“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.” -The Declaration of Independence
Acknowledging that the “American dream” is a profoundly distorted myth is a harsh reality to contemplate. The fundamental ideals that have characterized the United States since its inception are steeped in hypocrisy and deceit. Liberty, justice, and equality may be the conventionally heralded foundations of American democracy, but history, along with persistently visible demographic trends, illustrate that this perceived “dream” has remained exactly that for most people of color. The eradication of legal barriers of discrimination against African-Americans, in the wake of the visionary witness and dynamic leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, has lead to a prevailing assumption that obstacles and injustices against people of color have largely vanished. This narrative is passively accepted and taught throughout most schools in the nation: the Civil War was fought and slavery was ended through the valiant efforts of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionists, a century later Martin Luther King Jr. initiated the Civil Rights Movement to advocate for further civic, economic and social equality for peoples of color, numerous persons gave their lives for the cause through boycotts, sit-ins, marches and a wide variety of other manifestations of civil disobedience, Dr. King was tragically assassinated as a result of the bold evolution of consciousness he proclaimed for the whole United States; subsequently, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were codified into law – outlawing all forms of segregation and racial discrimination. Currently, American society has progressed to a point of profound social equanimity and opportunity for peoples of color. Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, Loretta Lynch, Beyoncé, Condoleezza Rice, and President Barack Obama are all shining, contemporary examples of how the obstructions and barriers posed by the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow segregation are null and void – no longer hindering African-Americans from pursuing the fullest extents of their potential as citizens.
This feel-good parable characterizes the perception many Americans hold in terms of how far the country has progressed on the issue of racial justice. In order to comprehend and accept another, dismal, and dramatically less-encouraging view of reality, a comprehensive analysis of history, politics, and sociology must be embraced. Such a paradigm acknowledges that in the United States, racism is not merely a contemptuous attitude that has given rise to horrific violations of human dignity throughout its history, but is also a powerful, pervasive, system – a corrosive institution that has influenced the development of all facets of American life; down to the present day.
The insidious cycle began with the advent of the African slave trade in the early sixteenth century. European nations such as Britain, Portugal, Spain, France, and the Netherlands increasingly relied on the labor and volume of enslaved Africans to construct and maintain the infrastructures of their various colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean. In 1619, a Dutch ship brought twenty African individuals to the British colony of Virginia. A noteworthy aspect of this first recorded reference to persons of African descent being present in the thirteen colonies is that none of the passengers of the ship were considered slaves. They were indentured servants who ultimately would be guaranteed freedom under the law. However, as plantation farming became the economic norm in the South, the demand for labor and land escalated. (The New Jim Crow, 23) The period of servitude for African indentured servants was gradually prolonged, and would develop into the horrific atrocity of slavery. The practice was legalized in Virginia in 1662 and would expand to all North American British colonies by 1700. Twelve, and a half million African souls would be shipped to the Americas. A little over ten-and-a-half million people garnered the resolve to survive the arduously inhumane voyage known as “the Middle Passage” across the Atlantic Ocean, where captured individuals were forcibly chained in obscenely cramped, narrow, quarters within the hull of a ship during the duration of the journey. It was a miraculous feat to emerge alive at the end of this hellish passage of woe and despair; where little to no food was offered to African captives, and, all aboard were resigned to carry out their bodily functions exactly where they found themselves shackled.
As the institution of slavery morphed into a firmly established facet of life in the British colonies, the sociological and psychological lenses adopted for perceiving human beings of color grew starker, and more viscous. Native Americans had already been derided as “savages” when explorers first ventured into the North American continent in the late fifteenth century. Racial attitudes of superiority justified the systematic genocide of the original inhabitants of the Americas at the whims of barbaric invaders. A host of dignified, brilliantly intelligent, spiritually-conscious nations; possessing a rich, vibrant history, who cherished North and South America as their temporal sanctuary and home for a millennia were merely wiped out, for the sake of extending imperial boundaries and exerting institutionalized oppression in the “New World”. More than nine-million Native Americans would perish as a result of rampant violence and disease wrought by the cataclysmic wave of European colonization over the course of five centuries.
The sinister notion that human beings of a darker epidermic pigment are inferior to those of lighter complexions has deplorably misguided biblical origins. In a Genesis narrative, the heroic figure Noah is portrayed in an embarrassing light. Following the conclusion of the great flood, the patriarch is viewed reclining naked, in a drunken stupor by one of his sons, Ham. Noah curses Ham, but in a bizarrely indirect fashion – he directs the curse toward his grandson, Canaan.
