So we’re not post-racial yet.
Instead, we are preoccupied with race, chafing along the color line, possessed of wildly divergent views of authority, justice and equality. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in the aftermath of widely publicized police shootings and the attacks on Dallas police officers, 60 percent of Americans believe race relations are growing worse.
Some among us lay the blame for that, absurdly, at the feet of President Barack Obama, who was supposed to usher in an era of peace, harmony and racial healing — at least according to some utterly naive predictions made at the time of his first election. Instead, it seems, his presence in the Oval Office precipitated a furious backlash, a tidal wave of resentment from those whites who see his ascendance as a sign of their decline.
But that’s not the president’s fault. He has studiously tried to avoid stirring the cauldron of race, to bridge the color chasm, to unite the warring American tribes. His only crime is in symbolizing the anxieties of those white Americans who see a black man in power as the bete noire of their nightmares.
It makes more sense to blame the presumptive GOP nominee, Donald Trump, for these troubling times. He enters his nominating convention in Cleveland as the same divisive bully he has been throughout the campaign — a man singularly ill-suited to lead a diverse nation.
Trump has not just pandered to the prejudices of his mostly white supporters; he has also encouraged them with his incendiary promises to limit immigration and his vicious insults of the president, starting with his claim that Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Trump works assiduously to keep us divided, a state that sharpens his political advantage.
But the simple truth is that neither Obama nor Trump created this moment. This unruly time has been more than 200 years in the making. We have not yet put away the old ghosts, so they continue to haunt us.
Take the police shootings that have prompted protests around the country during the last several days. There is nothing new about police violence toward black citizens, nothing unusual about bias in the criminal justice system, nothing unexpected about the institutional racism that conspires to imprison black Americans disproportionately.
Just read Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name,” an account of law enforcement practices in the Deep South following the Civil War. White business owners demanded low- to no-cost labor, and they got it by imprisoning black men unfairly and putting them to work.
To justify their rank oppression and their state-sanctioned violence — black people were lynched with impunity for more than a century — powerful whites trafficked in awful stereotypes about black criminality. Those old biases — those hateful stereotypes — didn’t just fade away with the civil rights movement.
As President Obama put it during his moving and elegant speech memorializing the Dallas dead, “We also know that centuries of racial discrimination, of slavery, and subjugation, and Jim Crow — they didn’t simply vanish with the law against segregation.”
Still, there are many who would dismiss Obama, whose political views demand they grant him no legitimacy. Maybe they’d listen instead to Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who rose to the floor of the Senate on Wednesday to give a deeply personal account of his maltreatment at the hands of police officers.
Scott is a rock-solid conservative who rarely agrees with the president about anything. He is also black, and, as he noted, that’s enough to kindle suspicion from some law enforcement authorities.
“In the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers, not four, not five, not six, but seven times, in one year, as an elected official. Was I speeding sometimes? Sure. But the vast majority of the time, I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reasons just as trivial,” he said.
That’s a powerful testament to the ways in which the old ghosts still haunt us, even in an age of a black president and two black U.S. senators. We are not post-racial yet, and until we can confront and exorcise the demons of our past, we will never be.
By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, July 17, 2016
A little time has passed since a grand jury in Cleveland refused to indict two white police officers responsible for the November 2014 death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was black.
One minute this child was playing in a city park with an air pellet gun. Seconds later, after a police squad car swooped up next to him, he was on the ground — alone and mortally wounded.
After 13 months of waiting for any sign of justice, the reaction from too many white people to the grand jury decision has severed me from my will for diplomacy. I am a 58-year-old white woman, and I am sickened by how many people who look like me talk about race.
I’m no stranger to their way of thinking. My father struggled with race until the day he died, but his fear of black people he never knew could not gain traction with me. By age 6, I knew he was wrong. Whenever he pounded the table and called them those awful names, I saw the faces of exactly half of my classmates. They were my friends.
As I wrote last year for The Atlantic, “it was not the natural order of things to be so young and know your father had no idea what he was talking about.” It framed our relationship for all of his days.
I share that story not to dishonor my father, whom I loved and miss to this day. I just want to make clear that I’m no neophyte when it comes to knowing what some white people believe about black people. Sometimes I think I’ve spent much of my career trying to make up for the harm the people I come from have inflicted on the lives of innocent strangers.
For as long as I’ve been a newspaper columnist — 13 years and counting — I’ve been on the receiving end of angry mail from white readers. One of their favorite cut-and-paste missives in emails and social media posts criticizes and even mocks what they call “black English.” How they love to spew their racist rants about dialect. It makes them feel so shiny-white superior.
