Urban And Rural Economic Development

The United States has entered a new era. It is not an era defined by our politics, though they have played a role in getting us here, and it is not defined by our technological advances, though they too are important. The new era in which we find ourselves is defined by a gap, or a divide, a chasm between those who are on financially solid ground and everybody else. While we’ve experienced time periods similar to the current situation, in our nation’s past, we’ve never witnessed anything on this scale. The bad news is, it’s going to be difficult to find the political will required to address the problem. But there’s good news too… political will is only half the solution.

Large swaths of rural America have been stagnating or declining for more than a decade — some much longer. Simultaneously, many of our urban centers have experienced similar negative changes that have affected not only the physical place but more importantly, and no differently from rural areas, the people who call those places home. The reasons for each of these occurrences is not dissimilar. A combination of disinvestment (some purposefully, some not by choice) and an exodus of the young and creative folks, who are responsible for much of the entrepreneurial spirit we endeavor to, has left a significant hole that no amount of hard work can replace.

There are many exceptions that can be found, in both cities and smaller towns, but exceptions are not rules and exceptions are not always replicable, for a variety of reasons. In order to reverse current trends and correct the situation before it sets, several initiatives must be undertaken. Some of these ideas will work in geographic locations across the board (regardless of size or setting), others will be relevant to one place or another, and all will have people who naysay or attempt to discredit them as too far reaching or way-out-of-the-box; but at the end of the day, if major changes are not instituted, many cities will devolve into unrecognizable pools of caste and class and thousands of small towns will dry-up and cease to exist.

Rural places, like the one I grew up in, have been trying to find ways to remain economically and socially viable while their populations have shrunk, their tax-bases have likewise decreased (due to both population declines and wage stagnation), and their futures have become increasingly uncertain. This is not the case for all rural locales, but it does represent a significant portion of greater America. In many of these places, there is a strong desire, among some, to get back to the “good ole days” when life was “simpler”. The problem with that line of thinking is that that America, which was built on a combination of manufacturing, agriculture, and major infrastructure investments, ceased to exist more than 30 years ago. While we are in desperate need of new massive infrastructure developments (yet uncertain whether or not they will materialize), agriculture and manufacturing opportunities have declined as technological advances, outsourcing, and increases in productivity and efficiency have eliminated many of those jobs.

Regardless of where one lives, the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs, between 1980 and today, has had some sort of direct or indirect effect. When a small town or a big city loses manufacturing jobs, that impacts the workers, the family’s of the workers, the bartenders and servers that relied on them, the hair salons and barbers, the auto-mechanics, healthcare facilities, public schools (as local tax revenues decrease), movie theatres, retail stores of all types, etc., et al. We’ve seen it happen in small and medium size cities and former boomtowns like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Detroit. And while many of the mid and small towns have found it more difficult to rebound after such losses, the situation in some of our urban metropolises is less dire, if only for the promise that comes from having a large and diverse pool of talent amassed there. Some of these places have taken steps to re-imagine themselves as hubs of the new creative centers that will carry their regions forward. Others are still trying to understand how best to tackle the issue; and a few seem not to be paying any attention to the plight of the impoverished, or the disparity between the two Americas.

In his new book, The New Urban Crisis, Richard Florida outlines several of the factors that have created the current financial situation and then lays out policy initiatives that might best address these problems. The overarching theme reinforces what we have come to know in these past decades. The future of industry lies in creative thought processes; and in places that generate more ideas, we will find more jobs, better paying jobs, and more opportunity for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. However, that does not mean that poverty will magically disappear as cities and regions reconfigure their plans to attract and retain more of this crowd. But it does provide the impetus, in the way of taxes, to supply the necessary services required to alleviate much of the poverty we have today.

Another idea that Florida (as many others have) points out is the benefit of diversity in a city/workplace. It is no coincidence that places with greater diversity have more success, regardless of the enterprise. Be it big or small, public or private, local or international, those ventures that include more diverse voices in the mix are more likely to find success. Part of this has to do with people bringing different experiences into the group, which can spark a completely new, and related idea, from someone who had never been exposed to radically different thought processes. Additionally, stepping out of one’s comfort zone (another part of the practice of working in a diverse setting) gets the mind to think from new perspectives.

Two other areas that Florida discusses in-depth are the need for greater investment in/development of mass transit (both within cities and between cities) and major investments in affordable housing for people/families who don’t make $100,000. or more, annually. This would address economic needs/issues in all areas of city and country, regardless of what divisions they feel may separate them.

Of course it doesn’t make sense to invest in high-speed rail between Eau Claire, WI and Ames, IA; but if we think about the potential for interactions between the knowledge bases surrounding and between locales (agriculture, manufacturing, energy, and the technologies that have not yet been realized), then maybe it makes sense to have some form of transit that could more easily connect people in those places. Having more modes of transport that connect major centers of industry, trade, government and hi-tech, can only benefit our future generations. Investing in great transit (aside from flight-based) that connects Des Moines and Minneapolis/St Paul (via Rochester – Mayo Clinic) and Chicago and Des Moines (via Madison – Univ of WI) with additional, and lower cost, transit options to carry people to destinations that are off the beaten path, like Ames and Eau Claire, would serve as a type of web that can create, within a predominantly rural region, corridors of knowledge that are specific to their needs. It would transform a disconnected or loosely linked place into a ruralopolis.

