practice of racism as a determinant of black humanity. That the degree has lessened and the tactics changed does not make that any less true. Additionally, what King was responding to is the same type of white liberal malaise on display now. There remains an uneasiness with discussing American racism alongside the myth of American exceptionalism, because the myth is easier to digest. We continue to be asked to stop. We continue to be told we’ve won enough.
Emancipation was supposed to be enough. “Separate but equal” was supposed to be enough. Brown v. Board of Education was supposed to be enough. The Civil Rights/Voting Acts were supposed to be enough. Affirmative action was supposed to be enough. A black president is supposed to be enough. Yet, here we are, facing mass incarceration, food insecurity, chronic unemployment, the erosion of the social safety net, income inequality, housing discrimination, police brutality and the seemingly unending deaths of our young people at the hands of police and armed vigilantes. Pardon the “profound gloom.”
What some call depression or pessimism, I would call impatience and rage. Our impatience and rage is what has produced progress. That we are still impatient and angry reflects not black people’s failing but how far America still has to go.
My question/challenge to white people who claim to be on the side of equality and justice: when will you get just as angry that these things have been done in your name?
Read Next: The school-to-prison pipeline starts in preschool.
The school-to-prison pipeline, to my mind, is the most insidious arm of this country's prison-industrial complex. Under the guise of protecting our children, we push many of them out of school and into prisons, limit their opportunities, fail to and/or undereducate them, all while feeding our addiction to mass incarceration and retribution that is not justice at all. That the students who find themselves funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline are predominantly black is further proof that the United States system of racist oppression chugs along through the rhetoric of colorblindness.
Now that we have the niceties out of the way, let's talk about what really makes the school-to-prison pipeline the worst.
A study conducted by U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights shows that black preschoolers (yes, four and five year olds) make up almost half of all out-of-school suspensions for preschoolers. What any preschool student has to do in order to be suspended is beyond me. That said, black students are receiving the message—at younger and younger ages—that their behavior will be regarded differently, as inherently more disruptive and therefore more deserving of punishment. They are being denied the right to their formative years of education and socialization. And then we wonder why there is an "education gap."
Across all grade levels, Black students represent about 16 percent of the overall student population, but are 32-42 percent of students who face out-of-school suspension, 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students who experience a school-related arrest. Black students are suspended or expelled at a rate three times higher than white students. 20 percent of black boys and 12 percent of black girls face out-of-school suspensions.
It's tempting to focus on the disproportionate percentage of black boys who are suspended—and when we talk about racism and racial injustice, we often focus on what's happening to boys and men. However, it's important to note, as Crystal Lewis does, that girls—especially black girls—often find themselves caught in the juvenile justice system for infractions much less serious those of boys. "In 2010," Lewis writes, "67 percent of the 500,000 young women in the juvenile justice system were arrested for larceny-theft, loitering or violating curfew, disorderly conduct and other low-level offenses. In comparison, 52 percent of males were arrested because of offenses they committed in these categories." Girls are more likely to be arrested on status offenses (like truancy, running away and incorrigibility—being a disobedient youth), things that would not be crimes were they adults.
It's those lighter offenses that often result in black girls being suspended from school, as well. Monique Morris, co-founder of the National Black Women's Justice Institute, told Women's eNews, "The majority of black girls who have been suspended got kicked out for being loud, even if they weren't being disrespectful." It's consistent with the way school discplined is meted out: black students' behavior is interpreted as more threatening than that of their white counterparts. Combined with "zero tolerance" policies that heavily rely on the use of police to deal with school-level discplinary problems, this means more interaction with the law enforcement/criminal justice system for more and more black students.
It's appalling. Worse, it's completely unnecessary. But it's the logical result of a system dedicated to ensuring inequality persists along racial and gender lines. That alternatives exist apparently doesn't matter. We'll just keep criminalizing, suspending, arresting and locking away black children until there simply aren't any left.
Read Next: Respectability politics still won't save us.