How many times have you heard, “I am not a racist”. That is probably true of many people. But we all have biases. Some of us are not as actively malicious about our biases as others, but the biases exists nonetheless. How many times have you found yourself in a regular urban neighborhood and felt anxious because you feel unsafe? Why? Have you ever been in a restaurant or store and watched a group of Black teens enter and felt uneasy? Why? How often have you been annoyed when a nearby car is blasting hip-hop music so loud that the pavement is shaking? You may have these feelings because of some isolated personal experience or you may have these feelings because of the picture of urban life, and Black people specifically, that has been painted for you by the 6 O’clock news, movies, and unfortunately, the real-life crime statistics that exist in poor neighborhoods. These statistics, and the accompanying pictures of the struggles of people living in these areas, create an image that is superimposed on every Black person.
For as many encounters that White people find themselves in that make them uncomfortable because of their lack of experience and understanding with regard to Black people, Black people experience many more encounters in which they are made uncomfortable by the way they are perceived or the actions of those whom they encounter. The most troubling encounters involve police. Black people are clearly viewed and treated differently by most police. Almost every Black person has a host of stories about encounters with the police. Most of those stores involve suspicion, intimidation and mistreatment. Sometimes those encounters involve violence and death.
It is a popular notion to preface any conversation about police brutality with the disclaimer that not all police officers are bad. That is an obvious observation. There are many police officers who work diligently in their communities to protect people and help whenever they can. I know many police officers; people in my family, people that I grew up with, and people with whom I have worked. Being a police officer on the street is an extremely tough and stressful profession. You are forced to make tough decisions often within seconds and a mistake can sometimes mean a person’s life being taken. I can honestly say that many of the officers I know understand their role and serve with honor and as well as fairness and compassion with people they encounter. I can also honestly say that I would question the attitudes and intentions of a few and wonder if they are and were always fair and honorable.
The reality is that there are going to be police officers who do not see all people as deserving of dignity and fairness and come to the job with thoughts and feelings that are not consistent with protecting and serving all people equally. That is true of most professions that involve working with the general public and providing a service. It is true of educators, health-care workers, social workers, municipal workers and others. All those, no matter what field they are in, who do not believe that all people deserve fair equal service and opportunity should not be allowed to continue in their respective field.
In this specific context, this translates to an examination of the “thin blue line”. It has been the custom that police officers are expected to stick together no matter the circumstance. That means sometimes watching your colleague mistreat someone and possibly inflict injury or death and supporting that person unquestionably by remaining silent. Without these professions, especially the police, self-policing, those who do not come to the job with the right attitude and beliefs to do the job will continue to hurt people unnecessarily.
On another human level there have been a rash of confrontations recently with everyday white individuals challenging the presence of Black individuals for being in areas where the white person feels they do not belong. From the business man who challenged two young Black men for being in the building gym, with no idea that they actually were renting space for their growing entrepreneurial business, to the woman who challenged a black family for being in the pool at the apartment complex and demanding to know their name and their apartment number. The videos are plentiful on Facebook and Instagram; White-Americans challenging the presence of African-Americans because their bias tells them that the picture in front of them does not make sense. This person could not possibly belong in this building where rents are high or could not possibly own the business that they are standing in front of despite the fact that the person has the keys to the place.
The use of video, and sharing on social media, are relatively new phenomena. The incidents are not. Too many of us have a particular idea about who Black people are, what they are like, where they belong and what they should or should not be doing. Where do we get these preconceived notions? Why are we afraid when confronted with a picture that does not make sense to us and feel compelled to challenge and overreact?
We have a very limited view of Black people and other people of color. We tend to think of people living in poverty, in public housing or in areas where there is a lot of crime. You can find people of color in every strata of American life. Middle-income Black families have existed forever; even during slavery. Free Black people were achieving remarkable things and contributing to the development of our country even while their enslaved brothers and sisters were suffering at the hands of their masters in slave states. The Black middle-class has been growing for years. The number of single-family homes purchased by Black families has increased steadily over the last generation especially since Black families have been allowed to purchase homes in all areas. I live in a neighborhood of single-family homes that is diverse and my neighborhood is not unique in my town. Many White families have fled these neighborhoods fearing what the neighborhoods might become. It is also true that many white families remained to develop new neighborhoods and new associations. It is safe to say that most people who live in these relatively new, diverse neighborhoods have less fear and a greater understanding of each other.
