Systemic Racism: How It Started and How We Fix It

This is a little something I felt compelled to share as I’m learning more about our country’s history, specifically pertaining to systemic injustices for our Black communities.

One of the biggest—of many—aspects of the situation we’re facing is the disastrous effects the war on drugs has had on our country. At some point, we decided to declare a literal war on our citizens by looking at drug use as a criminal issue, as opposed to a public health issue, which doesn’t make sense. Until you dig deeper to find the sad, blatant racial undertones. Oh, okay. Yeah. That makes sense now…


But let’s step back a generation.

Post-Civil War era: A short clause in the 13th Amendment allowed the South to rebuild its economy through prison labor. African Americans were arrested in large numbers—often for minor crimes. It was our nation’s first of many “prison booms.”

While the 13th Amendment eliminated slavery and involuntary servitude, it had a major loophole:

(Source: Huffpost)

This meant that slavery and slave labor was no longer legal, unless it was being done by imprisoned “criminals.”

After the Civil War, the reduction of slave labor was a massive hit to the South’s economy. For many of the landowners and corporate barons, enslaved Black people compromised most of their wealth (almost like stocks, sadly enough).

Humans…as stocks?

The question: how do you replace the 4 million enslaved Black people, who were the critical component of the region’s economic system?

The answer: mass arrests for minor crimes, such as loitering and vagrancy, and the creation of a convict leasing system that allowed prisoners to work for private parties.

And just like that, mass incarceration began, particularly for Black males.

Fast forward to June 1971, when President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” He drastically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.

When the war on drugs rolled out, this was a bi-partisan decision. Not all politicians were in on the war on drugs for nefarious intent, but they were swayed by the power of perception.

Tactical PR and public messaging, such as the “This is your brain on drugs” campaign, painted drug users as monsters who must be locked away.

Nixon, followed by his predecessor Reagan, spearheaded the policies that caused the American prison populations to skyrocket, and thus allowed for the beginning of the militarization of our police force.

One of Nixon’s advisors was quoted saying this years later:

“You want to know what this was really all about? … The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. Then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.” (Baum, 2016)

Jesus fucking Christ…

Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence against Black people when compared to White people charged with the same offense. Among people who received a mandatory minimum sentence in 2011, 38% were Latino, and 31% were Black. Currently, nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino.

Black Americans are often stereotyped as being violent or addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Experts believe that stigma and racism may play a significant role in police-community interactions. Based on this, it’s pretty obvious why BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other racial or ethnic groups. This is backed by data, and it chronically adds to an ecosystem of repression and destruction for future generations.

For example, 1 in 9 Black children has an incarcerated parent, compared to 1 in 28 Latino children and 1 in 57 White children.

The majority of these incarcerations are spawned from drug-related offenses.

Now, to where are we today…

It sucks that cops today are taking the heat for a flawed system that they didn’t directly create.

Individual cops are NOT the enemy, and I hope we can continue to deescalate the violent tensions between police and protestors. I hate seeing the majority of officers, who are kind, moral, and well-intentioned, risk their safety and be subject to such extreme scrutiny. However, that does not negate the fact that our system is fucked, and we ALL MUST GET BEHIND THE MOVEMENT TO CHANGE IT.

There is an analogy that I think fits well here.

If one person tells you that you have a tail, that person might be crazy. No reason to be concerned.

If two people tell you that you have a tail, it might be that those two people are working together.

If three people tell you that you have a tail,

It’s probably wise to turn the fuck around and check.


WE NEED EVERYONE TO BE BEHIND THIS.


Even the badass retired general Jim Mattis spoke out against the evolution of militarized police force. Quoted saying…

“It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind.

We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers.

The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.” (Goldberg, 2020.)

The framework and system that police are subjected to puts them in a terrible position.

For example,we require a doctor to attend school for 7 years before being given the responsibility of life. Yet for a local police department, you are given a gun and badge after 6 months of training, a high school degree, and a hefty 40k salary. It’s not surprising that this would bring in a few power-hungry dipshits who didn’t fit in anywhere else, but thought carrying a gun sounded cool.

Coupled with the heinous protective frameworks, like qualified immunity, cops can avoid honest and objective reviews for misconduct via internal unions. (For example, the indictment rate for police officers who kill someone is 1%, as compared to 90% for citizens.)

The annual cost to taxpayers is around $1.8 BILLION for misconduct.

But here’s the important thing to remember: we can look at something as needing to be improved without feeling personally attacked. This requires some level of objective analysis and resignation from ego.

If something isn’t performing well, we should address it. Period. Especially if that problem directly results in the loss of constitutional freedoms and human life.

