Category Archives: Political Jesus

The Nine Inch Knife

“It was, as I saw it, a case of ‘the chickens coming home to roost.’ I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, had finally struck down this country’s Chief Magistrate.”
Malcolm X, trying to explain his infamous “chickens” quote
In The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley (1964)

During the 1960’s Malcolm X was perhaps the most controversial voice for Black America during the Civil Rights Movement. His “Chickens coming home to roost” was arguably one of his most controversial statement. This quote earned him censorship from Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, as well as the ire of many Americans. However, Malcolm X did not back down from his words. Many interpreted his words as condoning the assassination of President Kennedy. This however was a mistake. His words were much deeper than a seemingly unsympathetic remark about an American tragedy. It was a brutally honest assessment of a problem that continues to plague America today. Malcolm X described the grotesque violence that is created by the all-consuming nature of institutionalized racism. Institutionalized racism creates a socio-political, economic, and cultural system predicated on violence that is perpetuated throughout all of society. In such an environment not even the President of the United States is safe.

Malcolm X’s words inform my own reflection on the series of recent tragedies in Dallas, St. Paul, and Baton Rouge. Recently, I have zoned in and out of various media coverage of all these incidents. I can’t help but notice that despite all of the different issues that have been analyzed I have been very dissatisfied with the socio-historical analysis of the events. Personally, I believe that the five officers murdered in Dallas, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling are all victims of systemic or institutionalized racism. More accurately, their deaths are the result of a society that refuses to acknowledge its racial history and the ongoing systems of inequality that continue to create a racialized caste system.

Institutional racism is defined simply as the way that various practices in social and political institutions are embedded with racist ideologies that create inequality. These ideologies are reiterated through various avenues such as; the criminal justice system, employment opportunities, housing, health care, political power, education. Institutional racism can be both implicit as well and explicit. It can often go unnoticed and can be reinforced through the status quo. Institutional racism originates through everyday opportunities and operates through the politics of respectability. It is easy to recognize or call out a racist individual but institutional racism is far more complicated. Institutional racism is by no mean a recent phenomenon. African Americans have fought against institutional racism for about as long as they have fought for equal right and protection under the law. Whether it was through the race riots in Detroit, Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas during the Civil Rights Movement Era, the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, protest over Rodney King, and the contemporary iteration of Black Lives Matter Movement; the struggle against institutional racism continues. Finally, institutional racism evokes both passive and active violence. Economic disparities, lack of educational opportunities, political disenfranchisement, and environmental racism are acts of passive violence that are created by institutional racism. It should come as no surprise that these conditions create an environment where active violence becomes a normalized behavior. This behavior becomes a staple for every stakeholder in the system of institutionalized racism.

If institutional racism is indeed the problem what exactly is its scope today? This particular problem exists at all levels. To begin with it is exists at all levels of the education system. Yes, this includes preschool. Black children make up a large portion of the preschoolers who are suspended according to a recent study. They compose relatively 1/6 of the preschool population, yet they represent over 50 percent of all out-of-school suspensions. In general, black children are far more likely to face stricter punishments compared to white students in grades K through twelve. They make up forty percent of all school expulsions and over sixty percent of the students referred to the police from schools are minorities according to the department of education. Scholars call this phenomenon the school to prison pipeline.

Institutional racism also affects employment opportunities and housing arrangements. Black graduates are more than twice as likely to be unemployed compared to white college graduates. It is no secret about the ongoing disparities between mean income for African American families compared to white families. Recent research has also indicated racial biases in hiring practices. Applicants with black sounding names have found great difficulty in finding employment despite have similar or a better resume compared to other applicants. Studies also show that as the pay scale for a particular job increases using increments of 10,000 dollars, the likelihood of an African American applicant receiving that job decreases by seven percent. In the housing market, almost 80 percent of whites own homes compared to less than 50 percent of African Americans. Perhaps most staggering are recent figures that suggest that the median net worth of white families is approximately 250,000 dollars compared to nearly 30,000 dollars for black families.

