American Culture – American Heritage – American Policy

America, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, yada, yada, yada. The U.S. of A.— it is a state of mind as much as it is a physical location. People from around the globe look at America (or used to) as a land of opportunity, a land of promise, a land where hopes and dreams were the equal of ways and means.  And we came to this existence honestly, sort of. While we have built this image on the backs of enslaved, indentured, and free: First Peoples, African, European, Asian, Hispanic, Arab, Indian, et al., and we have worked towards a more perfect union via pen and sword, we have left out many of our fellow Americans when it came to crafting inclusive policies. In this way, we have created, by design, a culture that today resembles the America of 1780 and 1870 and 1960 — and this is a problem. Culture doesn’t change overnight, and heritage, a central piece that comes from culture (both in theory and practice) tends to hold a more prominent position, at our American table, than the concepts of understanding and empathy — both historically and within current realities. If there is interest in changing that part of our culture that still views some Americans as “greater than” and some Americans as “less than” and many Americans as “other than”, we need to advocate for this change through policies and let our legislators know that current practices are not in keeping with the promises this nation was founded upon — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And by all “men”, we mean every American.

Let’s start with the policy piece of the puzzle. Policy — good, bad, or neutral, or all of the above, depending on whether you’re sitting at the table, serving the table, or unaware that a table exists, has dramatic effects on communities, and communities make-up the nation. Policies targeting financial, social, and environmental sectors can solidify the standing of one community while destroying the fabric of another. Whether the policies are created by government entities or private corporations is less important than the long-term effects that the policies will leave. In addition, policies have direct and long lasting impacts on culture and from culture we discover/construct heritage (a rather important concept within any population).

Starting at the beginning, before the 2nd Continental Congress convened, before Samuel Nicholas raised a Battalion of Marines, before Plymouth Rock, all the way back to the first permanent settlement, Jamestown (1607), that’s where we need to go to understand how we ended up “here“. The policies that defined America’s earliest trajectory were mostly concerned with hierarchy and land and “savages”. The policies that gave European emigrants the right to claim lands that were inhabited by Native People started us down a long path we can call the White-Superiority-Complex Highway (WSCH) (not to be confused with the Napoleon Complex). The new settlers believed themselves superior because of technology in the form of weapons, governmental structures, religious practices, dress, living accommodations, you name it. Natives were seen as savages and therefore “less than” the “superior” Europeans.

Just over a decade later, we find the first (as yet) verified instance of Africans being brought to Jamestown (the future America) in 1619. The fact that they wound up in Jamestown is not of little consequence as it presented the English with another lane on the WSCH (the beginnings of a super highway). The Africans were assumed to be savages, similar to the Indigenous peoples of the New World. And, because they were taken as slaves, by other Europeans, it was seen as a natural extension that they should hold a similar position to the other “savages” on the continent (chattel slavery developed over a couple of decades (via practice and policy), it wasn’t yet established at this time). This began the long and disastrous cultural solidifying of imagined superiority over all people with darker skin.

As chattel slavery took hold in the 13 Colonies, those who owned Africans, and other light-skinned Europeans in close geographic vicinity, used religion (a form of policy/doctrine from above) to justify their treatment of the enslaved people. Additionally, policies were created that required the enslaved to carry a pass, if they were traveling away from the plantation/farm where they lived (to mean going somewhere else to work, not vacation). This worked in the favor of those who wished to paint the “savages” as “child-like” and in constant need of adult supervision (mythology always has a backstory). Add to this the policies that made it a crime to teach the enslaved how to read and we can see how the WSCH was being reinforced through all possible avenues (picture Talladega with longer straightaways, that’s bad news). Even in parts of the colonies where slavery had not taken hold (which is not to say slavery was completely missing), the mythology of inferiority and savagery had made its way into most corners of the British holding.

