The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, while tragic, were markers of larger problems in America. Their murders were signals of a contorted reality shedding light to the economic pillars that so much of white privilege has grounded itself upon. America’s dirty little secret is that across this nation, millions of black families are forced into a social and economic underclass to root so much of white privilege. A socioeconomic web largely created by a legal system criminalizing so many daily actions in black life.
Through the recent police shootings and resulting deaths, we have seen how traffic warrants find their start in the most common of acts in places like Ferguson and can ultimately lead to incarceration. Literally anything from driving to the store to parking in your own driveway too long can lead one into a cycle of contacts with the police and courts. When we stop and digest the reality that Philando Castile, a relatively young man, was pulled over by the police nearly 52 times in his driving history in and around Minneapolis for a multitude of minor issues, we start to grasp that these traffic stops serve a similar function to colored only signs in the 1960’s. They are often performed by the police at the request of the local community, serving the function of letting blacks know indirectly that this part of town is not for your kind. Even the President recognized this sad truth. Just yesterday, President Obama during his memorial remarks in Dallas for the slain officers said, “And then we tell the police ‘you’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor.’ We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs, and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience. Don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind. And then we feign surprise when, periodically, the tensions boil over.”
This all is connected to a larger problem of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on black America. To understand our nation’s problem, we must get honest and grasp the fact that young black males are incarcerated at a rate of nearly 10,000 per 100,000, and largely sent to for profit private prisons to serve those sentences. According to the New York Times in the piece “1.5 million missing black men:” “For every 100 black women not in jail, there are only 83 black men. The remaining men – 1.5 million of them – are, in a sense, missing… They are missing, largely because of early deaths or because they are behind bars.” This all occurring while white men are only incarcerated at a rate of about 1,000 per 100,000, and white women are incarcerated at the unbelievably low rate of around 130 per 100,000. All of this difference exist despite the fact that the actual rates of criminality between these different groups are not nearly that large.
Throughout recent decades, jailhouses have become a communal economic resource, rather than places that simply hold criminals. America has rooted whole economies in a culture of private prisons, institutions created to make money for the surrounding communities, and add jobs on the backs of blacks being over incarcerated. All of this structuring finds its start in the most routine of community board meetings. The site Mother Jones quoted William Maurer, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice as he stated, “Essentially, these small towns in urban areas have municipal infrastructure that can’t be supported by the tax base, and so they ticket everything in sight to keep the town functioning,” In illustrating this, Maurer used the St. Louis suburb of Pagedale: “You can’t have a hedge more than three feet high, You can’t have a basketball hoop or a wading pool in front of a house. You can’t have a dish antenna on the front of your house. You can’t walk on the roadway if there is a sidewalk, and if there is not a sidewalk, they must walk on the left side of the roadway. They must walk on the right of the crosswalk. They can’t conduct a barbecue in the front yard and can’t have an alcoholic beverage within 150 feet of a barbecue. Kids cannot play in the street. They also have restrictions against pants being worn below the waist in public.”
As a result of this over-regulation, for a long time, America and its dream has largely been broken for Black America. This is where our country has existed for over 30 years. As I listen to the pundits on media outlets call for a healing around the nation, it sounds more like a return to business as usual than a call for us to address the fact that small, largely white communities like the one Philando Castile was stopped in can’t exist without him indebted to them through traffic stops and other minor municipal violations. As reported by ABC, Castile “… was assessed at least $6,588 in fines and fees, although more than half of the total 86 violations were dismissed, court records show.” America at its root was founded on the physical ownership of black America through chattel slavery and continued this oppression through Jim Crow, creating black economic genocide. We can’t be allowed to forget that, nor the fact that no adequate repairing action or apology was ever made by the American government for this insidious past. This current system is dreadfully similar to the one seen at the turn of the 20th century, whereby peonage and debt were used to continue the effects of American slavery’s oppression throughout the early 20th century.