‘Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’ He also said, ‘Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tends of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.’ -Genesis 9:25-27 (NRSV-CE)
It was a traditional belief of medieval Christianity that Noah’s grandson Canaan settled in Africa. Thus, the darker hue of Africans’ skin was deemed a visible manifestation of the “curse of Ham” issued by Noah. Canaan’s descendants were therefore destined to the fate of slavery, and eternally consigned to a subservient position in the human paradigm. This Euro-centric distortion of the Genesis passage is vastly ignorant of biblical history, geography, as well as the demographic composition of the region described. The historical Canaan, was the location that the ancient Hebrews eventually identified as the “promised” land divinely bestowed to them through providential favor. It is now considered to encompass the boundaries of the modern-day states of Israel, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Lebanon. (Canaanites, 13) The inhabitants of Canaan clearly resided in the Middle East, where the appearance of the general population is often characterized by thick, curly hair, and a spectrum of swarthy skin-tones. The spiritual experiences, yearnings, and aspirations of Middle Eastern women and men shaped the collective texts that are now revered the world over as the Bible – all medium to darkly complected peoples. The assertion that the external color of human beings residing in Africa was due to a primordial curse is monumentally disingenuous; particularly when none of the Bible’s authors or central figures was of European origin.
Despite the incoherence of this warped ideology, it served as the bedrock mentality that formed the prevailing social consciousness of the era. The humanity of peoples of color the world over, particularly those of African descent, was demonized and blatantly obliterated. When an entire race of peoples is dehumanized, it becomes that much easier to view their collective dignity, joys, hopes, and equality as being of no account. Depicting African men and women as subhuman beasts of burden formed the political, religious, and economic status quo that condoned the grotesque institution of slavery. Christianity would reliably turn to scriptural foundations to morally justify the enslavement of African human beings. First-century New Testament references to slavery in the ancient world were invoked to divinely sanction the practice:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. -Ephesians 6:5-6 (NRSV-CE)
In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, cotton farming was introduced to the United States. During the late nineteenth century, Eli Whitney invented a machine that would forever transform the process of farming the crop – the cotton gin. This invention created an even greater demand for cotton, enabling it to be processed more efficiently and on a wider scale. Chattel slavery of African human beings was the vehicle utilized to meet the ever-increasing demand for the commodity. Slavery grew to be a steadfast nucleus of the Southern economy, simultaneously, developing into a quintessentially American cultural institution. (New Standard Encyclopedia: Volume B – “Black Americans”, 264)
From its conceptualization, the United States was founded as a state favoring white citizens of privilege; with the intent of preserving a racially delineated caste system – one for the slave, the other for free, white Americans. Many of the men America now reveres as Founding Fathers were themselves slave-owners. The first president, George Washington, along with other celebrated patriots such as Benjamin Franklin, Charles Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, and James Madison all held slaves at some point in their lives. In drafting the U.S. Constitution, Madison blatantly declared whose interests were intended to be favored. In his words, the nation’s seminal document was composed, “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” During the 1787 Constitutional Convention that crafted the parameters of America’s democracy, Southern colonies that held slaves only agreed to join the Union if the federal government agreed not to infringe upon their right to conduct slavery. (The New Jim Crow, 25) To acquiesce to the Southerners’ demands, a peculiar clause was added to the Constitution:
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. -Article I, § 2, Paragraph 3, U.S. Constitution (Repealed by adoption of Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 & Fourteenth Amendment in 1868)
This infamous concession would be consigned to posterity as the Three-Fifths Compromise. The clause obliquely cemented popular racist sentiments into the U.S. Constitution, without directly stating so. African peoples were considered by most Europeans as not being full human beings. This devious postulate maintained civic and domestic tranquility in the South, while shaping the scope of many of our nation’s core democratic instruments; including the electoral college determining the victor of presidential elections, as well as influencing the standards that would govern proportional representation for members of Congress (The New Jim Crow, 26). Therefore, Southern states became increasingly used to being taxed based not on their total populations, but rather, the counted populations of “full” citizens – white, male owners of property who exercised the right to vote. (New Standard Encyclopedia: Volume V – “Voting”, 149) Although a direct linear progression cannot be made, the concerns of many in the country today who vehemently defend “state’s rights” and low proportional systems of taxation may indirectly originate from prevailing social attitudes created by the long-term implications of the Three-Fifths Compromise.