Jump forward a century and look at the words that were placed in the U.S. Constitution for purposes of representation within Congress— Article 1- Section 2- Paragraph 3, it reads:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons”

… All other persons being the enslaved Africans. We codified the idea that enslaved individuals, Africans in this case, were really and truly “less than”; they were legally considered 3/5 of a White person (and also, chattel). And this was not some minor State or local law that might be changed in due time; this was the document that would go on to be the beacon for so many other nations who were fighting for their own freedom from tyranny, this is our founding document. At this point, White superiority was well established, the culture of America was very clearly a culture that made skin color the most significant aspect of whether or not an individual had any rights in the society (with gender and language/dialect playing various, if less important, roles as well). And in case anybody wasn’t entirely certain, the Dred Scott Supreme Court case (1857), reinforced this belief.

In the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court ruled, by a 7-2 margin, that Africans were not considered the equal of any White person. Chief Justice Taney wrote the following in his opinion for the majority:

“They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

Taney also states, in reference to the United States Constitution,

“It then proceeds to say: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’

“The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration; for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted; and instead of the sympathy of mankind, to which they so confidently appealed, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.”

Think about the meaning of that. Think about the arguments that are still used in modern times by those who don’t understand the deranged inanity of such an ignorant statement. Think about what you believe and what you learned from your family and community—how does that compare with what I’m writing about here?

This case was decided just 3 years before South Carolina seceded from the Union. With each new State that joined the ranks of the Confederacy, the presumption of war became more real. Here to, amongst the ranks of the Southern “gentlemen”, we find literature that supports policy measures and practices meant to retain the “superior race” in a position of power (and this is where the heritage piece starts to show up most prominently, never mind that the heritage we’re referring to is tied to the Confederate States of America, not the Good Ole U.S. of A.). By this point, the WSCH had become a super highway from Maine to Florida; and several spurs had now been constructed running to all points (South)West, Midwest, and Northwest, and included not just the Black and Native peoples, but the Chinese and the Mexicans. Our transcontinental WSCH was nearly complete. We would “welcome” new immigrants and refugees in the coming century and provide them with similar treatment (South Asian, Southern European, Middle Eastern, et al.). Our culture was fully ingrained with Whiteness as the baseline against which all else would be measured. But we weren’t done yet.

War commenced between the States (1861) and the North was victorious, and everything was good, right? No, not right. For a period of about a decade, the Federal Govt. did it’s best to impose some semblance of what they thought normalcy should look like in the New South. There were some advances with the election of Black men to both State and Federal positions; but all told, the experiment didn’t work so well. And, and this is a BIG AND, the 13th Amendment, you know, the one that outlawed slavery? Well, it didn’t entirely outlaw the practice. Exceptions were made for those citizens (read: formerly enslaved) who were “running afoul” of the law (here, read: walking while Black, not showing proper deference/respect to a White person, or any actual criminal activity). The 13th amendment is the single most important piece of policy in respect to White America’s improper and unwarranted fear of and disrespect towards, People of Color. This policy catastrophe (“…except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…”) has resulted in a rapid expansion of America’s biggest shit-show, a.k.a. media exploitation of Black “criminality”; and it’s driven largely by the uber-conservative far-right of the GOP but it affects everyone’s ability to rationally think about “race” in America. Hence, current cultural norms being what they are, in vast sections of the country, don’t really seem so strange. Anyway, exit the Federal Government (1877), enter the State and local Legislators and the Black Codes.

The Black Codes were a new set of laws/policy measures meant to restrict the Freedmen’s ability to fully engage with/participate in the larger society. The former Confederacy had acted quickly to implement these laws but with Reconstruction happening concurrently, most had to be put on hold, to a degree, until Uncle SAM headed North. And then, posthaste, Jim Crow introduced his-self, lynch-law (a de facto policy that made kangaroo courts appear perfectly right and proper) took the place of the faux court proceedings that were used during Reconstruction, and just like that, we had concocted a brand new America that looked an awful lot like the ante-bellum nation of a few decades prior (Make The South Great Again, I guess…). With no means of changing policy (because their voting rights had been removed) and the constant threat of being caught up by a lynch mob (for any number of reasons, to include “that kinda looks like the guy that whistled at my girl” – sound familiar America?), African Americans (and all other Communities of Color) have continued to be perceived more negatively, over time, than what reality warrants.