The greatest indicator of institutional racism continues to be the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, racial inequality is pervasive at every step of the criminal justice process. Black juveniles are 18 times as likely to be sentenced as adults compared to white juveniles. They also compose the vast majority of both the juveniles in prison as well as the one’s tried as adults in the court system. African Americans are more than three times as likely to be searched during a routine traffic stop by a police officer and more than six times as likely to be arrested. According to the Sentencing Project found that this statistic is not merely a coincidence stating that there is “an implicit racial association of black Americans with dangerous or aggressive behavior.” Furthermore, systematic inequality continues to exist in the court system as well. A black person who kills a white person is twice as likely to receive the death penalty as a white person who kills a black person. Even jury selection suffers from racial discrimination. Black jurors who are equally as qualified as white jurors have been illegally turned away from the courtroom in some places as often as ⅘ times. The end result of this process is that in many death penalty cases, particularly one’s involving African Americans, predominantly white juries determine guilt or innocence. Sadly, this is just the beginning of institutional racism in the court system. Noticeably absent from this picture are any stats about stop and frisk policies from the FBI’s investigation, disparities created by mandatory minimums, truth in sentencing laws, and the impact of the War on Drugs.

If any of the above facts are hard to believe then take the recommendation of the United Nations on the current status of race relations in the United States. In a recent news article Ricardo Sunga III, chair of the UN expert panel on people of African descent that the United States has a high level of institutional and structural racism. He also noted that excessive form seems to be the norm for police when dealing with African Americans, who are more than twice as likes to be shot by officers compared to whites. Sunga stated: “It is time, now for the US Government to strongly assert that Black lives matter and prevent any further killings as a matter of national priority.”

To conclude I will return to Malcolm X’s (in)famous words about a “chicken coming home to roost.” In his first interview after being censured by the Nation of Islam Malcolm X did not shy away from his original comments. He also described American racial progress using the analogy of a 9-inch knife in someone’s back. I think this is an appropriate analogy to describe the current impact and attitude towards institutional racism in American society. Institutional racism is like a 9-inch knife that has been placed in the back of Black America. It creates crippling conditions that make it a struggle for black people to move on a daily basis. Since the Classic Era of the Civil Right Movement some people have said that the knife is only three inches and others have said the knife has been removed. Either way according to Malcolm X it does not matter whether the knife is still there or completely removed. True progress only happens once the wounds that the knife has created begins to heal. However, for Malcolm X and many other black Americans most people in the United States refuse to even admit that there is a knife in the back. No matter what one’s perspective is, one thing remains clear. American society is not even close to healing any of the wounds created by institutional racism.

Lessons From #Selma50: #3 From White Sign to White Mind

Many know the story of Nashville, Tennessee as the country music hall of fame. Musicians from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash and many others have walked down those streets. The recognition that the city has been given because of its role in the development of country music has even resulted in a popular television show with its namesake. However, there is also a different history in Nashville that exists alongside this narrative that we already know. It also played a crucial role in the development of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950’s and prominent leaders during the movement such as: James Lawson, C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and Congressman John Lewis. Furthermore, it is home the the most comprehensive Civil Right library in the country. Nashville is also home to the first health center that trained African Americans called the MeHarry medical college. So why has Nashville’s rich history during the Civil Right Movement and beyond been overlooked. Again I turn to lessons that I learned from conversation with various members of the community. Kwame Lillard, a civil rights veteran reasoned that this was because of the insufficiencies that resulted from the movement. Chief among those was the transition from eradicating the white signs [legislation] to eradicating the white mind [white supremacist ideology, practices].