Their hate is couched in white English, which has nothing to do with accents. White English is a state of mind. It turns words into weapons to dehumanize an entire population of people, and it is bubbling up like pus in a dirty wound after Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty convinced a grand jury that the police were justified in killing a black child playing with an air gun.
White English casts Tamir Rice, for the first time in his short life, as an equal among men — rather than as a 12-year-old boy limited by the judgment of his years.
He “should have known better.” He should have “listened to the police,” as if there’s no reason to doubt their claim that they yelled three warnings to this child in less than two seconds.
White English repeats, over and over, that this child was “big for his age.”
He’s not 12-year-old Tamir; he’s “Mr. Rice.” Even in his grave, he grows. He is no longer 5 feet 7 inches tall.
He was 5 feet 9.
He was 5’11”.
He was 6 feet tall.
He was a man.
He was a menace.
He was a thug.
White English is the language of the Superior White Parents club, where perfect children raised by perfect parents now raise perfect children of their own who would never jump around in a park and pretend to be shooting a toy gun. They know this because they have special powers that allow them to see what their perfect children are doing every minute of every day. If you dare suggest this is not possible, they will turn on you in a hot minute. How dare you question their parenting as they pick apart Tamir Rice’s mother?
White English has no words to acknowledge that Samaria Rice loved her son. That she banned toy guns from their home. That she didn’t know he had his friend’s air gun that day.
Two months ago, in an interview for Politico, Samaria Rice told me she watches the video of the last few moments of her son’s life — when he was still very much alive. She studies it, over and over, searching for any sign of what he may have been thinking right before the bullet tore through him.
“He didn’t have a lot of suspicions about people,” she said. “I look at him in that video and I’m wondering: ‘What are you thinking right now? Do you know what’s about to happen to you?’”
She was certain there would be no indictments for those police officers, she told me. She was waiting for God to tell her what comes next.
Which is worse, having your hopes dashed or knowing you will never see justice from a system that insists your child had it coming?
He was a boy.
He was a boy.
He was a boy.
By: Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist; The National Memo, December 31, 2015
On Monday a special prosecutor announced that neither the sheriff’s office nor jailers in Waller County, Texas, would face criminal charges related to the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was arrested during a routine traffic stop last summer in Texas and was found three days later hanged in her cell.
In a time of heightened scrutiny following the highly publicized killings of black Americans by police, Bland’s arrest and untimely death renewed national debate over the inequitable, and sometimes brutal, treatment of black citizens by police.
Bland’s family members have since filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against authorities in Texas openly questioning the official cause of death as a suicide. Friends and family have disputed that Bland would have taken her own life, saying that she was “in good spirits” and looking forward to starting a dream job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.
While it may seem unthinkable to loved ones, statistics show that Bland’s grim fate is shockingly common.
Suicide is the leading cause of death in local jails. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (PDF), since 2000, 4,134 people have taken their own lives while awaiting justice in local jails.
In 2013, 327 inmates—a third of the total who died while in custody of local jails—died this way. The suicide rate per jail inmates increased 14 percent from 2012 to 2013, and 23 percent from 2009.
Roughly 60 percent of all suicides in jails involve inmates between the ages of 25 and 44. Bland was 28 years old.
Suicide is more of a problem for jails than prisons, with half of them occurring within the first week of admission. The reason for the disparity is twofold, says Lindsay Hayes, the project director for the nonprofit National Center on Institutions and an expert in suicide prevention in prisons: fear and bad policing.
This month in Roanoke, Virginia, 22-year-old Clifton Antonio Harper was found hanging by his bedsheet in his jail cell. Harper had been in jail since March on charges of burglary, grand larceny, and assault.
And a 35-year-old Indianapolis man jailed for theft and possession of paraphernalia reportedly killed himself while in custody, prompting a review of jail suicides in Marion County.
In jails, Hayes says, people are sometimes going in for the first time, facing uncertainty and fear. Some are intoxicated at the time of their arrest, which can trigger an emotional response.
It’s what corrections expert Steve J. Martin called the “shock of confinement.” In an interview with NPR, Martin explained the trauma of being in jail for the first time: “My life is going to end right now with this experience. Everything I’ve worked for, the way people view me, the way my parents view me’—all that stuff is suddenly and dramatically in jeopardy.”
Hayes says that, while jails are getting better, there are still many that lack good training and intake screening practices that prisons have worked to institute.
“The classic response used to be, ‘If an inmate wants to kill himself, there’s nothing you can do about it,’” Hayes said. “Fast-forward to today and jails and prisons are much better resourced, and have tools now to identify suicidal behavior and manage it.”