The final policies to consider (and this is by no means an exhaustive list), which include those enacted between the 1930s and today, are connected to the types of systemic racism that are less easily seen, but are no less destructive in their methods. Redlining (the practice of preventing people from buying homes in particular neighborhoods—White neighborhoods specifically);  gerrymandering so as to make some people’s votes (this would be, of course, People of Color, largely) less important in state and local elections; both the intent and the implementation of drug laws; and the policies that have kept more poorly funded schools from receiving the equitable funding that could help diminish the equality and educational achievement gap, on several fronts.

So that’s how the policies of America have worked to create a culture that believes in the mythology of White superiority/supremacy (even while “borrowing” in perpetuity, from Communities of Color to make American culture, on the whole, much more Afro/LatinX/Asian-centric than most White people would like to admit). Think about what all of this means, think about how the combination of these policies, for centuries, have created an atmosphere of animus towards/fear of People of Color while simultaneously working to prevent Communities of Color from building wealth in the same ways that White communities have done. From health outcomes, to finance, and from environmental impacts to social stigmatizing, this norming of White superiority has had detrimental effects on our nation’s social, economic, and environmental spheres. To say that America doesn’t have a White supremacy problem is to ignore all of our history. And while it is not necessary to personally buy-in to the cultural norm in order to benefit from it, to pretend it doesn’t exist does nothing to address the issue.

Finally, the discussion of the heritage piece of this matter. We are… still… dealing with the idea of Southern heritage as American heritage, in relation to statues and flags and White power and all that mess. While it is true that the Confederates who fought against America were Americans prior to and immediately after the Civil War, in theory, if not practice, the hatred for “Yankees” and anyone else who might’ve tried to tell “Johnny Reb” that s/he must treat Black Americans as equals, remained particularly intense for more than 100 years. That feeling remains ingrained in certain individuals and communities in 2017.  And before you tell yourself that this small contingent of White supremacists (read: ignoramus maximi) is not fully representative of the larger White community (which I would agree with), consider the number of White folks who were willing to remain silent and those who went so far as to mention the 1st amendment to promote the Nazi’s right to march (in Charlottesville) with those flags, chant those words, and generally make a mockery of everything that the original anti-fascists fought against.

We cannot, I repeat, CAN NOT, expect the election of 1 Black President (2 times) to change hundreds of years of blatant racist policy and misinformation. The spreading of lies, by ill informed (and sometimes just plain stupid) individuals and corporations, will require at least 100 years to counteract. I believe the work has started but not all that long ago. Heritage, being what it is, will remain a barrier to those who fight against Confederate ideology and the symbols/heroes who represent that era. We could have 10,000 Black & Native & Hispanic elected officials, at every level of Local, State, & Federal GOVT, for the next half century, and still find White supremacist/superiority literature and beliefs littering our nation’s Byways.  We can change this trajectory but we can’t do it overnight, and we can’t do it without a majority of people raising their voices in unison.

So how do we make this change, you ask? It starts with talking, something too many are still afraid of. Conversations revolving around America’s ugly past  must become commonplace and they absolutely have to strike nerves and be uncomfortable. Once we can move past the difficulty of addressing the issue, we can get down to fixing it. Considering we’ve been able to do this, on a smaller, and less vitriolic (consider the context), scale, with the Irish, the Italians, Jews, and other groups who were initially seen as outsiders and “others”. I believe we can do it, it’s only a matter of IF we will do it.

Conversations lead to political action. Political action has the capacity to become policy. Policy is what got us into this mess, policy will get us out. Policies that address the systemic inequalities and inequities that we have allowed to continue since the 1600s can be reversed. Investing, rather than divesting, in inner-city neighborhoods and rural communities of Color, and in affordable housing, is a good place to start. Concurrently, provide incentives for private industry to invest in these same communities which will provide stability in the short term and opportunities to build wealth and roots in the long term. Encourage cross-sector, cross-state, cross-boundary (urban-rural) partnerships. Get creative, that’s the future of our macro economy. Creativity has always played a major role but that role is increasing exponentially with each passing day.

