All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t.
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.
Jonathan Chait takes issue with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s assertion that Paul Ryan’s rhetoric about “culture of work” and “inner-city men” isn’t any different than President Obama’s admonishing of young black men and blaming the lack of fathers in the home for their perceived failures. He says:
Ryan’s analysis—or, at least, the analysis that follows consistently from his remarks and his policy agenda—is that culture now represents the entirety of the problem with the black poor. He attributes that culture to incentives put in place by the government not to work, and believes that removing those harmful incentives, in the form of cutting benefit programs, would teach poor black people to fend for themselves.
Figures like Obama, [Bill] Clinton, and (I think) [Bill] Cosby make a very different argument. They share the view that cultural problems contribute to black poverty, but they don’t equate them with the entirety of it. Clinton combined welfare reform with a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit, higher minimum wage, and other direct benefits. Obama has done the same.
While it’s true that the Obama administration has taken on certain aspects of institutional racism, most notably drug policy and voting rights, it’s also the case that Obama’s rhetoric around black youth and the inequities they face always circle back to issues of “culture,” the willingness to name and deconstruct structural racism in explicit terms is absent. We can discuss the explosion of the prison population under Clinton’s presidency some other time.
But Chait’s biggest misfire is here:
Coates is committing a fallacy by assuming that Obama’s exhortations to the black community amount to a belief that personal responsibility accounts for a major share of the blame. A person worries about the things that he can control. If I’m watching a basketball game in which the officials are systematically favoring one team over another (let’s call them Team A and Team Duke) as an analyst, the officiating bias may be my central concern. But if I’m coaching Team A, I’d tell my players to ignore the biased officiating. Indeed, I’d be concerned the bias would either discourage them or make them lash out, and would urge them to overcome it. That’s not the same as denying bias. It’s a sensible practice of encouraging people to concentrate on the things they can control.
Dress it up in all the sports metaphors you want, but I know respectability politics when I see it, and Chait commits the fallacy of lending it any credibility.
Yes, people like to feel in control of their own lives, and thus a conservative response to structural racism has been to strive for achievement despite the odds. Go to school, dress well, speak articulately, work hard, be unflinchingly kind. And because that formula works for some people, it becomes the official playbook (to extend Chait’s metaphor) for dealing with racism in one’s personal life. These are the things people can control. They can comport themselves according to the rules of white supremacy and hope for the best.
Fine. If that helps one to preserve their sanity and survive in this rigged system, I’m not here to knock it (too much). But what Chait sees as rational, I see as an irrational response to an irrational problem. Racism doesn’t make sense. It is not rooted in logic. Its metrics shift with the times. It can go from claiming black men do not have the intellectual fortitude to participate in professional sports, to marveling at black athletes’ natural ability to excel. It can turn from hiring black women to perform all domestic duties, to admonishing them for being lazy “welfare queens.” It can say simultaneously that black people are naturally inferior to white people, while fearing that very existence of blackness is a threat to white people’s livelihoods.
There is no rational response to a system of oppression that refutes its own logic. And if there were, respectability politics would be the least rational. Because even if you win that one game against the shady refs by ignoring their imposition and playing your best, it’s just one game. It’s just one team. The rest of league still suffers.
Also, the basketball metaphor is utterly ridiculous.
Read Next: Melissa Harris-Perry on what Paul Ryan and Obama have in common
Yesterday, President Obama launched a new initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper,” aimed at improving the quality of life for young black and Latino boys in this country. Let me be clear: when he said, “This is an issue of national importance. This is as important as any issue that I work on. It’s an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for president,” I believed him. There’s no doubt, in my mind, that the president cares very deeply about the pervasive inequality in education, incarceration, poverty and violence afflicting black and brown boys and he wants to do something about it. This is important and commendable. But I take issue with what the president considers “something.”
My very first problem is that the initiative is aimed solely at young men. When fighting racism we are often exhorted to help our men and boys overcome it. But women and girls are affected by racism, too, and also suffer from race-based disparities. It’s as if to say that the path to equality for black and brown people is to uphold patriarchy. It’s counterproductive.
Also, the president said over and over again “young men of color,” but was only really addressing black and Latino boys. If that’s his focus, so be it—there are specific disparities black and Latino boys face in education, incarceration and economic opportunity—but repeating “of color” and only meaning black and Latino erases other nonwhite people who fall under that umbrella term.