How then do we now expect to talk through this, as so many, including the president are suggesting, like we’re the Hatfields and the McCoys and just need to sit down and break bread? Black pundits must stop acting like this is simply an issue of two sides in disagreement with equal wrongs and must be forced to get honest. This is about America’s true underbelly. As Charles Blow of the New York Times correctly stated on his personal video, this is a story of “history and culture … police departments are basically an extension of the culture we need to have this moment to talk that through.” The story of America isn’t a war of two sides; it was and remains one based on the oppression of black America by a white superstructure. President Obama stated this earlier today in Dallas:
“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. They didn’t necessarily stop when a Dr. King speech, or when the civil rights act or voting rights act were signed. Race relations have improved dramatically in my lifetime. Those who deny it are dishonoring the struggles that helped us achieve that progress… And so when African-Americans from all walks of life, from different communities across the country, voice a growing despair over what they perceive to be unequal treatment, when study after study shows that whites and people of color experience the criminal justice system differently. So that if you’re black, you’re more likely to be pulled over or searched or arrested; more likely to get longer sentences; more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime. When mothers and fathers raised their kids right, and have the talk about how to respond if stopped by a police officer — yes, sir; no, sir — but still fear that something terrible may happen when their child walks out the door; still fear that kids being stupid and not quite doing things right might end in tragedy. When all this takes place, more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid… I understand how Americans are feeling. But Dallas, I’m here to say we must reject such despair. I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem. And I know that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds.”
Mr. President, I have to disagree. American communities are divided by a growing chasm in ways that are unseen to the naked eye. A divide has split along the fault lines of race and wealth, that has trapped the Alton and Philandos of the world in a cycle of despair. Race relations only appear to have improved, but this veneer has occurred through the silencing of so many unknown black faces, as they were cast into a permanent underclass existence. Communities from Ferguson to Minneapolis are not in agreement on the next step forward. Far too many are profiting economically on black families being over criminalized, and it has to stop for there to be progress. We have to get honest about the fact that whole sections of America exist where Black Americans live in a separate and other America. One where you always have an arrest warrant from innocuous traffic stops, have high debt from minor infractions and constantly get pulled over by police if you drive near white American safe-haven suburban centers. In order for this to change, many of the 18,000 police departments that currently exist would need to change their revenue structure or possibly even shut down. I highly doubt white America is ready to have that discussion.
The only way out of this is to demand a much larger investment in education than we put into prisons. Just last week, we learned that three times as much has been spent on prisons when compared to spending on education since 1980. This is truly an American crisis of epic proportions that we all must deal with collectively. We exist in an America where black America needs access to better schools. This goes beyond sitting down and discussing simple community policing strategies. It is black America putting pressure on President Obama to write executive orders bettering their lives, Attorney General Loretta Lynch being forced to bring about the kind of drastic changes and oversight to police departments that haven’t been seen in a generation and also Congress writing more racially-conscious laws nationwide.
As I stated prior, while what happened to the police in Dallas is saddening, this is bigger than a singular incident, no matter how horrific. While protesting last week, Diamond Reynolds, the powerful young woman who filmed the incident in Minneapolis, stated, this is bigger than the death of #PhilandoCastile, its also bigger than the murders of #TamirRice, #AltonSterling, #MikeBrown, #JordanDavis, #EricGarner, #FreddieGray, #SandraBland and #TrayvonMartin. This is the moment to make our country called America reckon with itself and what it has become since Jim Crow. A moment for Black America to protest, to cry, to gather, to organize and most of all to demand a change no matter what it cost. We must demand investment in education rather than prisons. Demand a reinvestment in our communities, rather than cuts like those we have seen by the president in necessary social programs like food stamps. Demand access to non-predatory bank loans for African American businesses. The president was wrong in stating, “In the end, it’s not about finding policies that work; it’s about forging consensus, and fighting cynicism, and finding the will to make change.” We must make President Obama make a change in policies which move beyond a consensus to agree to sit and talk and create an environment for actual unity. So America can move beyond words and truly try to heal.
Antonio Moore, an attorney based in Los Angeles, is one of the producers of the documentary Freeway: Crack in the System. He has contributed pieces to the Grio, Huffington Post, and Inequality.org on the topics of race, mass incarceration and economics. Follow on YouTube Channel Tonetalks