It only takes 1 person to start the cultural, political, social change, that will move us out of the past centuries and into the future. When police are able to choke a man to death, as he gasps for air and hoarsely whispers, “I can’t breathe”, and we don’t hold them accountable; or they drive up on a child who is playing with a toy gun in a park (as millions of other children have done for a century or more), jump out of a squad car and shoot him without bothering to ask what he was doing, and not be held accountable, we have policy issues that need to be addressed. We have a nation that needs to project a voice that is clear and confident and forceful and which tells those in charge, one more minute is 60 seconds too long.

Policies influence culture, culture shapes heritage, heritage is used as a symbol to protect what is being lost. America’s heritage is not built solely on the false narrative of White superiority, but that idea gets far more attention than it deserves. White supremacy and superiority is a fallacy that needs to die. America was not founded as a place for White people to reign supreme, nor was it built by the toil of White labor alone. Without the multitude of diverse voices and colors working together, we do not achieve the status of SuperPower, the status we still hold, if only for a while. Without the contributions of the multitudes, we are Atlantis, a great story that provides fairy tale material but no actual contribution to our global community. Without new and dynamic policies that address our greatest sins, we will most certainly go down in history as the greatest nation to ever fail. Let’s not fail, not here, not now.

Why “Black Lives Matter” Matters

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013, shortly after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Since that time, hundreds of African Americans have been shot by police officers (and many White, Hispanic/Latino, & Native Americans have also been shot). Tens of thousands of African Americans, in this same time, have had interactions with police officers, many that involved a disproportionate use of force (based on police records). For those who do not study criminal justice, social justice, or the history of injustice in America, it is easy to assume that because police have so many interactions with Black People, then Black People must be committing more crimes. But this is not the case. White People commit more crimes, on the whole, than any other group. Surprised? You shouldn’t be; White People make up more than 60 percent of our nation’s population. So if there are more White People, than Black People (by a nearly 5:1 ratio), and according to the FBI statistics, White People commit more crimes, on the whole, than Black People, why do we see greater use of force against Black People and greater incarceration rates of Black People? This, in part, is why Black Lives Matter exists.

To understand more fully why the Civil Rights Movement has been reenergized, we must have a better understanding of African Americans’ history in the place we call America. 400 years ago, this continent was inhabited by many Nations of First Peoples, and a few Dutch, French, English, and Spanish, amongst others. As the population of settlements grew, the need for “hired” help grew along with it. In 1619, Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia (against their will), to work the land; along with the labor provided by European indentured servants, the building of a nation had begun. For a short time, Africans were looked upon as being similar to the indentured servants, save for their religious practices, language, etc. However, it wasn’t long before the European nobility/landed class began to differentiate in their treatment of Africans (and first African Americans) and European laborers.

As slavery took shape in the Colonies, it differed from slavery in other places (and this is really important for everybody who likes to say “Black people owned slaves in Africa before White People owned slaves in America” (which wasn’t yet “America” when slavery started)). That is true; in different Kingdoms various forms of enslavement were practiced. However, many historians that have studied slavery on the continent have found no evidence supporting the idea that the chattel form of slavery practiced in the New World, was practiced in Africa. And chattel slavery, as practiced in the place that would become the United States, was about as severe a practice as one could imagine.

Chattel is another term for “property”. This means that the enslaved Africans and eventually African Americans were property. They had absolutely no rights that had to be honored by any White man. The enslaved were bought and sold just as cattle, horses, molasses, tobacco, etc. were bought and sold. And, when enslaved women had children, they were not born free, they were automatically enslaved—for life. People who had no knowledge of this country were ripped from their families and communities and shoved into a new place where they were stripped of their names, their customs, their religious beliefs, and their sense of self. They were “housed” in small shacks with dirt floors, made to toil in physically demanding work from sun-up to sun-down (whether in a field or in a plantation house), provided just enough rations to sustain their strength (most of the time), and almost never had the opportunity to remove themselves from this hell. Then, to make matters worse, after adapting and overcoming the initial chaos of that existence, and having started new families, getting married, having kids, doing what they could to make their life less painful, they were shocked back to reality.

