When the Black Panthers first organized in Oakland in 1966—close to 50 years ago—their Ten Point Program called for an end to (white) police brutality in black neighborhoods. “ 7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people, other people of color and all oppressed people inside the United States.”
Fast forward to Ferguson and we see the same demand, louder to be sure, but still the same demand.
Nothing has changed in the last 59 years. How can we have a Black president, a Black Attorney General, a Black Supreme Court Justice but nothing is changed for the Black kids on the block?
How can we explain this to ourselves? What lessons can we draw for changing this disgraceful situation?
Many people give a two-word answer: “Racist Cops” thereby oversimplifying a complex situation. They make it impossible to make change because they are not willing to think carefully about why police rampages continue in Black communities.
“Racist Cops” is as biased a statement as what many whites say or think about young Black men being unwilling to work, being unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. The one statement, as much as the other accuses large numbers of people of negative attitudes. As long as each sides parades its prejudices, we cannot move forward.
It has struck me for a while that when policemen shoot at young Black men they appear to shoot to kill, not to disable, not to throw off their presumed attackers. Individual policemen do not make up the rules. Their shooting to kill must be approved by police chiefs, by the mayors and city councils to whom the police chief answers. The racism here is not limited to the police but to the people who run our cities and towns.
Some of these people, for instance city councilors, are elected. The permission for policemen to shoot to kill has not to my knowledge ever been an issue in city elections. How many citizens have quizzed their city-council candidates on that issue? Ordinary voters are involved, however peripherally, in making rules for police conduct. White liberals who say “Racist Cops” are evading their own complicity.
Michelle Alexander has been writing and speaking eloquently about the mass incarceration of young Black men. Studies show that among young men, Whites are as often involved in trading and/or using marijuana than Blacks. But Blacks are six times as likely to be incarcerated as whites.
Here is where the “racist cops” explanation is seriously incomplete. Policemen make the arrest. But it is the prosecutor who asks for a long prison sentence, preferably for a felony conviction. A judge instead of chastising the prosecutorial staff, cooperates and sends the young man away for five years.
Prisons are often private enterprises whose profits go up with every additional prisoner. Prison corporations are known to lobby legislature for increasing mandatory sentences, and legislatures cooperate. The main motivations are familiar capitalist desires to increase profits; racism is not the main issue.
Prisoners come under the care of parole officers at the end of their terms.
Here are prosecutors, judges, legislatures and the parole system—all of whom see every day the overwhelming preponderance of prisoners of color, but no one raises an alarm. The entire judicial and the entire criminal justice system cooperate in perpetrating gross injustices. If we were satisfied to blame the policemen's racism we would miss completely the pervasive injustices encountered at every turn in our system of legislation, law enforcement and “corrections.”
But there is more.
It is a commonplace that “everyone commits crimes—only the poor get punished for it.” Unable to pay for a good lawyer, the poor are inadequately represented in court, often by lawyers completely unprepared for mounting a serious defense. Many localities jail people for not paying fines. Poor people unable pay fines return to prison. Middle class people and the rich pay and get on with their life.
The problems of young Black men with the criminal justice system have to do with a complex system corroded by racial injustices. But those difficulties are intensified by the pervasive poverty of the same Black young men. Our society is unfair to people doing the low-paying jobs. One large source of the injustices perpetrated against young black men and more and more against black women is the result of our economic system which produces increasing numbers of poor people.
If we strive for racial justice, we must stop putting all the blame on the police. We must call out the gross failures of the economic system to provide a decent living for every hard working citizen, and the failure of that same economic system to provide decent employment for everyone. We must also see clearly that prosecutors, judges, legislatures, in cities, states and at the federal levels and voters are all involved in this by refusing to challenge the ongoing injustices of the criminal and judicial system.
It is just too easy to say “Racist Cops.” The troubles of Blacks in the US are much more extensive and what I have mentioned so far is only a small part of the entire range of persecutions and inequalities.
Predominantly white legislatures in most states have passed laws that disenfranchise felons. In Ferguson a third or more of Blacks are convicted felons who cannot vote. That is one reason why a city with a Black majority of 67% is governed by an elected white City Council, a White city manager, a white police chief and a predominantly white police force.
Felons, however, are not only disenfranchised. More often than not they cannot find work. They cannot work—except in some illegal activity. They are unable to maintain their families. Trying to do so will soon land them in jail again.
In recent days a research institute at Brandeis documented the sharp rise in unequal asset ownership between whites and Blacks. The report states that ”in 2011 the median White household had $111,146 in wealth holdings, compared to just $7,113 for the median Black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household”--a difference of more than $100,000.00 in assets!--reflecting many factors, among them residential segregation in our cities which, in turn, reflects racial discrimination. But it also reflects the lower wages earned by many Blacks, the glaring inadequacy of many schools in Black neighborhoods. And, of course, it also reflects once again the mass-incarceration of young Blacks and the economic disaster a felony conviction is.
The list of restraints imposed on persons of color seems to have no end.