25 November 2014
By Nekima Levy-Pounds
“They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.” -Jeremiah 6:14 (NIV)
After learning that the Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed teen Mike Brown, I felt like running in the streets and screaming at the top of my lungs. I was not surprised by the decision, and yet I longed for an outlet to demonstrate the rage that I felt in that moment, knowing that no black mother’s son is safe from a similar fate in America. The problem is deep and it is systemic.
Irrational fear of black men
Our sons are perpetually typecast into a role that they unwittingly inherited as being evil, scary, large, dangerous, menacing, and “up to no good.” This narrative has been used for centuries to justify slavery, untold violence, brutality, castrations, lynchings, beatings, and even death at the hands of those who exercise authority over the lives and livelihoods of African American men. The stereotyping and racial profiling that undergird this diabolical narrative are also used to justify the disproportionate rate of police contacts and incarceration that African American men experience. Indeed, statistics show that upwards of 40 percent of the more than 2.3 million people who are incarcerated are African American men, the majority of whom are poor.
Mass incarceration as a bi-product of injustice
Many of these men are incarcerated for lengthy periods of time for nonviolent drug offenses as a result of the War on Drugs that began in the mid-1980s. The War on Drugs was the precursor to the militarization of our police forces (as we have seen in Ferguson), increased spending on the criminal justice system, and an over-representation of law enforcement in our poorest communities across the country. It has also led to a ballooning of our criminal justice system, with an unprecedented number of men, women, and children experiencing incarceration. Sadly, the damage does not end there, as according to the Children’s Defense Fund, an estimated 1 in 3 black boys born in 2001 are at risk of spending some portion of their lives behind bars.
Poor African Americans suffer daily indignities
The only way in which we can reasonably tolerate such injustices is because we have been conditioned to see black men as less than human, just as society did during the cruelness of slavery and the Jim Crow era, and to look the other way in the face of their suffering and oppression. The daily indignities experienced by black men, women, and children are made manifest in areas such as a lack of economic opportunity, high unemployment rates, inadequate access to education, criminalization of black children in the public school system, marginalization of poor blacks into ghettos, disparate health impacts, discrimination through financial systems and lending practices which help to maintain racial segregation, high incarceration rates, and negative media representations of African Americans.
The suffering that ensues from the denial of our basic human rights occurs under the noses of the average American citizen on a regular basis, and yet those concerns are not brought to the surface until a major incident happens, like the one in Ferguson, which exposes America’s racial fault lines. These racial fault lines are like ghosts from the past; always present, always haunting, always reminding us that they exist to wreak havoc on the progress we think we are making. As is our custom, we have learned to bury these racial fault lines as soon as they surface, in the hopes that if we ignore them long enough, they will go away so that we may get back to ‘business as usual.’ This is folly. Where matters of justice are concerned, there is no place for ‘business as usual.’
We’re told ‘peace’, when there is no peace
In the midst of the daily harms and degradations African Americans face, we are told to remain peaceful and tolerant. This is a false sense of peace, used to comfort those who are comfortable. However, we face the fear that at any moment our children could be treated in a manner similar to Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Vonderrit Myers, Eric Garner, (the list goes on and on) and we know that the law may not protect them or hold their killers accountable. It is in this realization that many have taken to the streets in Ferguson to peacefully protest unjust laws and policies, while some have resorted to rioting (arguably exacerbated by the prosecutor’s choice to announce the grand jury’s decision late at night). As Dr. King once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
We must root out racism
There is no escaping the fact that the majority of our systems and institutions throughout this country, including many of our churches, are built on a foundation of racial inequality and white superiority. Although we were not responsible for creating these systems, we do bear the responsibility for rooting out the racism that is embedded within them, and reconciling ourselves to the truth. Until we are able to engage deeply, painfully, and honestly about the roots of evil and hatred that permeate our institutions, systems, and in many cases our hearts, things will not change; they will only grow worse. Too many of us remain silent because we benefit from the way that things are structured, even though the foundation is like sinking sand.
This begs the question: How many more innocent lives must be sacrificed before we are willing to open our eyes to the truth and make the necessary changes?
Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School and the founding director of the Community Justice Project, a civil rights legal clinic. She is an expert on issues at the intersection of race, law, criminal justice, public education and public policy. Follow her on Twitter at @nvlevy.