To be able to think more clearly about the challenges that we face, it is best to have a list of the issues/problems that need to be addressed. I’ve come up with 10 items that I have either witnessed first-hand and/or have been discussed by individuals who have researched and written about the issues. From Horace Cayton & St. Clair Drake (Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City – 1945) & Michael Harrington (The Other America – 1962), to Cynthia Duncan (Rural Poverty in America – 1992), Richard Florida, Stefanie DeLuca (Coming of Age in the Other America – 2016) & Matthew Desmond (Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City – 2016), to name but a few, many people have spent years, if not decades, studying the problems and working on solutions. The list is not exhaustive by any means and it applies to both urban and rural, and the spaces in-between — with the rural covering a wider scope of place and the urban drilling into specific problems in pockets of cities.

  1. Lack of money (wages, tax income/base, savings)

  2. Loss of jobs

  3. Loss of culturally significant attachments (many of which are tied directly to former manufacturing plants and the products they made as well as the local entities they supported)

  4. Loss of the “sense of place” that helped define people

  5. Loss of incentives that might retain more of the young adults

  6. Lack of diversity, which exacerbates the lack of new ideas problem (more pronounced in agrarian and sylvan settings)

  7. Insufficient planning for the future

  8. Insufficient action on future plans that have been developed

  9. Lack of a clear direction

  10. Desire to return to previous decades when life was simpler, this further inhibits the creative thought processes that are needed for progress to occur

    So how do we address all of this while maintaining fiscally sensible spending habits and without destroying communities in the process? The answers are not complex but they require buy-in from people at the local level. Mayors, city councils, school district administrators, businesses of all sizes, and the citizenry must get involved with the operations and revitalize the place from the ground up.

The first step in the process is creating a plan. And planning, whether for a ruralopolis region or for a smaller area encompassing several large metros with interspersed rural constituents, requires relationship building. Mutual trust and cooperation concerning the long-term goals will be paramount to the success of the plan. The people that make-up the planning committee should be representative of every group and every area within the defined territory and the work must include all of the necessary components of a region: affordable housing, jobs and industry, education, transportation, tourism and culture, government, and any additional pieces that impact the larger economic zone. The basis for the planning has to be developed with a “win-win” approach in mind; the alternative, zero-sum game, creates more losers than winners, which is how we ended up in our current situation. In the beginning stages of the process, funding options should be debated and implemented as quickly as possible…progress on this scale requires a large investment.

Raising taxes is neither popular nor easy. However, when small increases are made, incrementally, over a series of 25 years, they add up; and, they don’t negatively impact anyone’s business or individual income via one big bump. This type of enactment allows for well-developed plans to be put into place over a period of decades (similar to the way the Federal Interstate Highway System was introduced). Moreover, without adequate reserves set aside, for the unforeseen expenses, the best laid plans can be sidetracked and never get restarted.

New developments, and old developments given new life, should include mixed-use blueprints with a commitment to pedestrian friendly spaces. Integrating business, culture, low, middle, and high-income housing, on a human scale (keeping in mind density limits), attracts the widest variety of people to an area. Combined with investments in educational opportunities, both post-secondary and K-12, the integrated communities can provide opportunities to move up the economic ladder. Along with housing, business, public transit, and education amenities, green spaces are key; whether for relaxing or exercising, natural surroundings provide respite from the daily grind. Anything that can be done to attract younger and more diverse groups of people, can help achieve greater viability for the long-term.

And speaking of the long-term, investments in education are the best way to ensure a strong future for a region. Those cities/states that currently invest more in education (from pre-k through colleges of all types) are the places with the most opportunity for all people.  Therefore, directing some of the new revenues (taxes) to local public schools, and investing in new post-secondary training options: e.g. pipeline programs tied to Technical & Community Colleges, certificate programs, or innovative high school programming that prepares students for a particular industry upon graduation. Education spending brings a greater return on investment (when thinking generationally) than any other type of expenditure. And, as an aside, education is not a business and trying to run it as such is a sure-fire way to fail the students; but, that doesn’t mean you can’t use business terminology and number crunching practices to analyze what’s working and what isn’t.

