Happy Black History Month, reader! No doubt you noticed the quotation marks above, indicating my skepticism about America’s alleged post-racial status. I should clarify that I realize that such skepticism hardly makes me an outlier or some marvel of progressive insight; if American bigots have proven anything in the Obama era, it is that they are utterly unrepentant and unreformed. But I’m not just talking about the dittoheads and Glenn Beck’s army of addlepated homunculi demanding that we “Take OUR country back” — or secede from the union now that the scary black man has been swept back into office. I’m referring to the nation as a whole, hoping to introduce a conversation about our national soul, our institutions, and the REAL state of racial progress in the “Land of the Free” (ironically, the jailer of 25% of the world’s prisoners despite having just 5% of the world’s population; even more relevant to today’s topic is the fact that nearly 60% of America’s incarcerated individuals are either black or Hispanic).
In this blog, I will offer several facts supporting my contention that an African-American in the Oval Office does not signify a positive seismic shift in race relations in the United States (I would posit, rather, that Obama’s presidency can more accurately be attributed to his extraordinary gifts as a politician and to the considerable damage that his predecessor inflicted on the Republican brand). I will also attempt to recap my journey from moderately racially-sensitive young Arizonan to reasonably educated/racially-sensitive middle-aged schmoe — with nods to the black voices that helped my views evolve over the years.
How far have we come as a nation?
While I wouldn’t go so far as to deny that America has made some genuine, appreciable progress in this area, I will begin by offering some statistics that help illuminate just how “post-racial” America is not:
1. America’s law enforcement system today ensnares MORE African-Americans (including the nearly one million behind bars and millions of others on probation or parole) than the antebellum South had enslaved in 1850 (and make no mistake: many American prisoners are slaving away in our rehabilitation-averse “corrections” facilities, working for pennies an hour for corporations from Microsoft to Victoria’s Secret to various representatives of the military-industrial complex — that’s right: we coerce the labor of brown people here so we can kill brown people over there…);
2. From 2005 to 2009 (pre- and post-Great Recession), median wealth for black households fell 53%, versus just 16% for white households (with banks far more inclined to help whites renegotiate their mortgages than blacks and Hispanics — likely the same blacks and Hispanics, largely, that the banks targeted unfairly for subprime loans in the first place, even when they qualified for prime);
3. The unemployment rate for blacks today exceeds 14%, very nearly double the rate of white unemployment;
4. In 2009, white households’ median net worth topped $113,000, TWENTY TIMES the median net worth of the average black household (representing the largest such disparity measured since the U.S. government first began releasing such statistics 25 years ago; also DOUBLE the wealth disparity that existed between whites and blacks prior to The Great Recession — and nearly TRIPLE the wealth disparity in 1995);
5. Only 52% of African-American males graduate high school in four years, compared to 78% of their white counterparts (due to consistent disparities in high-minority-population schools and disproportionate singling out of young black males for disciplinary action, including suspension, expulsion, and referral to law enforcement agencies); and
6. “As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.” (Here I’m simply quoting Michelle Alexander, author of the acclaimed book The New Jim Crow, recapping some of her findings for The Huffington Post).
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Some Americans might be inclined to respond to the above statistics with skepticism, arguing that however appalling the numbers are, they do not necessarily implicate the system or prove discrimination — but countless studies have demonstrated otherwise (including analyses of sentencing disparities that clearly track race and recent studies that document widespread racial profiling by police and discredit much of the “science” of police forensics, showing that long-employed crime-lab methods — from ballistics to eye-witness identification to fingerprinting — are, in fact, seriously flawed). In short, institutional discrimination in America’s policing, lending, education, elections, legal system, and other areas has been well documented over the years — to such an extent that denying such discrimination strongly suggests willful ignorance on the part of the denier.
Particularly egregious is the failed, socially-disastrous “War on Drugs” that has destroyed so many (disproportionately African-American and Hispanic) lives in America and more than quintupled the U.S. prison population over the last 30 years. I find particularly damning the case against New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” program. The NYPD annually harasses hundreds of thousands of innocent minorities simply for walking the sidewalks of New York — NINETY PERCENT OF WHOM ARE NOT EVEN ARRESTED. Here is award-winning film documentarian Eugene Jarecki on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” discussing that travesty of law enforcement:
Conclusion (of Part 1): Despite some genuine progress over the last half-century or so (thanks to the efforts of determined civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X), it is reasonable to say that blacks in 2013 America face nearly as many challenges as ever. For although slavery was officially abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation and the North’s victory in the American Civil War, that morally repugnant institution was followed by Jim Crow, the KKK, poll taxes, segregation, redlining, discriminatory voter I.D. laws, and, more recently, the “War on Drugs,” with its mass-incarceration of minorities, especially males of African-American descent. American business and political institutions have spent the last century-and-a-half working to preserve the old (nominally “Christian,” white male-dominated) power structure, keeping blacks out of high-paying jobs, elected office, elite educational and business institutions, voting booths, and homes — while increasingly placing them in JAIL and PRISON CELLS (with black males comprising over 40% of America’s 2.4 million prisoners, most convicted for victimless crimes, like possession of small amounts of marijuana, that blacks commit at no higher frequency than whites).
In other words, America, we’ve got a long way to go before we can declare our nation exorcised of the demon RACISM. “Post-racial” the U.S. is NOT.
Next: Part II — A brilliantly presented case against “Post-racial America” (not mine, less burdened with statistics)… and recounting my personal journey toward racial semi-enlightened status