Race in America


I think it was about twenty-five years ago I heard Rush Limbaugh ask why people should be forced to associate with people they didn’t like. I don’t know if he meant black people, but it sounded as if he did. But that’s a question that cuts two ways. Why should a people have to accept mistreatment from others who dislike them for not particularly rational reasons? Especially a community who didn’t come to this country willingly, but were brought by others for their own reasons, and found themselves hated when they arrived?
The Founding Fathers of our revolution stood for liberty, but there were limits. Not only was the franchise intended only for property-owners, but there were whole groups never intended to have rights. Patrick Henry, the slave owner, expressed it rhetorically when he said, “Give ME liberty…” That this was not what he meant consciously, nor what we are now taught is beside the point: the limitation is also what our forefathers intended. Black people were legally denied SPECIFICALLY the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.
When they got around to codifying just what they meant in the Constitution, the differences were both legal and customary. Slaves were ineligible for liberty. Slaves were, in that time and place, identified with black people, though that had never been as exclusively true in the previous long history of slavery. And black people were identified with criminality.
They weren’t NECESSARILY criminals….as long as they did exactly what a white person said. But any black who took steps to become free was by definition a criminal: he did not own his own body, and could legally be pursued even into areas where slavery was not practiced.
Not only was he legally a criminal, he was considered a moral criminal as well. Black men were popularly supposed to frequently intend rape, especially of white women. There was probably some truth to this; criminality isn’t confined to any one race, and blacks could hardly help being angry at their treatment in general, but this is also where a psychological mechanism called projection comes into play. This occurs when one (or a whole society) accuses an individual or race or culture of crimes one knows (not always consciously) one’s self or one’s culture to be guilty of. Slave owners used their female slaves sexually, partially accounting for the range of skin colors in contemporary African-Americans, and also accounting for the horror of miscegnation in the American South in particular. When an individual or culture is truly guilty of a crime it is much easier to blame the victim than to take responsibility one’s self.
The consequences of these practices and beliefs played out with a sort of logic. Slave owners made enormous wealth through their slaves, and had a degree of comfort from blaming the slaves for their degraded condition. They were unable to be too comfortable, though, because Northerners didn’t approve of slavery.
Not only were slaves legally property, but another part of the price of the colonies of the South joining those of the North in a semi-permanent union was for each slave owned to count as 3/5ths of a vote. Northerners didn’t see this as equitable. And when Southerners were unwilling to discuss slavery in Congress, fearing that Northerners would try to end the practice, Northerners interpreted this as Southerners trying to treat THEM as slaves. This led to a long series of compromises that pleased nobody and to increasingly worse relations between the two regions. And then, of course, to Civil War.
The Civil War is the greatest trauma our nation has had to endure, and has led to a lot of other unfortunate things. The odd thing about it is that it was ostensibly fought about black people, but black people’s community position didn’t improve (or not for long) after the war. The South blamed them for its devastation and military occupation. The North didn’t much like them either, excluding them from most forms of labor and education that would allow them to participate in the American Dream. There were always some individual exceptions, but blacks remained second-class citizens at best.
One attitude I find irritating is the idea that race is no longer a problem, at least not a serious one. It’s a comforting thought for people who don’t want to take it seriously, but I think there’s plenty of evidence to show it’s untrue. Interested parties will try to discredit that evidence, of course, but Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration in the October issue of the Atlantic magazine shows just how difficult it is to be black today. Conditions have changed, but attitudes mostly haven’t.
Begin with the fact that we imprison vastly more people than we did 40-50 years ago, and that the inmates are disproportionately black. Just about the time the Civil Rights movement was becoming radicalized crime rates were also rising. Coates points out that the North had generally imprisoned more blacks than the South because the South controlled black behavior through its police and through lynching. Once the Civil Rights legislation passed in the mid-sixties, the South began imprisoning more too.
It’s over-simplifying to attribute all crime of that period to drugs, but a significant number of people were imprisoned because of them. Blacks generally got longer sentences than whites for drug crimes, and were more closely monitored, especially later when stop and frisk became common practice.
There were two oddities connected with the mass incarceration that began in the 1970s, though. One is that it didn’t reduce crime much. Experts have estimated, according to Coates, that crime was reduced by 2-5%, which made it an expensively inefficient practice.
The other is that when crime rates began to drop in the 1990s they dropped in other countries as well, in Canada and the Scandinavian countries, where the imprisonment rates had stayed constant. Besides that, imprisonment rates in this country continued to go up even as crime rates were declining. We seem, as little has changed since the 90s, to have locked ourselves into an inefficient system difficult to change. One of the characteristics of that system seems to be punishment instead of rehabilitation. The former is, of course, easier and more convenient than the latter. Effectively combating the factors that lead many people into crime would take a lot of effort and resources.
One of the reasons we got into it in the first place has to do with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who correctly saw that trauma the black community had endured over centuries had made it largely dysfunctional. He thought the government should intervene by subsidizing jobs for black men so they could support their families, even at the cost of jobs to black women. The issue was somewhat personal to him, as he came from a broken home himself, and was disappointed in his parents. Bill Russell, the famous basketball player, had his own take on what Moynihan had to say: he felt that whenever someone was talking paternalistically about black families, they were trying to take black liberty away. Moynihan may or may not have intended that, but consider what followed.