Although the Three-Fifths Compromise, denying persons of African descent the full recognition of humanity, was inserted into the U.S. Constitution covertly, this prejudiced sentiment would become indelibly stamped upon the American legal system for generations; granting bigoted concepts of racial superiority the force of law. In 1856, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered one of its most infamously outrageous decisions. The case of Dred Scott v. Sandord, 60 U.S. 393 (1857) presents the account of Dred Scott, a former Missouri slave who then resided in the Wisconsin Territory where slavery had been outlawed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (New Standard Encyclopedia: Volume DE – “Dred Scott Decision”, 267b) Abolitionists convinced Scott to sue for his freedom on the grounds that he now dwelt in a free state and this reality would thereby guarantee his personal freedom. He did so, and his cause reached the nation’s highest court. However, the Court held that Scott was still considered a slave under Missouri law despite the fact that he had migrated to residence where slavery was prohibited. Moreover, the Court held that Dred Scott could not be considered a citizen and therefore had no substantiation to initiate a suit in federal court. The obscene language of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s opinion, dripping with obstinate indifference, would subsequently assume legal precedence:
Can a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves become a members of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States and as such become entitled to all the rings, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen, one of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution? Id. at 403
We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the words ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might chose to grant them. Id. at 404 – 405
Chief Justice Taney would go on to describe persons of African as belonging to an, “unfortunate race,” declaring:
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. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. Id. at 407
When referring to the Declaration of Independence’s famous proclamation, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: 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 Chief Justice opines:
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. Id. at 410
Even as Chief Justice Taney acknowledges the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers clinging to the ideals of freedom and liberty while blatantly owning slaves, he does not denounce or note this contradiction – rather, he excuses it, and explains away America’s fundamental indiscretion by claiming that Africans never possessed the right to be designated as human beings, stating:
The unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property, and when the claims of the owner or the profit of the trader were supposed to need protection. Id.
Concerning slavery, Chief Justice Taney states:
…the status of slavery embraces every condition, from that in which the slave is known to the law simply as a chattel, with no civil rights, to that in which he is recognized as a person for all purposes, save the compulsory power of directing and receiving the fruits of his labor. Which of these conditions shall attend the status of slavery, must depend on the municipal law which creates and upholds it. Id. at 624-625
Throughout his opinion, the Chief Justice cites a derisive litany of colonial and state statutes repudiating and condemning equal treatment of persons of African descent, pontificating:
The legislation of the States therefore shows, in a manner not to be mistaken, the inferior and subject condition of that race at the time the Constitution was adopted, and long afterwards, throughout the thirteen States by which that instrument was framed; and it is hardly consistent with the respect due to these States, to suppose that they regarded at that time, as fellow-citizens and members of the sovereignty, a class of beings whom they had thus stigmatized; whom, as we are bound, out of respect to the State sovereignties, to assume they had deemed it just and necessary thus to stigmatize, and upon whom they had impressed such deep and enduring marks of inferiority and degradation; or, that when they met in convention to form the Constitution, they looked upon them as a portion of their constituents, or designed to include them in the provisions so carefully inserted for the security and protection of the liberties and rights of their citizens. It cannot be supposed that they intended to secure to them rights, and privileges, and rank, in the new political body throughout the Union, which every one of them denied within the limits of its own dominion. Id. at 416
He finds even the proposition of people of color perceived as being citizens under the law absurd:
...it cannot be believed that the large slaveholding States regarded them as included in the word citizens, or would have consented to a Constitution which might compel them to receive them in that character from another State. For if they were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police regulations which they considered to be necessary for their own safety. It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognized as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a white man would be punished; and it would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went. And all of this would be done in the face of the subject race of the same color, both free and slaves, and inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the State. Id. at 416 – 417
The Chief Justice concludes:
Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and not entitled as such to sue in its courts; and, consequently, that the Circuit Court had no jurisdiction of the case, and that the judgment on the plea in abatement is erroneous. Id. at 427
With the stroke of a pen, Dred Scott, and all persons of African descent in the nation, free or enslaved, were categorically excluded from the scope of citizenship defined by the Founding Fathers. The outcome of this case vividly painted the archetype of white privilege upon America’s legal, social, and economic landscape. In its wake, the systematic degradation of peoples of color became firmly institutionalized; thereby justified as the sociological calling card of the United States.
The egregious Dred Scott decision was one of the pivotal catalysts leading to the Civil War of 1861-1865, which attempted to rectify the blot of slavery on America’s warped conscience. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, declaring all enslaved persons, “thenceforward, and forever free,” promising that the federal government of the United States would, “recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons,” and, “do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” This joyous proclamation ignited an unprecedented accession of African-American representatives being elected to Congress, men and women of color owning and creating thriving businesses, and a general sense of acclamation to a society which had ignored and vilified their existence for two-hundred years. On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing slavery, was ratified; henceforth, designating slavery an illegal practice to be prohibited throughout the nation.
However, this brief period of comprehensive emancipation would not last. Members of the white elite, who had previously relied on slavery as their source of both labor and livelihood, contrived new techniques of maintaining a racially based caste society. Many feared reprisal for the decades of subjugation and misery endured by formerly enslaved persons. As a result, “black codes” were devised in Southern states; laws that, essentially, preserved the inferior status of black men and women that was structurally embedded within America’s social landscape through the phenomenon of slavery. These statutes strategically ensured free African-Americans remained on the margins of economic prosperity and meaningful social liberation – cloaked in opaque semantics, devoid of any reference to “slavery,” or “bondage.” Vagrancy laws were enacted throughout the South which codified unemployment as a criminal offense for ex-slaves. A person guilty of such an offense could be arrested, fined, and consigned to an indefinite period of labor if the fine was unable to be satisfied immediately. Other laws were created banning interracial marriage, denying African-Americans the right to own certain types of property, the privilege of testifying in a court of law (except in cases involving persons of color), or the ability to bear firearms.
