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The Unfinished Work of Racial Equality

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By Jean Claude Homawoo

Having grown up in Africa and Europe, the reality of life as a Black man in the U.S. did not truly hit me until I was a junior in college. As an honor student, I’d never been in any real trouble, that is until I got into an argument at the campus Pizza parlor with a student I’d never met before. Words were exchanged, the usual meaningless tough-guy bravado or so I thought, and we went our separate ways. Later that evening, I was with friends in my room when there was a knock on the door. My roommate answered, and then came back, and said, “it’s campus security, they’re looking for you”.

As I stepped into the hallway, Police officers hiding behind the open door tackled me to the ground. With a knee on my back, they pulled my arms back and fastened handcuffs on my wrists. Stunned and confused, I kept asking “what’s going on, what did I do?”.

I can still feel the shame that flooded me as the Police led me down three flights of our dorm’s central staircase in the middle of Parents & Family Weekend. Classmates and horrified parents stopped and stared. Outside, someone yelled “Yo , what’d you do?!,” before the squad car door slammed shut. I would later learn that the guy from the pizza parlor had called the cops and told them a black student had threatened him with a gun. This accusation — which, to state the obvious, was a complete fabrication — led to my arrest, two days in jail, and a few court appearances to fight the felony I was wrongfully accused of. My aunt, then a paralegal in a NYC law firm, was able to find a great defense attorney. That, along with a reference from the Dean of the honors’ college and several interviews with the detective and DA, ultimately led to the judge and prosecution dropping all the charges. Fortunately for me, video evidence at the Pizza parlor and a thorough search of my dorm also helped disprove my accuser’s claims. But I also recognize that what ultimately worked to my advantage was my status as a middle-class African man raised by a family that afforded me a notable education, access to resources, and an established network. This status helped me to avoid criminal consequences, jeopardized school enrollment and reputational damage.

Like Amy Cooper, my accuser knew how to leverage the Police by exploiting racial bias. The events of that day were a first for me and led me to wonder why life was so unfair for African Americans, especially in contrast to Africans in Europe who, while far from equal, seemed to enjoy a somewhat more just treatment. It didn’t take me long to understand that all of the injustice and inequality that was so evident, was a direct result of the country’s history of gruesome treatment against Black people, one that we continuously fail to reckon with fully. America was built by slaves who endured the most brutal treatment for 250 yrs. When slavery was abolished, the brutality worsened over the next 100 yrs under Jim Crow laws, a century of state-sponsored terror against Black people that ensured the racial hierarchy was maintained. Along with Jim Crow came Redlining in the 1930s. This systematic and mandated denial of service to Blacks by housing and financial institutions was official government policy and denied home ownership to Black Americans. As white America began building wealth in the suburbs, Black people, by law, were deliberately and systematically shut out. In 1960 the Voting Rights and Fair Housing (FHA) acts were passed, officially ending Jim Crow and Redlining. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but left in a loophole: “except as punishment for crime.” States throughout the former Confederacy immediately began drafting laws guaranteed to lead to the arrest of Black people, who were then put back to work as enslaved people in all but name. The roots of today’s mass incarceration are in those Black Codes. The past matters. There’s a direct line from slavery to the fact that Black people, while only 13% of the overall population, make up 40% of the prison population.

As the U.S. commemorates Juneteenth, and in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the subsequent protests and riots in cities all across the U.S., people around the world have reengaged in conversation about how and why racial injustices persist in the U.S. and what to do about them. Like many Black Americans and people all over the world, these events and conversations unlocked a deep well of repressed pain I didn’t even know I had. As I processed my own grief and anger, my own experiences with race came to fore, as did the understanding I needed to make sense of it.

I sometimes think of slavery as the deluge, a centuries-long storm that flooded everything. For nearly 350 years from 1619 to 1968, through slavery and under Jim Crow laws, the U.S. federal, state and local governments formally and legally oppressed blacks in America and destroyed their ability to prosper, grow, or build a future. This is when the bulk of the damage was done. The waters from the deluge affected absolutely everything in America. Damage to African Americans, to their place in society, self worth, wealth, earning potential, development as a social group, psyche and so much more. The damage done to the U.S. government, its constitution and institutions, from the criminal justice system to law enforcement cannot be overstated. Laws are man-made and were written to legalize and enforce the racist beliefs and practices of the white men who made them. From the use of violence and enforcement of oppressive policies under the guise of “law and order”, to the built-in bias against blacks that still pervades the penal code, and even to non-government organizations’s hiring practices, the water damage was widespread. Then, as the 1950s came around, we finally began repairing the levies.

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Beginning in 1948 with President Harry Truman’s Civil Rights agenda, through 1968, federal administrations, Civil Rights leaders and their allies successfully dismantled someof the formal structures of segregation, and the country began to make tangible progress. As people became increasingly aware of the Black condition, they began to stem the damage to Black people and American society with amendments to the constitution, the introduction and enforcement of new laws, and spirited activism that gave many hope to dream of a new dawn of equality and prosperity. But following the assassination of progressive leaders like JFK, Malcolm X and especially Martin Luther King, progress slowed and ground to a halt. While changes were made to prevent further damage, nothing was done to reverse the multi-generational trauma of slavery. The damage from slavery and legal oppression persists, and we still see its effects every day.