The plantation owners didn’t care about inhumane treatment (the enslaved were considered sub-human/property); if the plantation owners were having “difficulty” with some of their “property”, difficulty that could not be fixed through the usual methods, they might sell that “property” to a plantation that could be five miles away or five states away. They also sold off “property” if they were in a bind for money or were offered a particularly good deal for one or more “pieces of their property”, or if the mistress of the plantation didn’t like a particular enslaved girl that her husband had taken a liking to (in other words, rape, repeatedly, until she was sold off or killed, or the husband grew tired of her and turned his affection to a new “piece of his property”). All of this, and more, had the effect of breaking up families—again. And with each new dissolution of a family unit, African Americans had more reason to hate not only the system of chattel slavery, but also the purveyors of that system, to include the enforcers of the laws and the patrols that existed to police them.

This period of our history, that included State sanctioned extreme violence against human beings, is the low point for us, as far as Humanity & Civility are concerned. Chattel slavery, in this land, lasted for 246 years. It was a terrible stain on our nation and if that was the only event that the African American community were forced to endure, it would be enough. But it wasn’t.

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After the Civil War, the South underwent Reconstruction. This period lasted for approximately 14 years, 1863-1877, and witnessed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (and other hate groups), the suppression of Black votes, even though the 14th amendment granted citizenship and equal protection to the newly freed, and the 15th amendment guaranteed the right to vote for all male citizens (while women continued to work for this right for the next 51 years), lynching, and general lawlessness, carried out by White People who could not stomach the thought of Black People being treated as equals. After Lincoln’s assassination, things got worse.

At the beginning of Andrew Johnson’s Presidency (1865-1869), he vetoed the bill that would have enacted land distribution to thousands of Freedmen. This act, in concert with the 13th Amendment’s allowance for enslavement as punishment for crimes committed, and the new Black Codes that, amongst other things, made vagrancy a crime, served to put the recently “out-of-work”, back to work. What this meant for millions of newly freed Americans, who had little or no money (because enslaved people aren’t paid wages), is that they could be arrested for not having a permanent home. This worked out quite well for the plantation owners (who were also involved in politics, i.e. helped write these laws) as they were in dire need of labor. The law enforcement of the county would pick up Freedmen who were out on the road (they might be looking for family, looking for work, surviving), arrest them and then send them off to the fields to work, without pay—again.

In 1877, Reconstruction came to an end and Jim Crow (the set of laws governing what Black citizens were and were not allowed to do) was fully implemented throughout the postbellum South. Jim Crow laws acted as a barrier that prevented African Americans from taking part in the full spectrum of America’s democratic process, economic opportunities, educational opportunities, and social interactions with White folk. What this meant was that in a matter of less than 15 years, the vast majority of African Americans had undergone two extreme status changes. From enslaved to citizen (albeit citizens who were terrorized and subjected to the Black Codes) and from citizens to 2nd class citizens, under the rule of Jim Crow. Progress? Yes. Enough? No.

The next era in our history was defined by the Supreme Court’s mandate of Separate but Equal. The 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson made it lawful to discriminate (under the guise of equal accommodations) based on skin color. After a series of Supreme Court victories, Brown v. Board of Education struck down the Separate but Equal doctrine by stating the obvious, it is “inherently unequal”. This, however, did not put an end to Jim Crow. Over the course of the next 15 years, many States and individual school districts would fight the Court’s order to integrate (some never would) and many of the more affluent (and even less affluent) White families moved their children to private schools (where no Black students were to be found). But in the North everything was fine, right? So why didn’t all the Black People just move north? Well, it wasn’t always de jure segregation across the North and the West, though that existed, but it was often de facto.

