It is a struggle; for though the black man fights passively, he nevertheless fights; and his passive resistance is more effective at present than active resistance could possibly be. He bears the fury of the storm as does the willow tree.
–James Weldon Johnson
I’ve noticed a tendency among the right wing: if someone says #BlackLivesMatter, they need to counter it by saying #AllLivesMatter, with the explanation that no lives should matter more than others. However, they are perfectly fine with saying #BlueLivesMatter. Clearly, the word they find offensive word is “black.” Killing anyone–black, blue, brown, pink, trans–is wrong, but arguing over that point is a waste of time. Here are the facts: #BlackLivesMatter is not a terrorist group, and racism is a very real issue.
The statement that #BlackLivesMatter is meant to be a reminder that lives of people of color are being unfairly wasted, and it’s true. Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, and it seems as good a time as any to outline my stances on racial justice. As the above picture shows, let’s not forget that Dr. King faced colossal hardship to achieve his goals, and was once unfairly labeled a thug just like so many others today.
Ending Institutionalized Racism
I’ll never forget how I felt when I tutored a student essay that actually argued that racism doesn’t exist and black people can “just be entrepreneurs like Bill Gates.” Sure, Bill Gates founded a multi-billion dollar company in a garage after dropping out of college, but he came from an upper middle class family and dropped out of Harvard, of all schools. It’s more than a little tough for anyone else to have the luxury of doing the same.
During my relatively short time as a substitute teacher, I’ve worked at various schools around Duval County, and I’ve found a very different story from the situation that fed Bill Gates’ success. It’s almost universally true that schools in poorer and blacker areas receive less funding and therefore fewer resources for serving students. I’ll never forget an experience I had with an honors class that saw no future and therefore no reason to do any of the classwork or follow any school rules. If opportunities are unavailable, why bother with school? College is too expensive, and job prospects are terrible.
The truth is that the hopelessness I witnessed has its roots in a long history of institutionalized racism. When the Federal Housing Administration was set up in 1934, it rated neighborhoods based on how worthy of home loans the people in them were. As one could predict, white neighborhoods received high ratings while black neighborhoods received low ratings. Therefore, white families had access to loans that would allow them to move to better neighborhoods, build better houses, and pass on more to their children. As whites left the city for the suburbs and the property of blacks became essentially worthless, this policy of “redlining” essentially created the inner city ghettos. As Lyndon B. Johnson’s Kerner Commission concluded, “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Despite the passing of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that outlawed redlining, the aftermath of the practice still affects neighborhoods today. In the time leading up to the 2008 Housing Crisis, big banks unfairly and disproportionately targeted African Americans with housing loans with unfair terms. Because of income disparity, mortgage terms are usually less favorable to non-whites. On that note, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a black woman needs to work 19 months to make the same pay a white man makes in 12.
How is someone supposed to pull up their bootstraps when they can’t afford boots? How can they afford to drop out of an Ivy League education? The same economic opportunities should be available to all Americans, regardless of race. Institutionalized racism must end, and all Americans should have access to reasonable financial products and equal pay for equal work.
Ending the Prison Industrial Complex
Contrary to popular belief, slavery never ended. The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Literally, the work done by prisoners is slave labor. And who makes up the majority of prison populations?
Consider two situations, both involving a small amount of an illegal drug, like marijuana. The subjects are two young men, perhaps 17 years old, one white and one black. They are both caught by police. Which one is more likely to go to prison?
It’s quite common for a black man to receive a mandatory minimum sentence and spend a year in prison, while a white man receives a slap on the wrist, despite white and black males committing non-violent crimes at roughly the same rate, adjusted for population. Even though more white people are arrested, that is only because of higher population. Black people are still more likely to be sent to prison.
Why? Because it is easier to exploit black inmates as cheap prison labor. Companies like McDonald’s, Walmart, AT&T, and even Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods rely on prison labor to keep cost low and proudly display a “made in USA” label. Prisoners are technically paid for their work, but the pay can range anywhere from nothing to $3.45 per day.
This is insane, and it has led to rise of for-profit prisons that make money on human misery. American taxpayers are literally financing the bottom line of corporations that exploit slave labor and get huge tax breaks. For-profit prisons even advertise high rates of recidivism (returning to prison after release) to their shareholders. It costs the government over $30,000 to keep one inmate in prison each year, and America incarcerates more people than any other industrialized nation, beating out even China and Russia.
Of course, anyone who goes to prison has a harder time getting a paying job, accessing education, and receiving adequate and affordable healthcare upon release, even for a nonviolent offense. Past incarceration is like a curse, and it leads to a vicious cycle of falling back into the same behavior that led to going to prison in the first place. Prisons may be called “correctional facilities,” but they appear to correct nothing.
Of course, murderers and rapists should certainly be locked up. I’m not arguing against that. However, permanently ruining the lives of nonviolent offenders, disproportionately arrested by race, just so they can be used as slave labor for the benefit of corporations is inexcusable.
For-profit prisons must be outlawed, and prisoners must be paid a living wage for their work. If they make a living wage, corporations will have less incentive to use prison labor, which will lead to better opportunities for everyone else. The end of cheap prison labor will also reduce corporate pressure on police and judges to incarcerate more people. Mandatory minimum sentences must also be abolished, along with the war on drugs. However, one matter is most important to reducing incarceration rates.
Whether it’s in Ferguson, New York, or right here in Jacksonville, police have killed black people at alarming rates. Regardless of any crime Michael Brown committed, it wasn’t a violent crime, and he was unarmed. That alone shows that his death was unwarranted.
This contrasts with the treatment of Dylan Roof after he slaughtered nine people at a primarily black church. The police appear rather cordial with him, with unconfirmed allegations of buying him Burger King.
On the whole, police patrol black neighborhoods far more than white neighborhoods, searching for potential crime, and the police on patrol too often don’t reflect the neighborhood. Whereas the police should be a source of reassurance and safety, for too many police represent the fear of going to prison or outright dying. And too often, brutality and death of nonviolent offenders goes totally unpunished. The JSO officers, who brutalized the Hemming Park 5 while rushing to the defense of the Trump supporter who harassed and threatened them, are still on the force.
Police should not be acting as judge, jury, and executioner. Police forces must take efforts to recruit officers who reflect the neighborhoods they patrol. Race should not be an issue in punishing crime. Now, most police are good people who uphold the law and keep others safe; the problem is that the ones who don’t aren’t being held accountable.
Police should wear body cameras, and the footage from those cameras should publicly available. This doesn’t only protect suspects of crimes–it also protects the officers themselves. Video would make it clear who is threatening who and would remove all doubt about the officer’s actions. Furthermore, non-violent offenders and suspects would be safer from undue death or brutality since police would have every incentive to act professionally.
Is Donald Trump Racist?
Will addressing the issue fix racism? Of course not. Racism is deeply ingrained in American culture and government, and it won’t magically go away, regardless of who is elected. But we can get the ball rolling. We can fix our broken criminal justice system. We can outlaw slavery once and for all. We can move the police toward being a force of good in the community rather than fear. We can ensure that everyone has access to financial and educational opportunities that lead to advancement.
If Dr. King were alive, he’d be appalled. Let’s fix that.