Financially meager white and free African-Americans began to cooperate in the late nineteenth century, viewing their economic prospects and aspirations as being mutually shared. They gained significant political power, threatening to undermine the sway that privileged, white, elite powers held in Southern society, along with the region’s ancient racial boundaries. Laws were introduced into legislatures, by conservative politicians, that would formally codify the institutionalized separation of the black and white races. Throughout the South, statutes were enacted that created racially designated hospitals, schools, water fountains, churches, restaurants, jobs, restrooms, hotels, funeral homes, prisons, and even cemeteries. These legal precepts came to be known as “Jim Crow” – originating from the name of a minstrel character. (The New Jim Crow, 33-35)
True to form, the U.S. Supreme Court would bestow its legal imprimatur to American apartheid. In Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537,163 U.S. 53 (1896), ruling in the case of a Louisiana man, Homer Plessy, of Creole descent (so fair-complected that “the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him”), who consciously decided to sit in a section of a rail car reserved for only white patrons, the Court held:
A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races-a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color-has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or re-establish a state of involuntary servitude. Id at 536.
The object of the amendment [The Fourteenth Amendment] was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation, in places where they are liable to be brought into contact, do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. Id at 537.
Thus, the premise of “separate but equal” was endorsed as constitutional, and would characterize American life until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. As gratifying as the landmark legal reforms of the Civil Rights Movement were (extending the right to vote and prohibiting segregation against African-Americans), they did not comprehensively rectify the centuries of economic, psychological, and social devastation which had been perpetrated against persons of color.
Civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander, author of the highly acclaimed The New Jim Crow, writes in the beginning of her sociological exposition:
Since the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time…Following the collapse of each system of control, there has been a period of confusion – transition – in which those who are most committed to racial hierarchy search for new means to achieve their goals within the rules of the game as currently defined. It is during this period of uncertainty that the backlash intensifies and a new form of racialized social control begins to take hold. The adoption of the new system of control is never inevitable, but to date it has never been avoided. (The New Jim Crow, 21-22)
The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution contains a curiously overlooked clause as it seems to swiftly prohibit the conduction of involuntary servitude for all American citizens:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.U.S. Const. amend. XIII, § 1.
This constitutional provision, while outlawing slavery, enabled the rise of the most unprecedentedly sinister, yet subtlety noted, human rights crisis in American history; wreaking inordinate havoc upon millions of lives throughout the nation: the systematic control, degradation, social marginalization and civic disenfranchisement of men and woman of color under the auspices of the criminal justice system. The New Jim Crow of the twenty-first century.
There are currently more incarcerated African-American men in the United States than there were confined by the shackles of slavery in 1850. Census records document 872,924 male slaves of African descent over the age of 15 dwelling in the nation at the time. The U.S Bureau of Criminal Statistics reveals 1.68 million African-American males are now under state and federal criminal justice supervision. This figure exceeds the 1850 Census calculation of enslaved men by 807,076. Even though the United States of America comprises only 5% of the world’s population, it incarcerates 25% of the globe’s prisoners. The state of Maryland’s incarceration rate (621 of every 100,000 people) dwarfs that of the People’s Republic of China (121 of every 100,000 people) – the world’s most populous nation of 1,369,920,000. Over 60% of current inmates are black or brown people.
How did the United States arrive at such a troubling and unconscionable precipice?
President Richard Nixon defined illegal drug use as “public enemy number one” to the American public in 1971. Following this announcement, federal and state law enforcement priorities were shifted by enacting harsh mandatory and minimum sentencing laws regarding the use and sale of drugs (Born Suspect: Stop-and-Frisk Abuses & the Continued Fight to End Racial Profiling in America, 6). However, for decades, statistics showed that there was no epidemic of drug use, at least not among people of color – to whom drug enforcement policies would be consistently applied. The level of illicit drug utilization by African-Americans (42.9%) is essentially on par with that of illegal drug use among white Americans (49%) – ironically, it is somewhat lower than that of the general population.
President Ronald Reagan officially declared the “War on Drugs” in October of 1982 (The New Jim Crow, 49). In the thirty-years since its inception, the failed war has done nothing to reduce the rates of illegal drug use among Americans. Instead, the War on Drugs has decimated entire communities; erecting trajectories of despair and ruin for untold residents of inner-city neighborhoods. Since, 1980, the rate of persons incarcerated for drug has skyrocketed from 41,000 to 500,000 today – an escalation of 1,100%. Most of these convictions are not due to serious drugs, such as cocaine or heroine, but rather for the possession of marijuana – accounting for 80% of drug arrests in the 1990s (The New Jim Crow, 60).