In fact, Bland’s death prompted the Texas legislature to call for a review of local jails and how potentially suicidal inmates are handled and treated. Such reviews have resulted in an increased emphasis on training jail staff and an improvement in screening procedures in the state. New intake forms that identify suicide risks were put into practice this month by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
Death by hanging is by far the most common method of suicide in U.S. jails—either by bedding, or with clothing attached to an anchoring device such as a bunk, bars, or a cell door, according to a national study of jail suicide (PDF).
Critics have blasted Waller County jailers for failing to properly monitor Bland after she told them about a previous suicide attempt. While an intake form shows Bland answered “yes” to whether she had ever attempted suicide—as recently as 2014 by “pills”—her jailers left her alone in a cell with a plastic trash bag which she used to strangle herself.
By: Brandy Zadrozny, The Daily Beast, December 22, 2015
This is a column about three words of moral cowardice:
“All lives matter.”
Those words have risen as a kind of counter to “Black lives matter,” the movement that coalesced in response to recent killings and woundings of unarmed African-Americans by assailants — usually police officers — who often go unpunished. Mike Huckabee raised that counter-cry last week, telling CNN, “When I hear people scream ‘black lives matter,’ I’m thinking, of course they do. But all lives matter. It’s not that any life matters more than another.”
As if that were not bad enough, the former Arkansas governor and would-be president upped the ante by adding that Martin Luther King would be “appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others.”
“Elevating some lives.” Lord, have mercy.
Imagine for a moment that you broke your left wrist. In excruciating pain, you rush to the emergency room for treatment only to run into a doctor who insists on examining not just your mangled left wrist, but your uninjured right wrist, rib cage, femur, fibula, sacrum, humerus, phalanges, the whole bag of bones that is you. You say, “Doc, it’s just my left wrist that hurts.” And she says, “Hey, all bones matter.”
If you understand why that remark would be factual, yet also fatuous, silly, patronizing and off point, then you should understand why “All lives matter” is the same. It’s not about “elevating some lives” any more than it would be about elevating some bones. Rather, it’s about treating where it hurts.
And as for Dr. King: I cringe at his name being invoked by yet another conservative who has apparently never heard or read anything King said with the possible exception of the last few minutes of the “I Have A Dream” speech. No one with the slightest comprehension of what King fought for could seriously contend he would be “appalled” at a campaign geared to the suffering of African-American people.
Whose rights did the Montgomery bus boycott seek to vindicate? For whose freedom was King jailed in Birmingham, punched in Selma and stoned in Chicago? In his book Why We Can’t Wait, King answered complaints that we shouldn’t be doing something special for “the Negro” by noting that, “our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years.”
Does that sound like someone who’d be “appalled” by “Black lives matter”?
No, that cry would likely resonate for him for the same reason it resonates for so many others. Namely because, while police abuse is not unknown in other lives, it is disproportionate in black lives. This is what Huckabee and the “All lives matter” crowd quail at recognizing. To treat where it hurts, one must first acknowledge that it still hurts, something conservatives often find hard to do because it gives the lie to their self-congratulatory balloon juice about how this country has overcome its founding sin.
That sort of willful ignorance has unfortunately become ubiquitous.
Which is why, for me, at least, the most inspiring sight to come out of Charleston following the racial massacre there was not the lowering of the Confederate battle flag, welcome as that was. Rather, it was a march through town by a mostly white crowd chanting, “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” To see those white sisters and brothers adopt that cry was a soul-filling reminder that at least some of us still realize we all have access — connection — to each other’s pain and joy by simple virtue of the fact that we all are human.
God love them, they did not slink guiltily from that connection. Instead, they ran bravely to it.
And you know what, Mike Huckabee? Martin Luther King would have been pleased.
By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, August 24, 2015
This year, as with every other year, nearly every presidential candidate is white, with the only exceptions being long shots in the mushrooming Republican field. Most candidates are making at least rhetorical efforts to present themselves as allies in the increasingly amplified struggle for black liberation. Hillary Clinton has spoken forcefully of a universal voter registration plan, and her husband told the NAACP this week that the 1994 crime law he signed in his first term as president “made the problem worse,” jailing too many for too long. Rand Paul, an advocate of prison sentencing reform, has embraced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s frame of “two Americas.” Last month, Ben Carson, the only black candidate, published an op-ed after the Charleston church murders, writing, “Not everything is about race in this country. But when it is about race, then it just is.” On July 2, Rick Perry made a speech that is as close to an apology to black voters for ignoring them as a Republican may deliver this entire election season.
