In city after city, young black men are routinely stopped by police for “walking while black,” sometimes on the street where they’ve lived for years. Some black men have even been stopped or arrested by police while trying to enter their own homes, most notably prominent Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2009.
Some years ago in Los Angeles, a friend was stopped on a street outside his apartment and held at gunpoint in a squad car for two hours. The police were looking for a suspect in his 30s; my friend was in his 70s, but he “fit the description!” Black men, from teenagers to adults, have heard this accusation all too often. But the only description they fit is that of being a black man, and too many white Americans think that in itself is associated with criminality. The “crime” is simply being born a black male.
America’s wretched racist legacy has conditioned many whites to fear non-white skin color – the “we” and “them” attitude gone pathological – and some in positions of authority respond by unpacking the national weapon and unloading on black men.
Young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts, says a new report from ProPublica, released October 10, 2014. In an analysis of 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012, ProPublica found that “blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.” Imagine the national outrage if a proportional number of young white men had been shot by police during that same time period. We need a surge of national outrage over the murders of young black male Americans.
August 2014 was a particularly deadly month: Michael Brown, age 18, killed August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri; Ezell Ford, 25, shot in Los Angeles, California, August 11, 2014; Dante Parker, 36, tased in Victorville, California, August 12, 2014. When he developed trouble breathing, Parker was taken to a hospital where he died. Not even black male children are safe from police shootings. On November 22, 2014, police in Cleveland shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was carrying a toy pellet gun.
Criminalization of black men has a long ugly history in America, as Khalil Muhammad, head of the New York Public Library’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and author of Condemnation of Blackness, explained in an interview with Bill Moyers on June 29, 2012. “If we think about the moment immediately following the Civil War, there was the invention of something called ‘the Black Codes’ in every Southern state. And those codes were intended to use the criminal justice system to restrict the freedom and mobility of black people. And if you crossed any line that they prescribed, you could be sold back to your former slave owner, not as a slave, but as a prisoner to work off your fine after an auction where you were resold to the highest bidder. It tells you something about the invention of the criminal justice system as a repressive tool to keep black people in their place,” Muhammad told Moyers. “And it’s still with us. It’s still with us, because ultimately, as a social problem, crime has become like it was in the Jim Crow South, a mechanism to control black people’s movement in cities.”
Slavery ended long ago but the psychological dregs remain with us. President Obama has not been immune to the racism that still infests and sickens our society. Since he campaigned for the presidency, he has been the target of racist epithets and cartoons, vilification, unprecedented disrespect, and attempts to paint him as non-American. Although his election is one of the most triumphant moments in American history, it has not triggered a post-racial era. On the contrary, it unleashed a virulent Obama hatred and blatant resurgence of political racism. One entire political party – the Republican Party – has spent the past six years trying every tactic in its book of dirty tricks to destroy the Obama presidency. Any day, I expect to hear some Republican or Fox News wag blame Obama for bringing the Ebola virus into the U.S. Think it’s far-fetched? It’s not impossible from a party that rejects the findings of science, spurns evidence, celebrates ignorance and has done everything it could to block, obstruct or kill every social policy President Obama has tried to get through Congress. It’s as if Republicans are trying to exact revenge on the American people for electing Barack Obama president.
In campaigns throughout the country, Republican candidates have only one issue: anti-Obama. At the Congressional level, Republicans have supported only two issues: more tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires; and overturning the Affordable Care Act, which is, in fact, providing health insurance to millions of previously uninsured Americans, reducing medical costs and working much better than even its proponents expected. They have put nothing positive on the table. Because of their inaction and right-wing ideology, I have come to a conclusion I don’t like, namely, that the Republican Party, which once had real statespersons like Eisenhower, is now a party of rich, racist old white men who care nothing about the poor, the middle class or minorities. Indeed, a right-leaning Supreme Court majority gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Republican-governed states have gerrymandered districts to isolate minority voters most likely to vote Democratic and have set up obstacles to discourage minorities, the young and the old from voting. Racism run amuck at the highest levels of government.
You see, Barack Obama was never supposed to be president. He was never supposed to make it through the racist maze. He was never supposed to get out of the “place” that racism designed to confine all African-Americans but particularly African-American men. The fact that he did – that a majority of American voters elected him twice – sent a shockwave through the racists among us. And they are trying to ensure that it never happens again. Of course, they won’t win. America is too diverse, and that diverse population is only increasing. But in the meantime, we have to waste time and precious human resources putting up with those racists who occupy some powerful positions. More importantly, we have to recognize the ugly racist undercurrent of some local and national politics and exercise our votes to get racists out of office. There are more intelligent, more compassionate, more tolerant Americans out there. We know this because they turned out to elect the first African-American president in our nation’s history, and every day they make significant positive contributions at every level of community life, from operating free clinics to raising funds to provide fuel assistance to needy people. There is much unheralded goodness and generosity in this country, and we need to tap into it.
In 2008, President Obama said, "Yes, we can." And we did. Twice. Now we have to do everything we can to rid our culture of racism. Ultimately, our democracy and the social health of our nation depend on it.