To Whom It May Concern, RE: #BlackLivesMatter

To Whom It May Concern:

This is an open letter to those who claim to care about Black lives; to those advocates and allies; to people of color; to all those that have tweeted #BlackLivesMatter; to those that recognize the fact that there is work to be done, and are interested in being part of a movement for both equity and equality.

I certainly think it is true – Black do lives matter. But is this distinction really necessary? The recent summary executions of unarmed Black men by police officers in this country have sprung much debate and controversy among the American people. Specifically, the failure to indict neither Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown, nor Officer Daniel Pantaelo for the prohibitive chokehold employed against unarmed Eric Garner have inspired lively debate, insurgence, and cries for change. It has been interesting to watch how the discussions of these two events seem to take on very different tenors. But if all lives really matter, including the lives of Black people living in the United States, then the discussion has certainly been distorted by the sensation surrounding recent events. If we truly care about the lives of Black people, then the conversation must go further than isolated incidents. The cops are only a very small piece of a much larger puzzle, whose pieces combined portray a country founded on White supremacist, colonial, ablest and individualistic principles.

I’ve recently learned how important it is to refrain from labeling individual actors as the bad guys or the “racists,” as the perpetrator perspective has a tendency to “presuppose a world composed of atomistic individuals whose actions are outside of and apart from social fabric and without historical continuity.”[1] Pointing at an individual police officer fails to take into consideration the system of policing, state sanctioned violence, targeted patrolling, and the criminalization of blackness. Instead of looking at this discussion as separate instances with discrete causation and discrete blameworthy acts or individuals, I would like you to instead consider an alternative perspective where structural and systemic causation, disparate impact, and the experience of oppression are all considered while taking into account historical context of the United States.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

            The conversation surrounding the premature deaths of both Michael Brown and Eric Garner have prompted different responses from people working with and against the movements addressing state sanctioned violence against men of color. In particular, there has been much discussion surrounding whether or not Michael Brown reasonably met his fate as a result of the criminal activity that he may have been engaging in before his death. Similarly, the speculation that Brown had engaged in a physical altercation with Officer Wilson prior to his death has been offered as a justification for the outcome in the criminal proceedings. The conclusions that people have come to about Brown influence their support for or against his right to live after the events that took place on August 9, 2014. Though the story of Brown was originally characterized as one of a recently graduated teen that was shot while innocently walking home from the store, it quickly turned into that of a recreational marijuana-smoking thug who had robbed a store and was met with the consequences.

From what I have seen, the discussion surrounding the death of Eric Garner has been slightly less contentious. Perhaps the video evidence of the crime is what leaves little room for dispute. Or maybe the fact that people have repeatedly witnessed the moment that Garner took his last breath after pleading for humanity is what compels people. Regardless, it has been made more or less clear that Garner should not have been killed, because he was amicable, he was selling untaxed cigarettes, and was more or less compliant This is not an attempt to pretend that there haven’t been arguments advanced about how Garner should not have been selling cigarettes, should not have resisted arrest, and that his own health was the greatest contributor to his death. Rather, it is meant to highlight how these two victims have been divergently portrayed. It is easier to sensationalize the story of the murders of young children like Tamir Rice, or a father and loving husband like Garner, who had just defused an altercation on the street. The trouble with this portrayal is that it creates a dialogue where some people deserve to live, and others deserve to die, or at very least be met with whatever consequences occur as a result of their alleged behavior. If Mike Brown robbed a store on August 9, is he a better candidate for police brutality? For summary execution? Regardless of what occurred that day, Officer Wilson should not have had the opportunity to act as judge, jury and executioner, nor should he have had that violence sanctioned by the state of Missouri. Some might argue that this distinction doesn’t make much of a difference  because neither officer was indicted. But those people involved with or interested in the movement for change should recognize that if all lives matter, including black lives, then all black lives must matter.

In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.”