Although the number of Black executives and CEOs is still very small in comparison, that ceiling is beginning to crack and we are seeing more and more individuals breaking through. That does not overshadow the fact that there are scores of African-Americans throughout history who have been tremendously successful economically providing hope for increased success in their communities. The sad reality is that as many African-Americans forged a road to success, many were torn down by white communities with the help of local governments who viewed their success as a threat.
Despite the slowly increasing ascendancy of African-Americans to the “American Dream”, there exists a disparity in the number of people of color, specifically Black people, living in impoverished areas that have previously be referred to as ghettos or “the hood”, where the crime rate is high and conditions are often deplorable. Twenty-two percent of Black families live below the poverty line while only nine percent of white families live below that line. Whereas the median family income for White families is approximately 70,000 dollars per year, the median family income for Black families is closer to 35,000 dollars per year. This economic disparity creates a reality in which too many families are relegated to public housing located in areas of our urban centers that are not only dangerous for others to enter, but also dangerous for the people who live in them. There is an inordinate need for police intervention and an overall mistrust and animosity in the relationship between most of the residents and the police. That mistrusts spills over to the overall relationship between police and people of color no matter where the interactions occur.
Living in these conditions too often results in higher rates of crime, higher rates of incarceration, and a lack of opportunities of all types. Not only are incarceration rates higher, but other conditions result. The unemployment rates are greater, inhabitants face greater health challenges, and educational opportunities are limited.
In terms of incarcerations, one in three Black males face incarceration for non-violent crimes at some point during their lifetime. Sentences for Black people are considerably longer than their White counterparts for similar crimes. A large number of the convictions are for marijuana possession. More White individuals are arrested for the same offense but do not face incarceration in the same numbers. These and other statistics point to a lopsided level of crime among the Black community and provide a distorted image of the reasons. Too many see the disparity in crime and incarcerations as a fault in the character of Black people as opposed to unequal treatment by police and the justice system. Too often we hear from white people,” I grew up poor and I was able to make it” or “Other Black people have made it out. There is no excuse for the others”. That thought is akin to finishing a grueling race and looking back in disgust at the person who collapses half-way through the race while carrying a piano and lamenting their laziness and lack of commitment.
Living in poverty, and within these conditions, has a major effect on how you process the world and your ability to sustain an effort to escape. There are several factors that impact individuals living with these daily challenges resulting in possible health issues, struggles in school and possible criminal activity and incarceration.
- There is a lack of jobs and economic opportunity for people living in these areas. Many lack transportation and discrimination in hiring. Those who do find jobs are not paid a living wage for full-time work
- Even when jobs can be found that pay a livable wage, there is a lack of affordable housing outside these areas blocking movement out of the area
- There is poor access to public educational opportunities. Schools and resources in these areas are under-funded and in poor condition. Pay for teachers is generally less than in more affluent areas. Health issues, and the trauma inherent in the daily stress of discrimination and poverty, challenge the ability of children to learn
- Public housing is too often placed in areas where residents are over-exposed to pollution and hazardous conditions including chemicals and lead poisoning.
- Poor people lack access to quality health care. Health care is accessed when needed as opposed to having access to preventative medicine
- Poor people cannot afford to eat nutritious food like fish, fruits and vegetables. Even if they could afford the food, they often exist in food deserts with large grocery chains refusing to locate in these areas
Living under these conditions can alter the way you see the rest of the world especially the authorities who you may see as having abandoned you. When police fail to recognize these conditions and interact with these individuals with the thought that they are guilty until they prove their innocence, the relationship is automatically contentious from the beginning. Police and others including educators have to have some basic understanding about people who live in generational poverty, whether those people live in urban centers or in rural areas like Appalachia. It is an economic issue as well as a racial issue.