So we’re talking about black and Latino boys. Then let’s talk about them.
Black and Latino boys are disproportionately targeted by police actions like stop-and-frisk. One in every fifteen black men and one in every thirty-six Hispanic men are incarcerated, as compared to one in every 106 white men. They receive harsher punishments in both schools and the justice system. They experience an unemployment rate typically double that of the national average. These are the statistics My Brother’s Keeper is concerned with.
President Obama has made it clear that he’s of a class of thinkers who recognizes America’s longstanding history of racism, but ultimately believes that the way forward for black and brown youth is to not let their race or gender be an “excuse.” In his view, no matter your circumstances, you can achieve if you’re willing to work hard. That’s the promise of America.
But that has never been the case for black and brown people. We have worked hard for centuries. That work has been exploited, undervalued and at times criminalized. To dismiss that, as the president does (and most other people do), is to take an uncomplicated view of a complicated history.
When President Obama says, “We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias. But nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life,” he’s not pandering. This is what he actually believes.
But that’s ignoring the root problem. We can turn every black and brown boy into a “respectable” citizen. But the moment we do, the rules for what constitutes “respectable” will change. That’s how racism works (check this history of American barbers and facial hair for one example). That’s how white supremacy sustains itself. It isn’t a rational ideology built on facts, statistics or empirical observations. It’s a system of oppression meant to concentrate power and resources into the hands of white people at the expense of the livelihoods of all nonwhites.
If it’s meaningful that our first black president is able to articulate the experience of young black men in this country, it’s also meaningful when that same first black president lends legitimacy to the racist beliefs of someone like Bill O’Reilly. It’s not an achievement to get O’Reilly in the same room as Rev. Al Sharpton, as the president joked during his address, when nothing about this initiative is going to challenge the racist worldview the FOX News host and his followers hold dear.
I’m sure this initiative will have real benefits for a good number of black and Latino boys. They will be provided mentorship and role models, be afforded opportunities that may have previously existed outside of their imaginations and know that someone out there cares. But that’s a severely limited view of what is needed. It’s basically charity. “Philanthropy is not policy,” Princeton professor Imani Perry said on last night’s All In with Chris Hayes. The role of government should be making philanthropy less necessary.
My Brother’s Keeper is in essence an initiative aimed at helping black and Latino boys find success within a racist system. In some ways, it’s admirable. But finding “success,” however narrowly defined, in the face of racism is not the same as defeating racism. In order to cure what truly ails us as a country, it will take a more concerted effort to reckon with our actual historical record and undo the system of racism that has produced the conditions people of color face today. That’s beyond the power of one American president. But he could put it on the agenda.
Read Next: Jordan Davis and the refrain of black death
Here is cultural critic Greg Tate writing in 1987 about the death of 23-year-old Michael Griffith:
My gut reaction to the lynching of Michael Griffith wasn’t anger, shock, or empathy, but cynicism—cynicism born of the suspicion that the black community would prove too impotent to respond in the form of symbolic protest, let alone retaliation. I’ve grown so used to thinking of black people as inevitable victims that the fact of Griffith’s murder registered more as an ideological abstraction—another act of white racist violence crying out for our collective uproar or avenging even—than as the killing of an individual black man….
To be black and conscious is not just, as James Baldwin once quipped, to be in a constant state of rage, but to rage constantly against those who would deny how America’s past racism sets the stage for present injustices. The anger and pain that Griffith’s lynching arouses is no more immediate than what I feel when I see illustrations of slave ship holds, or read about the black war heroes slaughtered in the Red Summer of 1919, or wish I could raise an army to keep black elders from being terrorized out of slumlord properties. Everywhere we turn, whether back through history or around the corner, we see black people being laid low and driven to their deaths. My heart goes out to Griffith’s friends and family, but I was mad about the America that killed him long before he was beaten and chased into the path of a car whose driver now claims he thought the body that collided with his windshield was an ‘animal’ or a ‘tire.’
Change the name to Jordan Davis, alter a few details, and it’s no different from what we’re dealing with today. Change the name to Trayvon Martin, alter a few details, and it’s no different from what we dealt with last year. Change the name to Oscar Grant, alter a few details, etc., etc., etc. There’s nothing new under America’s racist sun.