The criminal justice system is the largest mechanism by which the concerted marginalization, and economic oppression of non-white citizens is conducted today. For scores of former inmates, it is still the arbiter of a very real manifestation of sociological bondage. Upon returning to wider society, newly-released prisoners are faced with tremendous obstacles in the search for adequate housing, food, and employment, as a consequence of the permanent stamp of a felony conviction. The most sacrosanct privilege of a democracy, the right to vote, is denied to ex-felons. A staggering 2.6 million individuals, who have completed their prison sentences, are denied the right to vote throughout the United States. A citizen deprived of a vote in the democratic process is effectively stripped of his, or, her voice – rendered mute to the existential forces that construe one’s reality.
Law enforcement tactics composed for targeting alleged criminal suspects are disproportionately constructed to impact people of color. While the objective basis for such policies may be to stem the rise of crime, black and brown persons usually end up as the objects of this heightened scrutiny. Take for example the fact that African-American juveniles form 16% of the American juvenile population but collectively accrue: 28% of juvenile arrests, 30% of referrals to juvenile court, 37% of the incarcerated population, and 30% of adjudicated youth.
Cognitive perception plays a key role in the implementation of these institutional norms. Predictably, the U.S. Supreme Court has provided legal cover for law enforcement practices infected with racial bias. In Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000) the Court held that the act of a suspect fleeing a police officer, in a “high-crime area,” gives the officer reasonable suspicion to believe that the suspect is somehow involved in criminal activity.
Freddie Gray, 25, of Baltimore, Maryland, was the latest fatality in an increasingly visible trend of police brutality, conducted against people of color throughout the nation, with impunity. In the early morning of April 12, 2015, Gray was spotted on the street by three bike-patrol law enforcement officers in the West Baltimore City neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. Gray reportedly made eye-contact with the officers, and subsequently fled the scene. Police then pursued Gray through a maze of streets and housing complexes, before apprehending him. What followed has prompted national outrage. A cell phone video, filmed by a local eyewitness, captures the officers apprehending Gray, taking him into police custody. Gray’s physical condition in the clip has justifiably alarmed and outraged many. Police can be observed haphazardly dragging Gray into the police van as he screams in pain. His right leg dangles limply from his body. Several gathered horrified onlookers noted that Gray’s leg appeared conspicuously broken. Despite Freddie Gray’s cries of agony, officers handcuffed his hands and feet, and he was hoisted head-first, with haste, into the back of a waiting police van. He was not placed in a seat-belt within the van (violating Baltimore Police Department policy) and requested an inhaler (Gray suffered from asthma), along with immediate medical attention, on at least five occasions en route to the Western District police station. Gray’s pleas went unheeded. Over the course of the 45 minute trip, the van made four stops, during which another suspect was separately apprehended; and joined Gray inside. Upon arrival at the police station, Gray was removed from the van, and found to be unresponsive. He was then reported to be in “serious medical distress” and taken to the hospital. Freddie Gray entered into a coma and never recovered from his injuries. He died the following week. Following his death, it was revealed Gray’s spine had been fractured in three places; in addition to his voice box being crushed.
Freddie Gray did possess a prior arrest and criminal record, composed of mostly drug charges – spending two years in prison for the most severe convictions. However, on the day he was arrested, he was not a suspect in an ongoing investigation. An attorney, speaking on behalf of the Baltimore Police Union, alleged that Gray’s presence in a “high-crime” neighborhood, coupled with his initial flight from law enforcement officers, justified the assertion that police had reasonable suspicion to surmise he was involved in illegal enterprises; creating probable cause for arrest. The lawyer alluded to the ruling in Illinois v. Wardlow, where a community’s crime rate is utilized as legal cause to subjectively profile all of its residents. “Billy” Murphy Jr., representing the Gray family, responded by starkly stating the only crime Freddie Gray had committed was, “running while black.”
Objectively, the Supreme Court’s reasoning seems logical. If a suspect in an area, with a documented history of violence and prolific crime, flees the police, is it not rational to conclude they are somehow involved in legally prohibited activities? While common sense would affirmatively agree with this opinion, the underlying reality is much more complex. Communities of color have a notoriously dismal relationship with the police. This could largely be due to the racially tinged origins of law enforcement agencies in the United States. Colonial “slave patrols,” intended to keep slaves in order and compliance, would gradually develop into modern-day police departments. Although slavery has been illegal for more than a century, the driving, racially-biased, intent utilized in formulating law-enforcement policies has remained consistent; albeit hidden. The stereotypical imagery of fearful mystique employed in targeting slaves; perceiving black men uniformly as aggressive and prone to violence, continues to subconsciously mold numerous law enforcement procedures – most notably “stop-and-frisk.” Today, any African-American man clad in a sweatshirt, with hood-donned, and baggy pants is automatically registered as public enemy number one.