Republicans aren’t stopping there. They announced a “Committed to Community” initiative earlier this week, a partnership with black broadcasting giant Radio One to make a direct appeal to African American voters, who turned out at a higher percentage than white voters in 2012. They may very well be doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, but you’ll forgive me if I have my doubts that they suddenly realize, after generations of the “Southern Strategy,” that black voters matter.
I suspect it isn’t the party’s sudden rediscovery of a conscience that’s behind this. I think it’s this past year. Friday marks one year since NYPD police officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk. The death of the 43-year-old father of six from a supposedly prohibited chokehold was captured on oft-played video, and his pleading— “I can’t breathe!” over and over, until he suffocated—became a mantra that energized a movement. #BlackLivesMatter dates back to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, but Garner’s death last July began a year in which Americans unaware of how fragile and frightening living a black life can be could no longer ignore reality. And it set a template for how we would come to digest all of the violence and injustices done in silent service of structural racism, which continues to survive as the deaths mount.
Sandra Bland took a road trip to Texas last week to take a job, and instead became a hashtag. It happened over the course of a weekend. This is a process we’re terribly familiar with: A black person finds her or himself in an encounter with police that proves injurious, harassing, or, all too often, fatal—and if we’re lucky, someone has a camera on it. It has become formulaic.
A bystander took video of the 28-year-old Chicago native’s Friday arrest for allegedly not signaling before making a lane change. Bland, who reportedly had just landed a new job as a college outreach officer at her alma mater, is heard questioning their rough treatment, which went unreported by the arresting officers. “You just slammed my head into the ground,” she tells an officer. “Do you not even care about that? I can’t even hear!”
Police found Bland dead in her jail cell on Monday morning, allegedly suffocated by a garbage bag. There are a lot of practical reasons to question the law enforcement narrative on this, but a year of seeing what we’ve seen is more than enough to make anyone suspicious not only of what the cops say, but about whether any of them will ever suffer any consequences for it.
We’ve become familiar with this pattern because abuse and death resonates, first across social media and then ricocheting through traditional media with an urgency that can feel discombobulating to those unaccustomed to seeing black lives mattering to people who aren’t living them. Increased media attention means people remember names. Before they would have forgotten them or not even bothered to learn. Justice is sought where shoulders once simply shrugged. Media organizations like the Guardian and the Washington Post count those killed by police, doing the job a government should.
We haven’t gotten the candidate statements on Bland’s case yet, but they’ll come. The remarks will be taciturn and consoling, and will call vaguely for change. But we need to demand more from each and every presidential candidate, and they will need to offer more than rhetoric. The violence has not slowed. The inequity has not lessened. It’s just lain bare with each new death, with every numbing video. We’ll never end racism and racial discrimination. But we can make policies to end the ways racism infects the very structure of American life. Those policies need to be on the platform of every presidential candidate.
If you look at a typical presidential campaign site under a heading like “Issues,” you’ll see that there isn’t a bullet point that lists a candidate’s plans to attack the complicated issue of structural racism with specific steps. This should change. And in this, candidates can take a lesson from President Obama.
His administration, even as it nears its end, recently offered an example of how a politician can chalk up wins against structural racism. Two weeks ago, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro announced that previously unenforced Fair Housing Act rules would now become requirements. As the Los Angeles Times reported, HUD will now require towns and cities to study patterns of segregation and how they are linked to access to jobs, high-quality schools, and public transportation—then submit specific goals for improving fair access to these resources. This is a policy, not a speech.
It is not an empty appeal to voters. It is not telling them, as Perry did, that the poor, brutalized, and marginalized amongst us are that way because they had faulty political leadership. That is avoidance, perpetrated by people who would have us mistake political courage for actual courage.
Structural racism needs to be a campaign issue. It needs to be something every 2016 candidate is asked about on the trail, in debates, in town halls, and hell, even at the local ice cream shop. Even if they can’t offer firm plans this summer, someone running to be the de facto leader of her or his party should at lease seize the opportunity to shape the Democratic or Republican agenda on this issue.
If ending structural racism is a priority for either party, there is no need to dance around the issue. Because right now, the most a lot of families can hope for their loved ones is that they manage to navigate a country that clearly doesn’t care much for their bodies or their lives. If they can’t, the only kind of justice they’ll see is financial. (On Monday, Garner’s family reached a settlement with New York City for $5.9 million.)
A year after Eric Garner’s death and mere days after Sandra Bland’s, our presidential candidates cannot deny America’s racial realities. If you’re running for president, you can no longer plead ignorance. You’ll have to confront it.
By: Jamil Smith, Senior Editor, The New Republic, July 17, 2015