 

So what exactly is the transition from white signs to white minds? It begins with the assumption that racism is actually an oligarchical beast. It is both individualistic as well as institutional. Both aspects can be mutually reinforcing. One cannot be eradicated without eliminating the other. White signs in a very literal sense are the policies enacted under Jim Crow that systematically disenfranchised African Americans and many other minorities from the political process and public accommodations. White signs describes segregated schools, buses, lunch counters, housing, employment opportunities, and every other form of explicit representation in which “Whites Only” is the written law. White signs was the major battleground in which the civil rights struggle took place. When the Nashville Five refused to move when the sought to integrate lunch counters in the South they had effectively waged war against the white signs. When these same individual continued to execute CORE’s plan of testing the federal law via Boynton v. Virginia 1960 which mandated integrated transportation facilities they were once again attacking white signs. During the  famed March on Washington in 1963 John Lewis and others gave speeches that were pivotal putting pressure on the U.S. government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both the speeches and the ensuing legislations were aimed at ending white sign. What had yet to be addressed was white supremacist logic itself.

 

White minds, according to Lillard, are the dominant ideologies created by the fog of white supremacy that continues to disenfranchise African Americans in society today. He noted that one of the shortcomings of the activism from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s is that it did not go far enough. Indeed activists were effective in the ability to force America to deliver on its promises of equality in the areas of voting rights and public accommodations it did nothing to attack the ideologies and cognitive notions that allowed a racial hierarchy to permeate every aspect of society including the government. He compares the struggle for civil rights to warfare tactics. When the Allied Forces invaded Normandy in what would be the largest seaborne invasion in history, they did not stop once all of the troops had landed there. They aimed for and achieved a total and decisive victory over the Germany. Movement leaders got to Normandy ( equal access to public accommodations, and voting rights) but did not go for the total annihilation of a system. They did not confront the mindsets that made so many uncomfortable. Underlying ideologies remained the same and could be repackaged in various forms. To state simply the Civil Rights Movement did not confront the heart of white supremacy.

 

So what would we be necessary to finish what was started by Kwame Lillard and so many more during the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s? One solution is to recognize that white supremacy is not just a question of civil rights; it questions the very fabric of what it means to be human. As Lillard expresses it is a transition from advocating for civil rights to advocating human rights. Human rights should not be simplified as to not recognizing the various racial disparities that affect black and brown bodies for a more general concern for humanity. Rather it recognizes the racialized nature of laws, norms, and various institutional structures. However, it goes beyond recognition of those structure and deals with issues of how to help oppressed and marginalized groups reclaim their human dignity and respect.

 

An example of this is with voter disenfranchisement laws throughout the country. Several states including my home state of Kentucky have laws that do not restore voting rights to citizen upon return from incarceration. In the state of Kentucky alone there are over a quarter million citizens who are denied their right to vote because they have a criminal conviction on their record. This measure of institutionalized racism has had a particular severe effect on the African American community in the state. Over ⅕ of the state’s African American population cannot vote because of these restrictions. Activist such as Jordan Mazurek and Greg Capillo have worked with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network to end this particular injustice. In a recent legislative session they petitioned for the Kentucky state senate to hear House Bill 70, which would offer reform to the current system in the state. In doing so they have found a way to transition to the struggle against the white mind. There are various other examples of how to move from  as Lillard suggests attacking white signs to white mind, however, it is imperative that we realize the struggle for human rights and equality is never over.

Photo description: ([Black] man drinking at ‘Colored’ water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma” ca. July 1939), found on Flickr. original photographer unknown.

Lessons from #Selma50: #2 Bloody Sunday

Selma, Alabama has garnered much attention recently for various reasons. The film combined with the 50th anniversary that commemorated ” Bloody Sunday,” has facilitated the visitation of many visitors including President Barack Obama on Saturday. Sunday March 8th a remarkable moment of solidarity occurred when people from across the country united to renew protest for social justice for many different causes including voter rights restrictions, police brutality, immigration policy, and continued economic injustices throughout the country. It is hard to say what the lasting impact will be of this event. However, given the magnitude of the event it is certainly worth pausing on for reflection. In particular what has shaped my perspective on this monumental event were two conversations that I had with citizens who lived in Alabama during the movement.