Moreover, the fates of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Rodney King, Oscar Grant, Miriarm Carey, Tamir Rice, Yvette Smith, Shantel Davis, and Walter Scott, and scores of other known and unknown casualties present a disturbing trajectory. All of these men and women, who have now been consigned to posterity as unarmed, slain victims of brutality, do not reside in a third-world dictatorship, but were citizens of the United States of America – purportedly the “Land of the Free” and “Home of the Brave.” Yet, when regularly encountered by law enforcement, the lives of black and brown women and men are deemed expendable. For many Americans, the external threat of terrorism is immaterial when a nation regards its own citizens as enemy combatants. Excessive uses of deadly force by law enforcement officers against people of color must be acknowledged for what they are: the lynchings of the twenty-first century. These atrocities are perpetuated with daily frequency, nonchalantly forgotten, and resigned as merely being unfortunate consequences of a modern-day existence.
If these distressing statistics are not extraordinary, but, tragically, constitute an ordinary way of life for minorities in the United States, is it any wonder that individuals flee if they are approached by the police? From this perspective, law enforcement officers are not esteemed as valiant heroes, who protect and serve their communities, but, rather, as agents of unmitigated hostility, torture, and death. For many African-American, Hispanic, or even Middle-Eastern persons, the imminent fear of murder trumps engaging officers; never discerning the opportunity to inquire about what their interpretation of probable cause might be.
Last week, the United Nations felt compelled to address the gravity of this phenomenon in light of recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. In a session of the global body’s Human Rights Council, during a periodic review that is conducted for all respective member-states, the United States of America was sternly rebuked for its human rights record regarding the abysmal treatment of citizens of color by delegates from 117 countries. Various states, through an extensive litany of recommendations, urged the United States, to:
Strengthen human rights education programs and training for all civil servants, particularly for law enforcement and immigration officers, and combat impunity concerning abuses against defenceless persons. (Costa Rica)
Adopt a national action plan to address structural racial discrimination. (Chile)
Undertake measures to combat racial discrimination, including adoption of a National Action Plan to Combat Racial Discrimination as recommended by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. (South Africa)
Adopt and implement a national plan…for the benefit especially of disadvantaged
minorities, which are Afro-Americans and indigenous peoples. (Cape Verde)
Invest further efforts in addressing the root causes of recent racial
incidents and expand its capacity in reducing poverty in neighbourhoods
experiencing sub/par public services, including access to adequate housing and
public safety. (Serbia)
Collaborate closely with marginalized communities to fix the
problems in the justice system that continues to discriminate against them
despite recent waves of protest over racial profiling and police killings of
unarmed black men. (Namibia)
Ensure a sustained human rights training for law enforcement
officers in order to curb killings, brutality and the excessive use of force
targeting racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African-Americans. (Democratic Republic of the Congo)
Punish perpetrators of abuse and police brutality, which are increasingly alarming and constitute irrefutable acts of increasing racism and
racial discrimination, particularly against African-Americans, Latinos and women. (Cuba)
Respect indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities’ rights and
interests; fully consult with them on their land, autonomy, environment,
language and other issues; correct the historical injustice and offer
As devastating as it is to mentally process the disgraceful truth that, even in 2015, black and brown people are treated as second-class citizens, this should not be received as a complete surprise. From its colonial genesis as a British province, to its political birth as a subversion of imperial hubris; the United States of America was crafted as a binary society. One paradigm of prosperity was intended for the privileged, exalted, white, elite; another for persons of color, destined for lives of servitude and impoverished anonymity. Even as slavery was abolished, and eventual legal equanimity was realized for citizens of all colors, the psychological rules of bigotry were preserved. By and large, the humanity of African-Americans, Latinos, Native-Americans, Asian-Americans continues to be disregarded in the United States.
Malcolm X, one of America’s most radical, and historically ignored, human rights activists, expressed a difference between the realms of civil and human rights. According to El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz
, “…Our problem is one not one of civil rights but a violation of human rights. Not only are we denied the right to be a citizen in the United States, we are denied the right to be a human being.”
Malcolm X’s point is essentially this: The victories of gaining the right to vote and eliminating legal segregation for African-Americans have not entirely eliminated the social and economic barriers that drastically prevent black and brown people from exercising their fundamental rights as treasured human
citizens of our planet. Civil rights, as paramount as they are to a genuinely democratic society, form a single strand in the universal tapestry of justice. Ensuring peace, joy, security, and prosperity are options, not privileges, for all sentient beings is the daunting work of human rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, provides a comprehensive framework to guide countries in the obligation of safeguarding the naturally endowed rights of all their respective citizens. The beginning Articles of the Declaration offer the United States a prudent mirror by which to examine itself; and its resolve to defend the innate rights of all Americans – regardless of color, race, or ethnicity.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 1
Although the themes of freedom and liberty are contained within the U.S. Constitution, its soaring implications have yet to be realized by many black and brown Americans. The recognition of the equal dignity of all citizens in the United States of American remains and unrealized dream. Today, white privilege is not merely manifested in legal parameters. It is preserved through economic structures, and the prevailing facades of social norms.