Once a young person has graduated from high school or completed post-secondary schooling, they need to be paid a living wage. If they are not, one of two things will happen; either they will move somewhere that pays them a living wage or more (depending on skill set), or they will remain in the community and not “give back” in terms of decreased: productivity, taxes, spending, and engagement, that they otherwise are capable of. Neither of these options are preferred if the goal is to increase economic viability and growth. Depending on your address, a livable wage might be $10.00 an hour or it might be $18.00 an hour, cost-of-living across the nation varies from one zip-code to the next. An added bonus, for the employers, is the data that shows a correlation between higher wages and lower turnover. Training can be a major source of spending and cost reductions in that area can be directed to higher wages. And don’t forget, the large middle class that made America’s economy strong for the better part of four decades was built in part on paying people a decent wage to do jobs that were neither highly skilled nor particularly difficult to learn. But they were paid well just the same (whether that was due to strong unions or employers who were concerned about their employees is not as important in this discussion) and they were vital components of their community. People working in low-wage jobs today should be paid similarly and given the same opportunity to take part in all aspects of the American dream.

As wages rise throughout a region (because other businesses will want to attract the best talent possible), and spending in local stores increases, economic vitality will attract entrepreneurs and new businesses will take hold. This can promote further growth; and, along with existing companies expanding, if demand warrants, the region will likely see more young people choosing to stay in the area or return to the area after spending a few years away learning new jobs or attending school. This is all part of a win-win scenario. But, be aware of the business wo/men who are looking to take advantage of your success.

There are corporations who like to play the tax break game. While it is true that businesses move for a variety of reasons, rarely do they choose a place just because it is offering the greatest incentives in terms of tax breaks; they typically know where they want to be and take advantage of cities that are hungry for new jobs. This is often done under the guise of job creation, which is ultimately seen as a victory. However, when the numbers come in, it turns out that all of the incentives provided, to attract the new firm, were not any better for the local economy so far as realizing substantial economic growth. And in the end, when corporations pay less, somebody else pays more — the members of the community. Or, those taxes are never collected, reducing services, reducing education funding, and reducing the ability to invest in new infrastructure that will attract other businesses and people. The most important piece of a successful business, in modern times, is having an educated workforce that understands how to problem solve. Therefore, collecting the taxes that fund local educational endeavors, is critical.

Creativity, in all manner of work, is central to success. Whether we’re looking at manufacturing, agriculture, hi-tech, service industry, sales, healthcare, education, or anything else, a workforce that can help streamline systems and integrate new technologies is key to keeping local, regional, and national economies growing. Whereas R&D was once tasked with innovation and finding more efficient ways to increase productivity, all employees are now asked to provide their input. This is to say, those places that invest the most in education will likely be the same sites that will experience the most growth.

In the midst of planning and designing, and building, politics will inevitably become an issue. Localities should push for more control over allocation of funds. States, and the Federal Government, should work with local officials to allow for this to happen with a degree of oversight to ensure Civil Rights laws are not being impinged and to make certain that protected classes are not being left out of the distribution. If the community has a bigger say in how and where tax dollars are spent, their buy-in, into the big plan, is strengthened and their engagement in and support of the big picture can work to bring in others. It is a model that requires inclusiveness and a “we are” attitude to enlist those who are unsure of the “progressive” agenda that has been undertaken.

When we think about those who are on financially shaky ground (to include all the “middle class” folks who are living paycheck to paycheck), we have to remember that: financial hardship and/or poverty is not a state of mind; poverty is not caused by laziness or a lack of morals; it is not a “culture”, as some would have us believe. Poverty, and therefore the decline of a place, has everything to do with policy and practice. Which policies have been implemented that have advantaged some and disadvantaged others and which policies have not been implemented because they are cost prohibitive and targeting the “takers” of society. What impacts have these policy decisions had on any individual’s ability to grow up in a stable neighborhood and attend public schools that are well funded? Which policies have been made law only to see state and local governments find loopholes and not allow the law to be practiced as intended? How do we place blame on the person who has had far fewer opportunities to excel and succeed and far more impediments placed in their path? These are the realities we must consider when thinking about how we’ve come to this point, socially and economically, in a nation such as ours. In his most recent book, Florida states, “Poverty occurs in the absence of institutions that unleash the creative energy of people and neighborhoods, or, even more so, when there are dysfunctional structures that harness and leverage these clusters of human creative energy.” If we provide the spaces for people to learn and to grow and to fail, without fear of that failure being an end, rather than a learning opportunity, we can build a web of interconnected regions that will carry us into the next century and beyond.

The work of building a new and better kind of society is not only needed here, but also in many countries around the world. This too was an area that Florida spent time discussing and the similarities that are found between the various locations is telling. He states:

“Lacking the kinds of basic infrastructure and division of labor we take for granted in the advanced world, they were forced to spend the majority of their time taking care of life’s immediate necessities: fetching their own water, bartering for and preparing food, and traveling long distances by foot or rudimentary forms of transportation. This left them scant time to devote to things that bring greater development—the further enhancement of their own skills and the broader development of their communities.”

This idea of time commitment dedicated to the preservation of life is not entirely different from what we see in our own communities, where higher levels of poverty have taken hold. People are spending greater amounts of time surviving which leaves less time (energy, money, etc) to focus on personal growth or developing ideas that could become money-making ventures, i.e. businesses. We don’t have to sit back and watch America deteriorate, we have the people power, the funds, and the work-ethic to make this country work to everyone’s advantage, we only need the will to make it happen.

 

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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