It’s where the fatigue comes from, knowing that Michael Griffith wasn’t the first, Jordan Davis wasn’t the last, and the system that produced their murders will outlast our anger. In response to their deaths, we survivors of racism and white supremacy produce elegant eulogies and fiery protests. We scream “Murder! Lynching!” We desperately reaffirm for ourselves and our children the value of black life in a country that declares us worthless. We cry and renew our hope. And then we move on to the next one.
What then? How many more eye-opening essays must we write? How many more freedom songs must we sing? How many more marches and protests must we organize? How many more bodies must we lay to rest before America gets tired, too?
The cynic in me starts to believe this is exactly what white people want. It’s as though our cries of “Murder! Lynching!” only make it easier for white America to accept black death. I want to believe differently. But it’s hard not to see the same scene play out over and over again and not think that there’s a pleasure derived from seeing black suffering, then being berated by black rage. It starts to feel as if we’re trapped in some sadomasochistic fantasy of white American imagination.
But silence isn’t an option. We owe more than silence to Michael and Jordan and Trayvon and Rekia and Aiyana and Jonathan. But we also owe more than beautiful words mined from our pain.
We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to keep getting angry, until that type of justice is served.
Read Next: How to create a thug.
“I’m not trying to be racist…”
Last night, a stranger started a “conversation” with me using those exact words. There was nothing positive that could have come out of this exchange.
“I’m not trying to be racist, but do you know where I can score some coke?”
I heard him. It was a pretty noisy bar, but I heard him loud and clear. Still, I wanted him to say it again.
“What?” He repeated himself. My gut reaction? Punch in the face. I didn’t.
“So, what you’re saying is, because I’m black, you picked me to come ask to help you find cocaine?”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying. I’m not trying to be offensive…”
No need to try. He succeeded without it.
“OK, I’ve lived in New York for five months…”
“I don’t give a fuck where you’re from, I’m just trying to get some coke.” He cut me off before I could finish telling him that in my five months, this was one of most racist things that had happened to me, but still didn’t rank that high on a lifetime scale. He wasn’t worth my time. He could get the fuck out of my face.
After my friends told him to leave, repeatedly, he did so while saying over and over again, “I wasn’t trying to be offensive, I’m sorry if I offended you.” Hollow, drunken apologies. He came back to the table with a friend. Immediately, we told them both to leave. They offered us drinks. We didn’t want them. I didn’t want them. The friend said, “He’s just an asshole, he was trying to be funny.” No, he wasn’t. He was trying to be racist. He made that abundantly clear.
I could have punched him in the face. I wanted to punch him in the face. I would have felt completely justified had I punched him in the face.
At 19, I definitely would have punched him in the face.
I didn’t punch him because I was attempting to “rise above” or “be the bigger person.” In that moment, I simply decided that the inevitable night in jail and subsequent assault charges wouldn’t be worth it. At 19, I had a completely different calculus.
At 19, I wasn’t just angry, I felt I was living on borrowed time. At 19, I thought I was supposed to have been dead by 18, and knew 21 wasn’t an option. At 19, I was living ready to die.
I’m a little older, no less angry, but of a different state of mind. I’m not totally opposed to (physically) fighting back. It has its limitations, and violence begets more violence, etc., etc. However, I’m pro self-defense. Given the context of our history, where racist language and violent acts often go hand-in-hand, I see racist language as violent language and violent language as violence. I see no issue with defending one’s self against violence. (That would seem to contradict my opposition to Stand Your Ground laws, but those provide a justification for the use of deadly force even where there is no actual threat of violence, and that is a gross distortion of self-defense.)
But I made my choice last night on the basis of feeling that I had something to lose. I haven’t always felt that way. Being black in America feels like having nothing. But at 27, there’s something I try to live for. I use my anger in a way that feels productive. I write, I speak, I teach, I shout, I learn, I grow. Last night, I decided to keep doing that. I decided that’s how I fight back.
Imagine having to make that decision when every muscle in your body tells you to do otherwise. Imagine having to make that decision when you don’t know how to operate on anything but anger. Imagine having to make that decision on an almost daily basis. Imagine having to make the decision when you’re sure there isn’t a future for you in this world. Imagine having to make the decision knowing it could be your last.
Are we still thugs now?
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the effects of ignoring systemic racism