When Senator Barack Obama of Illinois was elected the forty-forth president of the United States in 2008, an unparalleled level of contempt and disrespect was directed towards the nation’s first African-American Commander in Chief. Numerous politicians of the president’s opposing party vehemently refused to cooperate with President Obama on any policy initiatives he sought to pursue, including those legislators on the right side of the political spectrum had previously supported. The president was relentlessly maligned for his father’s Kenyan heritage during his first term in office – with hate-filled critics demanding he produce his “real” birth certificate; proving his American citizenship. After enduring a humiliating and venomous campaign, never before suffered by a previous occupant of the Oval Office, President Obama released the document for the entire American public to witness. Still, subjecting the President of the United States to the depths of political vulnerability was not enough to silence the most extreme voices of right-wing ignorance and bigotry. Many continued to deny the veracity of President Obama’s birth certificate; calling for him to be impeached with high treason in office, and “sent back to Kenya.” No American president has born the brunt of such ugly rhetorical attacks before. Can Barack Obama’s identity as a person of color ever be separated from the fact that, many Americans – no matter how charming, eloquent, intelligent, or captivating the president may be – will never sincerely respect, trust, or value his role as our nation’s head of state, simply because of the color of his skin?
Popular culture can also serve as a meaningful reference point for analyzing the racial disparities that prevail in the minds of numerous Americans.
Abercrombie & Fitch, a globally renowned American clothing retailer – known for its trendy, highly expensive merchandise – has long occupied a prestigious position for shoppers of the millennial generation. The standard of beauty embodied by the brand is widely recognized as the contemporary, American epitome of physical perfection. Abercrombie models that advertise the brand are known for their strikingly flawless features. One of the singular hallmarks of entering an Abercombie & Fitch store is being greeted by the handsome, muscular, often shirtless, chiseled male models. However, the color scheme of Abercrombie models is noticeably pale. Models, aside from the Caucasian variety, are few and far between. The celebrated Abercrombie ideal is a purely white, unrealistically athletic, version of glamor. A female, African-American employee of the store described the internal environment as, “toxic,” and, “superficial.” The employee recounted how on one occasion, most of the black models were told to leave early, before the expected visit of the company’s CEO. The CEO’s opinion of who was worthy enough to be adorned in Abercrombie’s attire was as follows:
“Good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people… a lot of people don’t belong (in our clothes), and they can’t belong.”
Apparently, African-Americans didn’t measure up to his attractiveness litmus test. Failing to measure up to America’s Anglicized barometer of beauty is nothing new. Consider for a moment, how many winners of the acclaimed romantic programs, The Bachelor and The Bachlorette, have been people of color? Not one. In the twenty-eight year history of the franchise, only once, has People magazine ever named an African-American as their annual, “Sexiest Man Alive.”
Denzel Washington was awarded the title in 1996, and over the years, the other twenty-seven winners have, exclusively, been white men.
Moreover, covertly bigoted outbursts, revealing the hidden sentiments of celebrities such as Paul Deen
, or the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, Donald Sterling
, underscores the reality that racism is alive and well in the United States. Although more extreme expressions of ethnic bias may be rarely observed, the cognitive attitudes and perceptions behind these beliefs shape the daily expressions and social interactions of those who hold them.
Sadly, black and brown citizens of the United States are very often not approached in, “a spirit of brotherhood,” or treated as if they are “endowed with reason.” African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern men and women are still, by and large, distrusted, reviled, and mocked, even if in a subliminal sense, as not being fully American.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 2
Even if the legal guarantees of civil rights have been enumerated for all citizens, regardless of color, in the United States of America, it remains a disturbing reality that one’s race and origin of birth profoundly define the trajectory and quality of their life’s duration.
In 2012, the tabulated rate
for white Americans living in poverty was 9.7%, representing about 62.8% of the nation’s total population, and 40.7% of total citizens living in poverty. The rate of African-Americans living in poverty was 27.2% (the highest of any ethnicity); representing 10.9 million people. The poverty rate for Hispanics was 25.6%, representing 13.6 million people. For Asian-Americans, the poverty rate was 11.7%, numbering 1.9 million people.
For most, living in these impoverished conditions is not at a conscious choice. Many Americans cling to the concept of “personal responsibility” when confronted with the question of: “Why is poverty so pervasive, especially among communities of color, in the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth?” Yet, it is severely insulting, and short-sighted, to assume that many honest, industrious citizens do not enjoy the luxuries of the wealthy and privileged, as a direct consequence of making unwise choices, or failing to work hard enough. Life is not that simple. Systemic issues, for people of color, have been at play for decades, if not centuries, in the United States.
In one of the first legal victories of the early Civil Rights Movement, the Supreme Court prohibited segregation in public schools throughout the nation in Brown v. Board of Education (1950)
. However, startling examples of persistent examples of segregation in public education are visible testaments to the reality that legal remedies, alone, cannot eradicate the root causes of historic social disparities.