One of the clearest and strongest voices concerning this understanding is author and educator Ruby Payne. Dr. Payne has written extensively about the different mindsets that exists between those in differing income levels. Below is a simple breakdown found in her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. It illustrates how differing classes of people see and interact with the rest of the world. It needs to be said that these are general rules or observations. They do not reflect every single person or family of any of these income levels. They are also referred to in a generational sense.
|POOR||MIDDLE CLASS (COMFORTABLE)||WEALTHY|
|POSSESSIONS||People.||Things.||One-of-a-kind objects, legacies, pedigrees.|
|MONEY||To be used, spent.||To be managed.||To be conserved invested.|
|PERSONALITY||Is for entertainment. Sense of humor is highly valued.||Is for acquisition and stability.
Achievement is highly valued.
|Is for connections. Financial, political, social connections are highly valued.|
|SOCIAL EMPHASIS||Social inclusion of people they like.||Emphasis is on self-governance and self-sufficiency||Emphasis is on social exclusion.|
|FOOD||Key question: Did you have enough? Quantity important.||Key question: Did you like it? Quality important.||Key question: Was it presented well? Presentation important.|
|CLOTHING||Clothing valued for individual style and expression of personality.||Clothing valued for its quality and acceptance into norm of middle class. Label important||Clothing valued for its artistic sense and expression. Designer important|
|TIME||Present most important. Decisions made for moment based on feelings or survival.||Future most important. Decisions made against future ramifications.||Traditions and history most important. Decisions made partially on basis of tradition and decorum.|
|EDUCATION||Valued and revered as abstract but not as reality.||Crucial for climbing success ladder and making money.||Necessary tradition for making and maintaining connections.|
|DESTINY||Believes in fate. Cannot do much to mitigate chance.||Believes in choice. Can change future with good choices now.||Noblesse oblige.|
|LANGUAGE||Casual register. Language is about survival.||Formal register. Language is about negotiation.||Formal register. Language is about networking.|
|FAMILY STRUCTURE||Tends to be matriarchal.||Tends to be patriarchal.||Depends on who has money.|
|WORLD VIEW||Sees world in terms of local setting.||Sees world in terms of national setting.||Sees world in terms of international view.|
|LOVE||Love and acceptance conditional, based upon whether individual is liked.||Love and acceptance conditional and based largely upon achievement.||Love and acceptance conditional and related to social standing and connections.|
|DRIVING FORCE||Survival, relationships, entertainment.||Work, achievement.||Financial, political, social connections.|
Understanding the impact of living in poverty, and acknowledging that when people living in poverty are housed in close quarters, in sub-standard conditions, with very little opportunity and several roadblocks to achievement placed in their way, the result is too often higher levels of crime, increased incarceration and a volatile and dangerous environment making the relationship between the police and residents contentious and mistrustful. Add the inherent racial discrimination that exists in the hearts of too many people to begin with and you have a series of explosions that we do not seem to be willing to learn from.
The irony of all of this is that the very conditions that create this mutual mistrust between many White people and Black people, and the resulting discrimination and police brutality, are a result of specific and purposeful actions and policies perpetrated by local, state and federal governments based on racial discrimination and have created a specific picture of the people living in these conditions that brings about a host of interactions with White-Americans, including police, based on fear and disrespect.
Since Reconstruction, and the passing of both the 13th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, which made discrimination based on race illegal, the Federal government, along with the support of state and local governments and authorities, has systematically and purposely created the conditions and structures that have built the conditions that led to Black people living in public housing that has been substandard, unhealthy and dangerous.
In his book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein lays out the history of discrimination in this country specifically in the areas of jobs and housing that has led to the conditions that exist today. He points out that since the end of World War II the federal government has systematically supported and enforced exclusionary zoning laws that purposely created a roadblock to creating integrated public housing and neighborhoods. At the end of the war there was an explosion in the need for cheap and affordable housing especially in and around urban areas where most the jobs were increasing. Government financing for affordable public housing and planned suburban neighborhoods, being constructed by developers with government subsidies to meet the need for housing, was provided only with the provision that the housing would not be integrated. Housing for Black citizens was built separately and with cheaper materials, sub-standard craftmanship and in areas where White people would not want to live, i.e., next to factories or near rail lines.