            If black lives matter, then the disparate treatment in the criminal justice system is of the utmost importance. The racial stereotypes of black criminality have been widely portrayed in the media, and the depiction of black suspects/criminals expose the setting that make the existing disparities in incarceration possible. Unfortunately, American courts have been reluctant to examine the issue of racial inequalities in a variety of areas, including (but certainly not limited to) the criminal justice system. However, if it were necessary to find one area of public administration where the remnants of slavery persist, it would certainly be found in the way that “justice” is administered in the United States.

According to Michelle Alexander, there are currently more Black men incarcerated or under the supervision of the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850.[2] And despite the fact that Black men make up only 13.6% of the population in the United States, they account for at least 40.2% of the prison in the country. The social construction of crime allows for some people to be arrested for behaviors that others would not be; it allows for legislation to determine what crime is and the things that become criminalized. And as a result, the concerns about social deviance often violate attempted discussions about the inequitable distribution of justice. This system is more focused on the criminalization of individuals than on rehabilitative qualities or addressing the underlying social conditions that cause “crime.” Rather than putting time into prevention, accountability, and fundamental community understanding, social and economic harms are exacerbated; individuals are isolated from their communities, incarcerated, forced to engage in criminalized survival strategies, and subject to post-conviction collateral consequences. If all black lives matter, their freedom from incommensurate, targeted, and classist confinement should matter.

Have you ever had an encounter with a police officer? Did you, at any point during that interaction, consider that the contact was taking place primarily because of your perceived race? Did you have a severe adverse reaction rooted in fear? If you have 3-4 minutes after reading this letter, please circle back and take a minute to watch Javon Johnson’s powerful piece on explaining how to interact with police to his four year old nephew: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9Wf8y_5Yn4

⤜”Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact.”

            Education is used as a tool that is used to further the social stratification in this country based on class. It is an invisible property that clearly divides the haves from the have-nots. The way that districts are funded and maintained is a major obstacle to providing equal education for students from impoverished neighborhoods. However, the problem is much larger than just spending.

According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1980’s.[3] In addition to the lack of integration, there are different educational standards and behavioral expectations for Black children than for their white counterparts. A report conducted by the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Educational Disparities found that racial disparities in education display a pattern of underperformance academically relative to Whites for African American, American Indian, Latino and Southeast Asian students.[4] The report found 3 major conclusions; the “educational disparities (1) mirror ethnic and racial disparities in socioeconomic status as well as health outcomes and healthcare, (2) are evident early in childhood and persist through the K-12 education, and (3) are reflected in test scores assessing academic achievement, such as reading and mathematics, percentages of repeating one or more grades, drop-out and graduation rates, proportions of students involved in gifted and talented programs, enrollment in higher education, as well as in behavioral markers of adjustment, including rates of being disciplined, suspended, and expelled from school.”[5]

These findings are significant. Overall, Black students are suspended or expelled at a rate three and a half times higher than their White colleagues.[6] And in some states, like Chicago, these forms of discipline are happening at a rate six times higher for Black students than White. Not surprisingly, according to Education Week, more than 70% of the students involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement in 2010 were either Hispanic or Black. The school environment has become enmeshed with the criminal justice system, and the outcomes are directly and substantially affecting students of color.

What might be most disheartening to me, is that the children who engage with the public school system will be judged based on their ability to read, write, do math, and whether or not they graduated from high school. And their ability to navigate school will directly influence their higher education opportunities, job prospects, income, and ability to provide a livelihood for themselves and their families. Any students that fail to achieve in their education will be held individually accountable, for everyone was provided with same “opportunity.” And the inequities only grow. If Black lives really matter, they should be provided a fair chance to engage with their education, interact with their peers, and be afforded the same opportunities.

⤜ “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”⤛

           The health outcomes for Black people in America have been stacked against us since soon after our arrival in this country. For example, in 1851, Dr. Cartwright introduced the idea of “Drapetomania,” or “the disease causing Negroes to run away.”[7] According to Cartwright, with the proper medical advice “troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away, can be almost entirely prevented, although the slaves be located on the borders of a free state, within a stone’s throw of the abolitionists.”[8] This disease was particular to Negroes, and while absurd, is an important glimpse into the history of Black health in the U.S.