Despite my understanding of the significance of this event I did not take very many pictures while in Selma. However, one picture that I did take was of two older ladies with whom I had conversed. Both were active leaders during the Movement years in Selma. They actually insisted that I take a picture not only of them but of their signs as well. Both women held signs that said: ” Justice is blind in Selma- Unfair treatment of citizens in Selma, Alabama by certain persons in high places. We need help in Selma, Alabama.” Before I left after taking the picture she told me to share the pictures with others because after the everyone who came from the rally left they would still be left in Alabama. This made me reflect on two aspects of my visit to Selma. First, I reflected on what it must have been like to have been in Selma fifty years prior. The environments would have obviously been vastly different, tension would have been high and officer may not have been so friendly. However, the spirit of unity between various groups united to stand for a cause remained reminiscent. Although the threat of putting one’s life endanger was gone I still had the sense that important work could be accomplished by the March. However, the two women’s remarks combined with their signs were a very subtle reminder that no work would completely solely through a march.Although it was a great gesture, it would not cause social change by itself. There remains much work to be done. As I left the city I was reminded that I was only a guest there, and that there are actual residents who still face injustice in Selma. Part of this reality is the systemic inequality that many residents still face today. I was reminded that after leaving Selma I need to do whatever it is that I can to help those ladies and what they represent. Even if I do not specifically act on their behalf I was reminded that it is my responsibility as an activist to fight for social changes that is beneficial to all of the “Selmas”, from Ferguson, Missouri to Green Bay, Wisconsin, of the world. Through continually fighting to end injustices I take up the call to “Help Selma.”

The next reflection on my time in Selma is admittedly partially influenced by my time conversing with Civil Rights activist in Jackson, Mississippi as well. While in Selma the first man that I spoke with explained that he was a teenager when the March happened. Nevertheless, he was very much involved in the movement. Infact, he explained that because many teacher who chose to be involved in the movement were fired, schools frequently just dismissed student. The students were subsequently rounded up by officers and held in captivity for a period of time. He somehow managed to avoid this. One of the most interesting stories he told me was about the history of many of the building that were in Selma. According to him many of the businesses in the area that we were in were owned by the Jewish community. The communities frequently employed African Americans at a time when many could not find work in Selma. He describe the cooperative relationship between African Americans and Jews as essential economic vitality of the Selma community. He even explains how during his teenage years he worked for a Jewish families furniture store. This story stressed to me the importance of interracial alliances in the struggle for equality. In Jackson this point was reiterated by freedom ride, Hezekiah Watkins. Watkins described the everyday circumstances during his involvement with the COFO organization (a coalition between SNCC, CORE, SCLC, and the NAACP). He stated that what is often overlooked is the way that would mean white Americans were involved in the Movement. Particularly, he noted how some were directly involved.

selmaferg1

Those who were directly involved could potentially face many of the hardships that African Americans faced for their involvement. As a result some decided not to put their life on the line directly. However, this did not mean they were not involved. As an example he pointed to the many instances where white Americans would drive by the headquarters of COFO and leave envelopes of money outside their doors without ever wanting to be identified. This money was crucial towards funding the various initiatives that organizations like COFO hoped to accomplish. There point here though is not to explain the ways in which white Americans were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Rather, it is to use a specific historical example to elucidate the point that the struggle for equality is an interracial struggle. It does not fall on any one specific race or ethnic group. Perhaps another activist has stated this best: “I believe that my freedom is very much entangled with the freedom of every other man and that if another man is not free I am not free.” I believe the same can be said about the struggle for equality today. The need for interracial alliances highlights this point.

Needless to say there were many more lessons that I learned from a visit to Selma, Alabama (For example, TCU’s beating of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl was witnessed by many). Ha ha! Couldn’t help it! However, the two that I will not soon forget are that the struggle for freedom and equality does not end with a march, and the necessary cooperation by many across racial ethnic and even class boundaries to participate.