Black Lives Matter didn't happen in a vacuum, and it didn't happen solely because Michael Brown was shot and killed. Or Trayvon. Or Philando. Or Stephon. Or when they killed Sandra. Or broke Freddy’s neck. Or solely because of any of the unarmed, untried black Americans who have been killed by law enforcement since the genesis of Black Lives Matter and the Ferguson uprising.
Black Lives Matters is a point on a 400-year continuum of unequal legal treatment of African Americans in our country, and the culmination of the last thirty years of drug policy which specifically targeted black Americans. Here's a very abbreviated timeline:
- In 1986, Congress passed the "Anti Drug Abuse Law of 1986", which was notable mostly for creating a 100:1 ratio between crack and powder forms of cocaine, and for establishing mandatory minimum sentences, even for first time offenders.
This was a law squarely targeted at inner city black Americans. In what was widely reported as an "Epidemic," the less expensive form of smoked cocaine was widely available in inner cities and was primarily used by the inner-city poor (read: black Americans). Ignoring the rapid increase of powdered cocaine by white Americans (more than doubling in usage among high school seniors from 6% in 1976 to 12.7% in 1986), the law stated that 5 grams of crack or 500 grams of powdered cocaine warranted 5-year mandatory minimum sentence. Know what also weighs 5 grams? A nickel. So: have a nickel's weight of crack (i.e., the black drug), or have a half kilo of powder (the white drug) to get the same sentence.
Guess what happened?
- The number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses increased from 19,000 in 1980 to 265,000in 2008 (a fourteen-fold increase in twenty-eight years)
Knowing the disparity between the black drug sentencing and the white drug sentencing, what do you think happened?
- The number of black Americans incarcerated skyrocketed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Today, 1 in 3 black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes. This compares to 1 in 17 white men. Blacks make up 36.5% of the prison population, but only 12.9% of the general population. Whites, on the other hand, make up only 22% of the prison population while making up 63% of the general population. At any given time, 10% of black males in their thirties are in jail or prison.
It gets worse. In 1980, there were three times more black men enrolled in colleges and universities than there were in prison. In 2002, the number of incarcerated black men exceeded those enrolled in higher learning programs.
So, we’ve taken a generation of black men, pulled them from their homes, and thrown them in prison. What are (some of) the impacts of that?
- The unemployment rate of blacks is more than double the unemployment rate of whites
Coming out of prison, one can imagine it is not easy to find a job. So, when we incarcerate 1/3 of a subset of the population (black males), it is safe to assume that this has impacts on their employability—and the data bear this out: the effects of juvenile incarceration persist for at least fifteen years, and reduce employment compared to cohorts by 5-10%. The impact is greater than that of dropping out of high school. For adult incarceration, the impact is equivalent, but appears to dissipate after about 5 years.
- Most states at least temporarily remove voting rights from felons
In addition to reducing the employability of black Americans, and particularly black males, we further disenfranchise them by suspending the voting rights of felons. The national effect of this is that one in thirteen black adults is currently unable to vote because of felony convictions. The cumulative effect is the disenfranchisement of entire communities.
Removing the ability and incentive to vote and to earn a living effectively translates to revoking citizenship, as the right to vote is often cited as the clearest benefit and responsibility of citizenship. Thus we—white America—remove power from black America and keep it for ourselves. What is the result of this?
- In Ferguson, a 60% black community, the police force of 53 had three black officers. The mayor, police chief, and nearly all of the city representatives were white.
- Nationally, less than 10% of house seats are held by blacks. 25 states have never elected a black congressperson. Nearly half of those representatives (49%) come from just five states. Most blacks have never been represented by someone of a similar racial or ethnic background in congress.
So, we have a population who has had power removed from their hands at their expense and to the benefit of white America, which wields that power to their own economic and social gain. Then, this happens:
- In the month leading up to the death of Michael Brown, at least four unarmed black men were shot and killed by police. None have been charged with crimes.
- And then, in Ferguson, Michael Brown was killed.
He was unarmed. He was a high school graduate. He was planning to attend college in the days following his death.
He was a suspect in a robbery, but this was unknown to the officer who shot and killed him.
And it was too much. This was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
We in white America, from our places of power and privilege (and yes, even if you are poor and white, even if you live in the inner city, you have a power and privilege that black Americans do not: you have a representative government, you do not share the hundreds of years of discriminatory policy that they do, the shared history of oppression that black Americans share. You do have privilege, even if you refuse to admit it) decry the “rioting” we see in the streets. We decried the protests around the country. We decried the uprising in Baltimore. And now, we see the same people bleating about protests in Sacramento. We scream into the comments section of news articles “Nobody was rioting when black people kill each other.”
What we don’t acknowledge is that this is not rioting: this is revolution.
- Since 2016, at least 40 unarmed black Americans have been shot and killed by police.
We as a nation demand much of our police—we trust them to protect us from harm, and in order to do so we entrust in them a power we do not give to anyone else, not even the president: the power to kill an American citizen, on American soil, if they believe their life is in danger.
In return for this power, we must hold them to a higher standard of behavior, of thought, of action. By and large, police earn this right—but clearly, when they do not, we must hold them even more highly accountable than we would a civilian.
Black Americans are people whom we have trod upon, whom we have subjugated, whom we have subjected to a series of regressive laws, which, as illustrated above, have removed from them all societal power and kept black America in a place of poverty just as surely as if they were still enslaved. This is a people who are now rising up and declaring “no more,” exercising their power in the only way we have left available to them.
And we white Americans sit in our suburban armchairs, tutting our teeth at our widescreen televisions, and we disdain the savages, and scream into the ether about “black on black violence.” We create a caste of criminals, and then we disdain them for the criminality we have thrust upon them.
We are King George. We are Big Brother. In this, we are the bad guys—and we need to make right. We need to stand with those oppressed and demand that the white people who represent us in Congress make real changes which benefit these communities. We need to support candidates of color even when we like the white representatives we have. We need to create an equal and representative government of the people. Not just of the people who look like us. And we need to do it now.
Black. Lives. Matter.
Contributing Editor: Ben Jackson
Ben Jackson is a writer and father of a chronically ill teenager who somehow still likes him. His non-fiction and opinion pieces have appeared in Patch Media, WBUR's Cognoscenti, and the Penmen Review. His fiction and poetry has been published in New Millennium Writings, The Legendary, 50 Word Stories, and anywhere else he can con an editor into buying his work. He lives in Natick, Massachusetts with his daughter.