Wednesday, August 12, 2015

An Hour of Illumination on Historical Racism Can Be a Good Start Toward Understanding the Ongoing Effects of Redlining, Housing Discrimination, Stop-and-Frisk and More

The Black Power Salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos
took place at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City
on October 16, 1968, one day after I was born.
In the wake of a tragically distressing summer--and well beyond--that has amplified the depths, ugliness and polarization of America's racial divide, I have been wanting to write a blog post about racism.

Without wishing to preach, lecture nor absolve myself from complicity in this societal scourge, I have been hoping to share my (admittedly rather scant) familiarity with some of the underlying historical factors that have left the U.S. deeply segregated--physically, financially and otherwise--to this day.

But I've been having trouble trying to figure out how to frame such a post, as a white suburbanite who (despite being Jewish) has never felt like a minority and will never really know what people experience in this country and elsewhere simply because of the color of their skin.

Certainly, like many, I have been absolutely horrified by the brutal, senseless deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Samuel DuBose, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo and myriad others over recent months and several years.

While noting that not all of the above cases are precisely parallel, and in no way meaning to condemn all police officers, I have been outraged by what appears to be an epidemic of barbaric and prejudicial behavior on the part of authority.

But as angry as these and similar incidents have made me--exacerbated by the assumption that the viral videos represent but a small fraction of everyday episodes nearly as flabbergasting if not ultimately deadly--I've been almost as troubled by the brazen bigotry that has manifested online following the above cases, resultant protests and the horrible Charleston church massacre (and pursuant Confederate Flag condemnation).

Given that my Facebook community is comprised almost exclusively of real-life friends, I have fortunately not experienced much first-hand vitriol. Even among friends who aren't closely aligned in their politics or perspectives, there tends to be respectful discourse rather than heinous hate speech (which I wouldn't tolerate).

But in looking at Facebook posts from CNN, the Chicago Tribune and other outlets about the aforementioned stories and others akin, I can often barely believe the comments some people will write under, presumably, their own names.

I understand that since the stain of slavery on this country's history, some people have hated--and far worse--individuals of a different pigmentation.

Facebook comments on recent CNN posts regarding the
Charleston massacre and the Sandra Bland
and Samuel DuBose incidents.
Even 150 years after the Civil War abolished the abomination of slavery, and millions of immigrants of all ethnicities have come to America due to its promise of freedom--albeit engendered by the genocide of Native Americans--many citizens seemingly wish to maintain the anachronistic notion that the United States = White + Christian.

While I will never condone or accept that way of thinking, given the immeasurable enrichment I've derived from the great melting pot of Chicago (as well as Los Angeles, New York and other urban and progressively non-urban centers), what I have trouble comprehending essentially comes down to this:

Whites who blame blacks for their base treatment and victimization by police (while almost blanketly absolving white officers), and who condemn protests turned mildly violent by spewing words such as "thugs" and "those people," often seem to adhere to an argument along the lines of:

"Slavery was 150 years ago, discrimination was outlawed over 50 years ago, why can't 'they' just improve their lives devoid of crime, drugs, poverty, gangs, teen pregnancy, welfare, etc., etc."

This strikes me almost as blatantly racist as calling someone the n-word, as it ignores the eternal oppression of blacks by a white system that has purposely undercut equality in regards to financial, educational, environmental, cultural and political opportunities--with repercussions every bit as acute today as they were in times of segregated schools, bathrooms, buses and lunch counters.

Yet while trying not to engage in such philistine behaviors, as I said above I am not absolving myself.

I do not believe in my superiority or others' inferiority, firmly believing that individuals of any skin color or religion are equally "good" and as entitled to opportunity, wealth, health, dignity, respect, kindness, housing, employment, security, etc. as I or anyone else.

See article; see poll
Though largely superfluous to real issues of racism, many of my greatest cultural heroes--athletes, actors, musicians, comedians, now the U.S. President--are African-American. Incidentally, just yesterday an aunt mentioned that she had a crush on Johnny Mathis in 1955, furthering my sense that my parents, grandparents, other relatives and close friends growing up never seemed to reference race as a barrier or being black as something negative.

Perhaps that's why--along with some illuminating experiences, such as working in a law firm mailroom at 15 with a bunch of really cool black guys--I've never cared if African-Americans (or Latinos, Muslims, Asians, East Indians or other seemingly often-disparaged minorities) lived in my neighborhood/building, went to my schools, worked for my employers or any others, made lots of money, married white people, etc., etc., or why I can honestly say that I've never uttered a racial epithet.

But I realize that this is only dime-store decency.

So far, I have not been part of the solution, so I must be part of the problem.

And the truth is that there have been times when I've said "that's a bad area," essentially meaning that it is heavily black or Hispanic with a substantially higher rate of crime than where I live.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't sometimes wish there were more white people riding the subway with me late at night or that I haven't put my hand on my wallet (or at least wanted to) when a young man wearing a doo-rag got on the same elevator.

Not to rationalize this away with a bit of musical humor, but I'm reminded of the song "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" from the musical Avenue Q, which I believe made some good points.

Which brings me to what I was hoping to do with this article. Although I have always tried to be cognizant of racism and its repercussions and respectful of the root causes of racial inequality, in recent weeks and months I've come across--via my own exploration and as shared by friends--books, articles and A/V clips that have furthered my understanding of some of the historical factors involved.

Certainly, there is an almost infinite realm of similarly enlightening material, and I would be delighted to have you share such pieces with me.

But save for the books, which obviously will take you a bit longer to digest, the material cited/included below should take you about an hour total to read, hear and watch. Knowing that the subject of racism demands far more thought, consideration, discussion and action, I believe it will be an hour well spent.