The North had it’s own way of keeping White and Black apart. Restrictive housing covenants, redlining, destroying communities with public works projects, employment difficulties (last hired-first fired, unequal pay for the same work, unable to join unions, etc.), and violence against Black workers, to name a few. It didn’t matter where African Americans moved, they were going to face discrimination of one sort or another because of White America’s perceptions about Black People.  So after all of the work done, from 1865 to 1968 (the unofficial end of this particular stage of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement), African Americans were still not accepted as equal by large swaths of America.

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So that’s a lot of chaos to deal with (349 years worth of chaos, to be exact). Between 1619 and 1968 the Black community in America endured more hardships, more violence, experienced more senseless acts fueled by hatred, than any other group—(not the Irish, not the Italians, not the Jews, not the Poles, Czechs, Germans, Greeks, Chinese, Mexicans, Norwegians, Russians, Scots-Irish, Indians (not Native Americans), Catholics, et al.). And this is not to say that all of those groups didn’t experience difficulties/violence, they did, but not anywhere near the extent that the Black community suffered. And yes, Native Americans suffered for a longer period (basically from the time Columbus “discovered” Asia India Hispaniola and began killing Taino & Arawak Peoples). And yes, the history of Native Peoples in this entire hemisphere is littered with the erasure of numerous Native Nations and complete disregard for the lives of other non-White inhabitants. I’m not arguing that First Peoples experiences (with White People) have been mostly positive, on the contrary; however, the fact that African Americans were subjected, daily, to being treated as 2nd class citizens, at best, sub-human at worst, for this duration, is hard to refute. And if you thought that was the end of the story, you thought wrong; it’s 2016, not 1968.

We’ve seen what can be accomplished, more or less, with amendments: the 13th, 14th, 15th, but we haven’t yet looked at what can be taken away regardless of an amendment. The 4th amendment was written to prevent the government from snooping around just because they want to. It reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

And that seems not only reasonable, but very sensible. The Founding Fathers included it as a means of preventing the same type of behaviors that the British had perpetrated against them, when they were colonists. So it is somewhat surprising, knowing the importance of our Constitution and the Rights it bestows upon its citizenry, that the 4th amendment has been significantly eroded over the past 50 years. What’s that you say, my 4th amendment rights, eroded? Preposterous! Unthinkable! This is heresy, By God! Well, here it is.

Beginning in 1968, in the case of Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court sided with the State in deciding that it was within the law for an officer to “stop and frisk” a person/persons whom the officer thought might be plotting a crime (reasonable suspicion). It sounds ok, when you first read it, but when one looks at where it has led us (with many more cases since then, expanding policing powers: Florida v. Bostick, Ohio v. Robinette, Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, etc. etc.) it might be useful to read the words of Supreme Court Justice Marshall from the 1968 case, mentioned above. In his dissent (it was an 8-1 decision) Marshall wrote, “To give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path. Perhaps such a step is desirable to cope with modern forms of lawlessness. But if it is taken, it should be the deliberate choice of the people through a constitutional amendment.” And today, we are seeing the fruits of the Court’s labor— Stop & Frisk run amok in New York City; maybe not yet a “police state”, but one can see how Justice Marshall was correct to question this type of authority. But wait, what does this have to do with African Americans? Oh, right, that. Well, as shown by the statistics, provided by NYPD, an extremely disproportionate number (based on NYC demographics) of the individuals stopped are Black and Hispanic. Which leads us to the last issue that needs to be addressed, the war on drugs.

President Nixon thought it would be a good idea to declare a war on drugs (he had a lot of “good” ideas). Putting aside the arguments about which drugs are “dangerous” and which are “safe”, we need to understand how the drug war affected American communities, Black and White. Because while one is free to think whatever they want about any particular drug, when we look at the statistics of who uses drugs, who sells drugs, who ends up going to jail because of drugs, and how jail terms differ based on the ethnicity of said person convicted of drug use/sales, we find evidence that should make everyone question what exactly is going on in the confines of our criminal justice system.

