Monday, October 10, 2016
The Legacy of Slavery, Jim Crow and Racism
Why is there so little support for “making America great again” in the black community? As former President Bill Clinton noted: “I’m actually old enough to remember the good old days, and they weren’t all that good in many ways,” Clinton said at a rally in Orlando on September 7th. “That message where ‘I’ll give you America great again’ is if you’re a white Southerner, you know exactly what it means, don’t you?” A racist dog whistle, as it is called? There are people who really want to go back to the era of Jim Crow laws, when black people “knew their place”?
Smart phones, body cams and clear open debate are changing the landscape in the never-ending quest to reform our criminal justice system and its rather blemished record with impaired neighborhoods with people of color. The fact that we are talking about it, that there are more big-city police chiefs of African descent and that enough of us care is a great sign. That the “Black Lives Matter” movement is excoriated by too many or that questioning police actions is deemed a slam to “law and order” is deeply troubling.
True, slavery has been abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to our constitution. The Supreme Court (Brown vs Board of Education) desegregated our schools in 1954 and found bans on interracial marriage (Loving vs Virginia) unconstitutional in 1967. Courts and federal policies have repeatedly turned back racial restrictions over the years. It’s been a long time since the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, a prelude to the passage of the federal voting and civil rights legislation that followed… including any number of treaties we have ratified since that protect minorities against abuses and discrimination. But even having a president with African ancestry clearly wasn’t enough.
The United States is constantly challenging other countries on their human rights policies and practices. Cuba. Russia. China. But many nations look at us as human rights violators as well. The thirty-third session of the United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council put together a panel of specialists to examine America’s track record with African Americans. The resulting report, Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its Mission to the United States of America (August 18th), is exceptionally harsh with recommendations that are unlikely to be implemented. The report provides a full narrative of American racial issues, beginning with slavery and moving in full detail into the present day.
For the most part, state and federal agencies cooperated with the investigators. There were exceptions. Mississippi, for example, refused to grant the UN panel access to requested prison facilities. But the conclusions of that report, sure to be cited by those against whom we make claims of human rights violations, are pretty nasty, even when their focus was on current-day issues. Here are some of that report’s observations:
The Working Group is deeply concerned at the alarming levels of police brutality and excessive use of lethal force by law enforcement officials, committed with impunity against people of Africandescent in the United States. In addition to the most recent and well-known cases of killings of unarmed African Americans — such as the cases of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Laquan McDonald — the Working Group received information about many other similar cases. The Working Group met with a considerable number of relatives of African Americansallegedly killed by police officers that are still seeking justice for their loved ones, including Tyrone West, Tyron Lewis, Jonathan Sanders, Oscar Grant, Tony Robinson, Marlon Brown, India Kager, RonaldJohnson, Mohamed Bah, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland and Alonso Smith…
Despite efforts made by the Department of Justice, there is still a lack of an official national system to track killings committed by law enforcement officials. Federal authorities commented that themain reason for this problem is that the 18,000 police departments and law enforcement agencies in the United States are not obliged to report these types of incidents. The Department of Justicewas aware of this information gap and informed the Working Group that, notwithstanding the need for legislation, it was also building a system to track information nationwide. To date, thesystem had not been launched…
In the absence of a public national system to track cases of killings by police officers, the [U.K.] Guardian newspaper’s “The Counted” database identified a total of 1,136 people killed by thepolice in 2015, of whom 302 were African Americans. African Americans were killed at twice the rate of white, Hispanic and Native Americans. In addition, about 25 per cent of the AfricanAmericans killed were unarmed, compared to 17 per cent of the white people. The Washington Post database of police shootings registered 990 people shot dead in 2015, of whom 38 were unarmedAfrican Americans. Excessive and disproportionate use of force against African Americans also includes the use of tasers and heavy-handed assaults by law enforcement officers, which also havedebilitating consequences for victims; there is no national system to track such incidents, either.
The Working Group is deeply concerned about the low number of cases where police officers have been held accountable for these crimes, despite the evidence. The Guardian reported that only18 law enforcement officers were charged with crimes in relation to the 1,136 killings registered in 2015. One in every four killings by police officers that occurred in the first quarter of 2015remain unresolved more than a year later, and 69 per cent of the 289 cases of killings by the police in the first three months of 2015 have now been ruled justified or accidental. The final report of thePresident’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing acknowledged some of the obstacles in tackling impunity related to killings by police officers and recommended mandatory external and independentcriminal investigations and the use of external and independent prosecutors in cases of police use of force resulting in injury or death… Killings of unarmed African Americans by the police is only the tipof the iceberg in pervasive racial bias in the justice system…
In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent… Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching.
“Citing the past year's spate of police officers killing unarmed African American men, the panel warned against ‘impunity for state violence,’ which has created, in its words, a ‘human rights crisis’ that ‘must be addressed as a matter of urgency.’” Washington Post, September 27th. The panel called for the United States to make “reparations” to this minority racial segment of America: “The reparations could come in a variety of forms, according to the panel, including ‘a formal apology, health initiatives, educational opportunities ... psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and financial support, and debt cancellation.’” The Post. We know this ain’t gonna happen, but we need to understand who we say we are… versus who we really are.
There is a new movement, properly alarmed at our military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, pulling the American focus back onto domestic issues and dealing overseas only to the extent of truly important allies and our national security. Ever since the Soviet era ended in 1991, the world has increasingly splintered away from needing the American nuclear umbrella. China’s economy has soared and accelerated well beyond our own growth rates. The American love affair with guns, the endless litany of racial disharmony and the rise of demagoguery have startled the international community… forcing them to look at the world’s greatest democracy… where democracy and equal protection under the law seem to be failing. Do we care? Should we?
I’m Peter Dekom, and each and every American needs to ask him or herself if they still believe in our constitution, equal protection of the law, and if they do, how far are they willing to go to reinforce those principles.