Today, Drapetomania is obviously less of a concern. But according to the Center for Disease Control, the health disparities between Black Americans and other populations are both “striking and apparent” in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, death rates, and other measures of health status.[9] Some of the relevant examples of these disparities highlighted by the CDC include[10]:

  • Infants of African American women in 2008 had the largest death rate, which was more than twice as large as infants of white women.
  • In 2010, Hispanic and African American adults aged 18-64 years had larger percentages without health insurance compared with white and Asian/Pacific Islander counterparts.
  • In 2011, similar to other minority adults aged 25 years or older, African American adults had a larger percentage that did not complete high school than white adults. African American adults also had a larger percentage that lived below the poverty level and adults aged 18-64 years who were unemployed compared with same-age white adults.

If black lives matter, the health outcomes of Black men, women, and children must surely matter.

“The fight for justice against corruption is never easy. It never has been and never will be. It exacts a toll on our self, our families, our friends, and especially our children. In the end, I believe, as in my case, the price we pay is well worth holding on to our dignity.” 

           I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I don’t have very many at all. But what I do have is a sincere hope and concern for the lives of people, including and not limited to Black people. The oppression, incarceration, health, achievement opportunities, and livelihood of men and women of color are dependent on a collective movement toward change. This letter specifically addresses the oppression of Black people in the United States, but that is not meant to perpetuate the black-white binary and ignore the plight that is experienced by all racial and ethnic minorities in this country. There is work to be done by and for the advancement of all people of color. And, for White anti-racists, there is plenty that you can do to be a constructive part of the conversations that encourage change.

To White anti-racists, there are powerful tools at your disposal. Consider assessing your privilege, and then using it to interrupt oppression when you see it in action instead of allowing comments exhibiting micro-aggressions linger in the air. I recently stumbled on a blog post by Janee Woods, which gives suggestions for being a White Ally in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder.[11] Rather than rephrasing and or rewriting this work, I suggest you take a look at the list that she has created. Here’s the abbreviated list:

  1. Learn about the racialized history of Ferguson and how it reflects the racialized history of America.
  2. Reject the “He Was a Good Kid” narrative and lift up the “Black Lives Matter” narrative
  3. Use words that speak the truth about the disempowerment, oppression, disinvestment and racism that are rampant in our communities.
  4. Understand the modern forms of race oppression and slavery and how they are intertwined with policing, the courts and the prison industrial complex.
  5. Examine the interplay between poverty and racial equity.
  6. Diversify your media
  7. Adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence as you resist racism and oppression.
  8. Find support from fellow white allies.
  9. If you are a person of faith, look to your scriptures or holy texts for guidance.
  10. Don’t be afraid to be unpopular.
  11. Be proactive in your own community.
  12. Don’t give up.

If Black lives really matter, YOU can and should take action – big or small.

Sincerely,

A. DeStefano

[1] Alan Freeman, “Legitimizing Racial Discrimination Through Anti-Discrimination Law: A Critical Review of Supreme Court Doctrine,”in Critical Race Studies: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, (eds. Crenshaw et al.) (1996)

[2] See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/12/michelle-alexander-more-black-men-in-prison-slaves-1850_n_1007368.html

[3] See http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/16/living/brown-v-board-60th-anniversary-spelman-identity/

[4] See http://www.apa.org/ed/resources/racial-disparities.pdf

[5] See note 4.

[6] See http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/racial-disproportionality-schools-02.pdf

[7] See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h3106t.html

[8] See note 7.

[9] http://www.cdc.gov/minorityhealth/populations/REMP/black.html

[10] See note 9.

[11] See http://janeewoods.com/2014/08/14/becoming-a-white-ally-to-black-people-in-the-aftermath-of-the-michael-brown-murder/

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