Using data from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services) we find that drug use amongst White and Black individuals falls within a 1-2 percentage point gap, for the years 2002-2010. So that’s not why we see more Black People incarcerated for drugs. Next, we find that White People, on the whole, are more likely to sell drugs and more likely to be arrested for selling drugs, than Black People; data from studies done in 1980, 1989, 1991-1993, and 2012 (and 1980-2012 Bureau of Justice data), all provide evidence to back this up. So that’s not what’s driving incarceration rates. So it must be possession of drugs; that has to be what’s creating this disparity between Black and White…or not. Well, I’m stumped. If the war on drugs is targeting everybody, and White People, who are included in that “everybody” are found more often to be the dealers, the users, and, no surprise, those caught in “possession”, how on earth is it possible that more Black People are incarcerated on drug crimes charges?

According to studies, it looks like there are a few reasons. First, “open-air” drug markets are more common in Black neighborhoods while White People tend to go over to their friend’s house to buy their coke/weed/molly/heroine. Second, disparities in sentencing (most strikingly for marijuana, and along with every other area in the system) account for a significant portion of the numbers. Third, Stop & Frisk, targets Black and Hispanics disproportionately. And even though 10-20 percent are found guilty of “something”, that leaves 80-90 percent who have been hassled for no apparent reason, other than a cop thinks you “look suspicious”. What if Dr.s and mechanics and hair stylists and chefs got “it” right 10-20 percent of the time, we wouldn’t put up with it. But this is different, right? It’s for our public safety. Be honest with yourself, if you were approached and engaged by law enforcement while walking down the street, or driving home from work, or playing in a park, or riding a bike on the sidewalk, because of how you looked, would you really be ok with that? I doubt it. And what about those “criminals” who may have committed some sort of offense, like “selling cigarettes“, or dealing marijuana, or they were driving erratically, or experiencing a bout of mental illness, but are obviously of no threat to any one (other than their self) including the officers? We need to understand how this systematic discrimination (profiling) creates distrust between communities of Color and the police.

The war on drugs didn’t come about because the use of drugs exploded in 1971. Nor did stop & frisk come about because of an increase of robberies or violent acts. None of this data provides evidence that drug use sharply increased over the past 30 years, because it didn’t. Law enforcement focused more attention on arresting people with drugs, in part, because of the incentives that were offered to departments across the nation. And in this way, we’ve witnessed the “criminalization” of communities of Color, all across America. And this, brings us to 2016.

So now that you have a better understanding of some of the reasons (not all, that’s several books worth of material) that the continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, is embraced by so many people, of all Colors and Creed, from all Cultures and Communities, you still might choose to not embrace Black Lives Matter; but at least you will have some understanding of why so many people are so upset about what continues to happen to People of Color in our Country. It’s been 397 years since 1619. Millions of African Americans have encountered vitriol and violent acts simply because they are perceived to be different. And while it is true that everybody has something that makes them unique, and we should in no way minimize those attributes, we must get beyond allowing perceptions to colour our belief systems. We have made progress on many fronts but to believe that we are “there” is to deceive oneself.

On their “History” page, Black Lives Matter provides the background on what led to their founding of the organization and they offer some advice for our society:

Progressive movements in the United States have made some unfortunate errors when they push for unity at the expense of really understanding the concrete differences in context, experience and oppression.”

It would do society good to remember this. In addition to those who disavow Black Lives Matter because of their sincere belief that it is nothing more than a hate group… some “forward thinking” groups and individuals fail to apply context to current events in light of historical realities. It is 2016. We have to educate our youth, and each other, about where we are, how we got here, and then start having the conversations about how to move beyond this place. Policies that: 1) decriminalize minor drug offenses and provide treatment options for addicts; 2) mandate more training for police recruits –  specifically in the areas of deescalation and learning to work and interact with the diverse populations they are likely to encounter; 3) provide adequate funding to ensure police have what they need and can be paid better for the difficult job they do; 4) demilitarize our police departments (they are not fighting a war, they are serving and protecting their communities); 5) provide funding and incentives for public schools to spend more time teaching civics, talking about civility, and discussing the importance of context as they learn about our history. This will not fix everything overnight; but in time, we can all learn the importance of the roles played by every person that calls this land home; and more importantly, learn to respect those qualities that make each of us unique while recognizing our common bonds.

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