And that, in all honesty, is something all rational parties are behind.

While we’re on the subject, I know that there’s been a lot of talk lately about defunding the police. I think this rhetoric can be counterproductive to the movement because so many people get confused about what it actually means. While I don’t think that abolishing all police forces altogether is going to solve the problem, there are a lot of reasonable measures being talked about that could make a real difference in the way police interact with the communities they’re intended to protect and serve.

Just a few of those initiatives include…

1. Ending qualified immunity.
2. Deconstructing powerful police unions.
3. Mandating body cams.
4. Eliminating no-knock warrants.
5. Establishing an external agency to investigate complaints.
6. Ending mandatory minimum sentences.
7. Change the bill that sends surplus military equipment to police.
8. Redistribute the resources of police forces to prioritize training
and local community efforts.

(Source: The Urbanist)

I don’t have a magic solution to ending systemic racism, especially when it comes to the police force. We can’t shame people or force them to change their opinions. But what we can do is participate in the conversation and support initiatives like Campaign Zero, which are doing the important work to call for reforms that will make our streets safer—for citizens and police officers. The police themselves also need to advocate for reform and be open to dialogue and discussion, which will help to de-escalate the situation. But first, this requires them to admit that it is a significant issue.

Now…

To circle back to the war on drugs topic, this initiative has ultimately led to further militarization of the police force. In the United States, the 1033 Program transfers excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies. Between 1997 to 2014, the Department of Defense transferred $4.3 billion in military equipment to local law agencies.

Studies find that merely seeing militarized units can erode public confidence in law enforcement and create further tension, as we’ve seen firsthand in our current protests.

When the protests started in Columbus, Ohio, officers donned riot gear as they used tear gas, pepper spray, and wooden bullets to control the crowds. This creates excessive fear and conflict. More recently, officers who patrolled wore regular uniforms, and we’ve seen that the protests are much more peaceful. You can see videos of more than 300 people gathering peacefully, with some shaking hands with troopers guarding the Statehouse steps, while others chanted just feet away. This was a stark contrast to the chaos the demonstrations had devolved into on previous days, and shows the value of a less militarized presence. I give props to Columbus PD for recognizing the issue and changing their approach. 

Ultimately, my point here is this: the systemic oppression of our Black communities runs DEEP. And until we uncover the layers and educate ourselves, we have no chance of taking on an objective perspective to create successful reform.

This shit runs so much deeper than a single instance of a man being killed in cold blood on a sidewalk by one rogue police officer.

This shit runs deeper than the “whataboutisms” and deflections regarding protest. This is NOT an acute issue. This is a point of contention that has been boiling in our country since its roots. The amount of evidence and systemic incongruence that has led to this is overwhelming.

Fortunately, the trauma caused by the recent instances that were caught on camera have opened up the dialogue in this country.

We must listen. Learn. Advocate for WHAT IS RIGHT.

Do the work.

Read about this shit.

It will blow your mind and cause any person with a moral compass to want to take action.

Because at the end of the day, what is the point of living in a free country if there is an asterisk next to the word “free”?

WE can do better.

We can be the generation, just like those in the civil rights era did, to take a MASSIVE step forward in creating a more peaceful, just, and inclusive society.

Let’s all do the work.

(Source: @RedCrayonImagination)




Sources:

Baum, Dan. (April 2016.) Legalize It All: How to Win the War on Drugs. Retrieved from https://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/
Goldberg, Jeffrey. (June 3, 2020). James Mattis Denounces President Trump, Describes Him as a Threat to the Constitution. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/06/james-mattis-denounces-trump-protests-militarization/612640/.
McDaniel, Rick. (December 6, 2017). Amend the 13th Amendment. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/amend-the-13th-amendment_b_5517715.
Red Crayon Imagination. Antiracist Infographic. June 10, https://www.instagram.com/p/CBQ2hNSgprz/

The Sentencing Project. (April 19, 2018). Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System. Retrieved from https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/un-report-on-racial-disparities/#:~:text=Policing,share%20of%20the%20total%20population.&text=FBI%20Uniform%20Crime%20Reporting%20Program.
Trumm, Doug. (June 1, 2020). Seattle Police crack Down on Black Lives Matter Protests and Continue to Resist Reform. Retrieved from https://www.theurbanist.org/2020/06/01/seattle-police-crack-down-on-black-lives-matter-protests-and-continue-to-resist-reform/

Walsh, Alison. (August 15, 2016). The criminal justice system is riddled with racial disparities. Retrieved from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2016/08/15/cjrace/.

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