The reaction to his insights was not what he expected. On the one hand, he got called a racist, which he resented; on the other, those who agreed with his view of the black family and community felt it was too difficult to try to fix them, so they in essence, threw up their hands and simply imprisoned anyone who fit their definition of criminal (always more stringent for blacks than whites) and built more prisons.
They also blamed the black community for its deficiencies, as was also customary, without taking into account that not only were inner city schools poorly funded and run (funding comes from each neighborhood, so that poor neighborhoods have inadequate funding, while rich ones have an embarrassment of wealth), but that blacks were still, for the most part, excluded from most of the kinds of jobs at which individuals could succeed and build wealth. Coates also says that even wealthy blacks have tended to live in poor neighborhoods (there are probably some exceptions) because they were unwelcome in wealthier ones. The American Dream has been one of the best innovations this country has produced; too bad it has been limited, and blacks in particular excluded. It is ironic that, for a country which officially idolizes competition, great effort has been put into competition’s prevention. Segregation is one of the foremost examples, which I doubt many people have noticed.
So we have a picture of many people being brought from Africa to labor for goals in whose benefits they would have little share. They embodied traits their owners disliked about themselves– black culture was generally more sexually free–and were hated and punished for that, while the sexuality of the women was also taken advantage of. An Englishwoman visiting in the Deep South in the 1840s commented it was obvious that white men were sleeping with black women, and that white women deeply resented it, but felt unable to acknowledge it, let alone confront the men about it.
It seems to have been convenient for people to consider blacks inferior to whites, though the sadistic treatment blacks were subjected to seems to indicate that on some level whites acknowledged them as human beings and tried to keep them from asserting their rights. In Haiti, before its revolution, whites not only used the whip on blacks, but tied their legs to logs, forced them to wear metal masks to prevent them from eating the sugar cane they were cultivating, and sometimes even stuffed them with gunpowder and blew them up. Treatment in the United States probably differed in detail rather than in kind. In the early 19th century American slave owners liked to portray their slaves as part of their families, but were willing to arbitrarily kill any who might be thinking of rebelling or escaping.
Having fallen (as it were) into this pattern of behavior, whites seemed to find it difficult to admit that it was wrong. Each of us seems to agree that we wouldn’t wish to be treated as slaves were treated, but we tend not to take the next step and treat everyone decently. Intimidation is still the preferred method of treating blacks and other minorities.
An example is a study recently published in the New York Times about traffic stops in Greensboro, North Carolina. The study found that twice as many blacks were stopped as whites, even though whites were more often found in possession of contraband. Blacks were also more likely to be convicted because of these stops.
That’s merely another bit of evidence confirming what has been publicized in recent years: blacks are generally treated worse by police than whites. The author of the New York Times study commented that blacks are thus less willing to call police if they need them, or to cooperate with them to help rid the community of dangerous criminals. The pattern of behavior is obviously foolish, but no one seems willing to change it. The fear remains that if blacks were treated as equals they would eventually treat whites in the way whites have historically treated them. That suggests it’s safer to continue the tactics of intimidation, Christian teaching to the contrary.
Coates also indicates how devastating imprisonment of black men in large numbers is to the community. Blacks are less likely to get hired, especially for decent jobs, than whites anyway. If they have a record, getting a job (let alone a good one) is almost hopeless. As ex-cons they’re also not eligible for food stamps or other forms of assistance, which means they can’t support their families in any very substantive way. Their absence also doesn’t contribute to the stability of their families, which was a problem even before mass incarceration, as Moynihan pointed out. On top of that, families usually have to travel several hours to visit, since prisons are usually in rural areas.
To fix this situation would be difficult to say the least. Black men, often seeing no alternative employment that pays well, may often become drug dealers. As Coates says, a large percentage are in prison for drug crimes. It would be simple to release those there only for possession of small amounts. Those who were dealers, though, are likely to be violent, as illegal drugs are a violent business. Releasing them could be problematic.
Besides that, part of the prison problem has been “mandatory minimums”, long sentences mandated for specific offenses without judges being given discretion in sentencing. This leads to warehousing of people on a large scale, in uncomfortable conditions (prisons are almost entirely for punishment) so that inmates are there for a long time learning antisocial skills (little effort at rehabilitation). Add to those problems for-profit prisons. It doesn’t take much thought to understand what is necessary for profits and what population is preferred to make profits from.
Racism strikes me as a toxic mindset, which began only relatively recently, about 600-700 years ago when the Spanish Inquisition was set up to find the conversos who supposedly converted from Judaism to Christianity, but continued to practice Judaism privately. As Jews have been the scapegoats of Europe, blacks have been our scapegoats in this country. I think those who fear either one are insecure in some way, perhaps through having a guilty conscience. Otherwise the power of these fears is difficult to account for. Looking at things objectively, I can’t see that blacks are any more prone to criminal behavior than whites. They’re merely prone to get punished more, whether for actual crimes or not.
Along with the racist strain in America there has always been a strain that believes in justice and fairness. Unfortunately, this strain has been unable to prevail and give blacks equal opportunities to all the other communities in this country. It would be ironic if the fears of racists and their behavior towards blacks should turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecy. That irony wouldn’t be very amusing.