According to a join report
by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, chronicling human rights violations in the United States, most African-American children remain in schools that are overwhelmingly segregated on a racial basis, and “decidedly unequal.” Two-thirds of all children of color are enrolled in schools that are predominantly minority. More than 17% of African-American children attend classes that are composed of 99% minority students. The twenty-five largest central city school districts in 1986 enrolled 27.5% of the nation’s African-American students, but only 3.3% of white students.
The report continues by adding:
The isolation of segregated school systems, which resists full integration and prevents adequate funding of all school districts, leads to many impoverished children of color to be deprived of training in basic areas.
Children attending school in racially-isolated poorer districts routinely endure classes that are badly overcrowded. In these classes, both student and teacher are forced into an environment where keeping order in the classroom takes precedence over interactive learning that takes place in wealthier school districts. Given such conditions, it is not surprising that minority children are twice as likely to drop out of school as white children. Moreover, disproportionate numbers of minority children continue to leave school functionally illiterate and unemployable. -Human Rights Violations in the United States: A Report on U.S. Compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 12-13 (1993)
If the quality of education for most students of color is significantly lower, due to continued manifestations of racial segregation, this would explain why the future economic prospects are more dim, and uncompromising for black and brown children, teenagers, adolescents, and young adults. Education is inextricably linked to occupational viability. When schools in communities of color, are poorly founded, and deprived of resources, the subsequent effect is limiting a child’s inherent grasp of their own ability and potential. Children that are not affirmed of their own unique worth, materially or intellectually, through our nation’s education system, have great difficulty thinking in a manner, or initiating choices later in life, based on positive reinforcement they never received in a classroom.
This scandalous dynamic contributes to an even more exacerbating crisis. Currently, the national unemployment rate is 5.4%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor
. Yet, for African-Americans, the unemployment rate is an unfathomable 9.6%, nearly double the national average.
Disparities in education, in turn, contribute to a gaping lack of opportunities for stable employment. A dearth of opportunity among many young people of color creates a profound sense of despair, hopelessness, and frustration. Presently, the United States does not guarantee satisfactory access to education, or economic advancement for a large portion of its citizens. What ought not to be be predeterminative factors in life – race, color, social origin, and the environment of one’s birth – continue to define the measure of aspirations and success that can be materialized by many American citizens.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 4
As mentioned before, the institution of chattel slavery has been constitutionally abolished. Demographic trends
would suggest otherwise. One in every three African-American males born today, and one in every six Latino males can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lifetime. Has
slavery actually ended, or have the plantations of the Southern days of old morphed into the more than 5,000
penitentiaries and correctional facilities that dot America’s varied landscape?
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 5
Frequent episodes of police brutality against people of color are a national catastrophe, and a gross violation of human rights. However, thousands of other individuals await a gradually protracted, solitary demise. Capital punishment remains the law of the land in thirty-two states
of the Union. While believe that the death penalty is a just consequence in response to the harshest and most aggravated crimes, statistics have shown that it is not
a deterrent to future crimes. Moreover, capital punishment has been consistently applied on a racially disproportionate basis throughout the nation. 3,251 people await the final implementation of their sentences on death row in the United States. According
to the Equal Justice Initiative, the United States has executed 1,277 people since 1976. The majority of executions occur in Southern states, with more than half of the occupants of death row being persons of color. One hundred-and-forty people have been exonerated from crimes they never committed, after evidence was introduced substantiating their innocence.
#BlackLivesMatter is more than a hollow slogan, it is the burgeoning anthem of a new humanitarian credo. National, and international protests seeking justice and accountability for victims of police brutality, along with the wider symptoms of institutionalized racism, are the courageous avatars of a reinvigorated human rights movement – the twenty-first century successor to the Civil Rights Movement of the previous century. The #BlackLivesMatter movement strives to elevate America’s collective psyche, enabling it to evolve from a nation of cultural colorblindness, to one of color-consciousness. The truth that black lives do matter is a clarion call the United States of America must heed immediately, if it wishes to retain its globally respected – albeit, highly unmerited – role as the “exceptional” beacon of democratic promise. Black lives are not disposable. Black lives are not inferior to others’ lives. Black lives do not threaten the existence or well-being of other Americans. Black lives are beautiful. Black lives are filled with unencumbered hope and aspirations. Black lives brim with infinite human potential. Black lives are sacred, resounding through the ages as the undying heartbeat of planet Earth.
Science has definitively proven that humanity’s origins lie within the African continent. Lamentably, throughout the ages, color has been scorned too often as a curse, rather than an original blessing. Each one of us possesses the ability to either, repeat the mistakes and ignorance of the past, or, courageously turn the pages of history – embarking on new frontiers in the evolution of the human species. The fertile seeds of honesty and transformation will eventually cultivate the fruition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s hallowed Dream, ensuring no soul is, “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
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