1) First is a video that may appear rather rudimentary but does a good job of quickly outlining several of the factors that have historically created racial inequality, some of which are covered in greater depth in the other content.

2) Next is an article that an African-American friend shared on Facebook, titled I, Racist. It is a sermon--in written form--that a black man named John Metta delivered to a white congregation, in which he cites a white aunt being aggrieved by charges of racism from her black niece:
"She is still hurt by the suggestion that people in New York, that she, a northerner, a liberal, a good person who has Black family members, is a racist."
3) To better understand why there seems to be inherent distrust of the police among African-Americans and Hispanics--which likely played a part in the tragic Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose incidents--I highly recommend a book called The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by one of my favorite writers on societal wrongs, Matt Taibbi.

Along with decrying why none of those responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis and economic collapse of 2008 have gone to jail, Taibbi enlightens on routine police procedures such as Stop-and-Frisk, which essentially involves detaining blacks and Hispanics for dubious reasons (pot, broken taillights, standing in the wrong spot, etc.). Some get arrested to eventually fill for-profit prisons with low-risk criminals, while others merely get harassed, yet often quite scared and scarred.

Eventually, the book tends to reiterate its basic points, but Taibbi makes a key one early on as he writes about a Stop-and-Frisk victim named Tory:
"Way back in 1977, New York City decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, the law being that if you had less than 25 grams on you and smoked your weed in private, the police weren't supposed to arrest you.

But then in the 1990s the city began implementing this stop-and-frisk program, where police could stop and search just about anyone for any reason. And stop-and-frisk provided the city police with a magic spell they could use to circumvent the lax marijuana law.

In 2011, the year before Tory got arrested, another year when exactly nobody on Wall Street was arrested for crimes connected to the financial crisis, New York City police stopped and searched a record 684,724 people. Out of those, 88 percent were black or Hispanic. The ostensible justification for the program is looking for guns, but they find guns in less than 0.02 percent of the stops. More often they make people empty their pocket and find nothing at all."
The Divide can be bought in various formats on Amazon, but I found it at my local library and even though the Overdrive app for free e-Book library loans.

If you search "Stop and Frisk" on YouTube, you can find several clips that illustrate just how scary, unfair and dehumanizing the practice is. This is one such clip where a high school senior talks about his stop-and-frisk experiences.

4) I admittedly haven't finished reading it, but a new book on the black experience that has been widely praised is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Written in guise of sharing his life experiences and its lessons with his teenage son, Coates provides this telling passage:
"But you are human and you will make mistakes. You will misjudge. You will yell. You will drink too much. You will hang out with people you shouldn't Not all of us can be Jackie Robinson--not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body's destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined--with Eric Garner's anger, with Trayvon Martin's mythical words ("You are gonna die tonight"), with Sean Bell's mistake of running with the wrong crowd."
5) Last year, when a recording of (now-deposed) L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was released that captured him chastising a female friend for an Instagram photo she had taken with Magic Johnson, revealing Sterling to have said:

"It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people", and, "You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want", but "the little I ask you is ... not to bring them to my games."

...of all that was written and discussed, I felt the following audio commentary from radio host Bomani Jones was the most potent and powerful.

Part of the context is that in 2006, Jones had written about Sterling being sued by the Department of Justice for housing discrimination, a practice for which he was also sued in 2003 by 19 plaintiffs who accused Sterling of trying to drive blacks and Latinos out of buildings he owned in Koreatown. Though terms were not disclosed, in the 2003 case Sterling was ordered to pay a massive settlement, including $5 million just for the plaintiffs' attorney fee.

But as Jones points out in his brilliant rant below, barely anyone--least of all the NBA--batted an eye over racist actions that directly affected many people (with the general practice of housing discrimination affecting millions more), making a mockery of the media/public outrage over Sterling's ugly comments

6) Though it is a bit longer and more involved, I very much suggest you listen to this discussion with historian Richard Rothstein on NPR, as passed along by a close friend.

As referenced both in the Systemic Racism for Dummies video and Bomani Jones' comments, the practice of redlining--essentially banks refusing to give mortgages to black lenders, prohibiting them from moving to white areas in the 1940s and 1950s, severely limiting generational wealth--along with other housing discrimination methods, some facilitated by the U.S. Government, has been one of the most crippling reasons why African-Americans have been relegated to segregated communities with lesser schools and greater challenges.

The professorial Rothstein does a nice job of explaining the racist practices and their detrimental effects, including blacks having but 5% of the wealth of whites despite now having 60% of the income.

7) Often when one discusses racism or simply racial issues, the unfortunate preponderance of black-on-black crime gets mentioned. I don't condone criminal activity of any kind, especially when innocent bystanders get tragically harmed, but a terrific 2011 documentary called The Interrupters--available through Amazon or likely at your local library--provided thought-provoking insights into gang life and merits your attention along these lines.

8) Finally, for now, I thought this Tweet (part of a series) from Orange is the New Black star Matt McGorry was a good rejoinder to those responding to the #BlackLivesMatter movement by stating that #AllLivesMatter.

Certainly, this blog post isn't going to do much to curb or solve the longstanding issues of racism. But I hope it may shed some light on matters of import that go well beyond what is happening today.

I definitely need to learn, and do, more about racism and look forward to discussions on the difficult topic. Appreciative of anything you can share with me, perhaps some or all of the above is insightful to you.

1 comment:

Ken said...

An absolutely excellent essay! I think you really nailed it Seth. Everyone wants to believe that you can determine your own destiny. Life, and societies that worship corporatic capitalism above all else don't work like that. Just ask native Americans.