Local officials looked the other way as realtors exercised their “ethical obligation” to steer Black families looking to purchase homes in white neighborhoods away from those neighborhoods. Often neighborhood associations illegally had clauses in deeds that prevented the future sale of the home to a Black family. Local officials and police often either looked elsewhere, or participated in the intimidation and mob violence against Black families who were fortunate enough to find a way to purchase a home in a White neighborhood.
The federal highway system was constructed in part with the goal of segregating Black neighborhoods from White neighborhoods. The result was White people enjoying relatively quiet and peaceful neighborhoods while Black housing was sandwiched around and underneath the loud, polluting traffic.
There was also a consistent and pervasive discrimination with regard to jobs. Despite their qualifications, Black people did not have equal access to higher paying jobs and settled for lower paying jobs that provided just enough for survival. Rothstein describes a phenomenon that was shocking. He explains that the sharecropping experience that existed for many Black families after the Civil War continued for many decades. The system was designed to ensure that the sharecroppers incurred an on-going debt to the owner of the land. When Northern manufacturers and other industries were in need of cheap labor, they could purchase the debt of those families from the landowner in exchange for the services of those who were indebted. This was not exactly slavery, but it was a very close relative of indentured servitude. This practice existed until 1973 when it was finally made illegal. 1973. Nine years after the Civil Rights Act was enacted.
These are the conditions and experiences that have created the relationship and perceptions that exist between White people and the Black community. Although most white people may not have participated in direct and open discrimination, or the overt oppression of Black citizens, the silence that has allowed the discrimination and oppression to occur for centuries makes us culpable. And the perceptions and attitudes that have resulted have placed the blame on the wrong party. When the bully is beating you up, and your classmates or neighbors do not step forward to intervene, you resent their inaction and do not trust them moving forward. And when the victim decides to fight back, he does not necessarily discriminate between the actual bully or those who were silent and allowed it to happen. The fury with which the victim responds is also not necessarily well thought out or rational. It is visceral and immediate. One only needs to look at many school shooters who often kill indiscriminately in response to real or imagined wrongs.
How can any reasonable person, seeing what occurs on a regular basis to Black people, not at least have empathy and understanding for the anger and frustration that occasionally spills over. When the depth of the discrimination and oppression is understood you are surprised that there is not a more violent and sustained reaction.
This cycle will continue and the relationship will remain broken until white people decide that action needs to be taken to correct it. That action will take sacrifice and patience. There will be those who complain and display anger because in their view someone is getting something for nothing at their expense. The truth is that we have benefitted for a long time by oppressing Black people and living off their labor. We owe them an effort to bring about equality and that will mean tipping the scales the other way for a while.
White people can begin to help heal these wrongs by understanding the history of black people in this country. That process not only means understanding their oppression but also what they have contributed to the development of this country and their culture. We need to be reminded that they are the only ethnic group that did not originally come to this country voluntarily. They brought along a rich culture that includes all disciplines, not just the gifts that we seem to want to credit them for and are constantly comfortably appropriating.
Getting closer to equality will also involve somehow mean blowing up the housing situation to begin inching toward a more integrated society. This will be a very difficult and complex process and will certainly cause a great deal of consternation for all. It will likely mean the haves giving up some of what they presently have to ensure that the have-nots can thrive.
This includes a rethinking of how we have attempted to integrate our schools. The billions of dollars that we have spent in creating magnet schools, and supporting efforts to have Black students cross town lines to attend suburban schools, has been a start towards greater understanding, but until White and Black students actually live next to each other in shared communities a real understanding will be lacking.
In an immediate sense we need to look at a redistribution of resources to ensure that a sizeable influx of resources are infused into poor areas creating better schools, more access to healthcare and nutritious food, job training and access to jobs that provide a living wage, and a real concerted effort to create a healthy and respectful relationship between police and residents working in concert to build positive living conditions.
Unfortunately, the internal cynic says that we will ignore all of this once all of the protesting has died down and we will be right back here the next time some bigoted or over-zealous police officer, or some vigilante, kills an innocent Black person or uses excessive force unequal to the offense. And we will hear all of the platitudes and see all of the meaningless memes on Facebook. They will really mean as much as they mean now. Nothing. There is an old saying, at least in my growing up, “actions talk, bullshit walks”. We need action. Now.