Finishing the work

The concept of reparations has historically been viewed through a narrow lens, focused on the notion of handouts to descendants of slaves which has forced people into opposing camps on the topic. But viewing this solution through a broader definition of reparations — repairing all of that which was damaged — we might find a more holistic approach that perhaps we can agree on. It starts with repairing the systemic damage done to American culture and institutions.

“When you consider that much of the criminal-justice system was built, honed and firmly established during the Jim Crow era — an era almost everyone, conservatives included, will concede was rife with racism — this is pretty intuitive. The modern criminal-justice system helped preserve racial order — it kept Black people in their place.”

To Black Americans, systemic and institutional racism (systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them) are the most obvious daily reminders of inequality. To others, it is likely still an nebulous term. Police abuse and kill unarmed Black men all over the country without consequence on such a regular basis that one could be forgiven for thinking that it is part of their training and job definition. That it was once precisely so should come as no surprise. The advent of phone cameras and body cams has finally provided visual evidence to support the decades-old cries of Black communities decrying racial abuse by the Police. While it is late in the game, it is encouraging to finally see White America, and indeed the rest of the country, wake up to this fact.

But now comes the difficult part of changing it. Calls to defund police have already made front page news and rightly so. Those calls are only reinforced by countless examples of police abuse at a time when scrutiny of their practices is at an all time high.

The list of biases against Black people in the U.S. criminal justice system warrants its own dissertation. As Radley Balko writes, “when you consider that much of the criminal-justice system was built, honed and firmly established during the Jim Crow era — an era almost everyone, conservatives included, will concede rife with racism — this is pretty intuitive. The modern criminal-justice system helped preserve racial order — it kept Black people in their place.” Balko’s article is a thorough inventory of the countless ways in which the criminal justice system continues to abuse Black Americans. There can be no progress without uprooting what is in place, and drafting new policies that not only correct the bias but aim to undo the harm that those biases caused.

Beyond these government institutions is the broader U.S. culture, where bias remains so deeply rooted that, sadly, many card-carrying allies are completely unaware that they are themselves hosts to this disease, which they will likely pass onto their children. If white children do not learn about America’s true history, then “lazy” and “dumb” will sound like reasonable explanations for the black condition they observe, and the pervasive imprint of racial discrimination on U.S culture will be perpetuated for yet another generation. The past few weeks have highlighted how few Americans are taught in school about the racist systems that pervaded this country long after slavery was abolished. Fewer still understand that the elderly Black people they stand next to in the subway grew up in a segregated America where they would have had to give up that seat on public transportation, by law, to a white person. If today’s willing allies are to be part of the undoing of years of prejudice, then it must start with education, of themselves and of the future generation, so that they unequivocally understand the world they’ve inherited, and develop the empathy and awareness required to be part of the change. To that end, I found Jal Mehta’s stages of racial awareness incredibly insightful, as he articulates what your black friends might be unable or unwilling to say. Most readers are likely still somewhere between stage 2 and stage 4. Do you still shy away from race conversations because they are too uncomfortable? Are you “tired” of hearing about slavery? Do you wonder why Black people can’t “let go” or “move on”? or maybe you feel like your close black friends are evidence enough of your awareness? In any case the time is now to dig in and get past the fear, past the discomfort and past the favorable inertia. It isn’t too late, there is no expiration date on this movement.

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The median wealth held by black families with a college degree by the time the head of household is 65 years old is about $61,000 versus roughly $422,000 for white families under the same circumstances.”

Repairing the financial and cultural damage done to African Americans is perhaps the most obvious need. One of the most pertinent facts about slavery that many allies still ignore today is that slaves, legally considered property at the time, could neither own assets such as land or real estate, nor could they bequeath to their children or future generations. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over their lifetime, about 30 percent of households could expect to receive a wealth transfer and these would account for close to 40 percent of their net worth near time of death. Compound that for 10 generations, and the origins of today’s racial wealth gap starts coming into focus.

The Atlantic journal quotes a study by Tatjana Meschede and Joanna Taylor, researchers at Brandeis, which was published in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology. The study found that among college-educated Black families, approximately 13 percent get an inheritance of more than $10,000, as opposed to about 41 percent of white, college-educated families”. More specifically, white families that receive such an inheritance receive, on average, more than $150,000 from the previous generation, whereas that figure is less than $40,000 for Black families. Meschede and Taylor focused on inheritances of more than $10,000 because, they say, these qualify as “transformative” assets — meaning, they could significantly alter the course of a life. As Mark Huelsman, a policy analyst at Demos, an advocacy group, tweeted after seeing Meschede and Taylor’s study, “the average family inheritance to a white college grad can pay off the average undergrad debt balance” — more than $30,000 — “and have enough left over for a 20 percent down [payment] on a $575,000 home.” (And that’s assuming the inheritor has student debt to begin with.) That head start on wealth provides lifelong momentum, according to Taylor. The median wealth held by Black families with a college degree and student loans by the time the head of household is 65 years old, she said, is about $61,000, versus roughly $422,000 for white families under the same circumstances.”

These numbers make a simple point: We cannot speak of change and racial equality and ignore the need for reparations in some form.

The gap is simply too large, the hole too deep to expect blacks to simply catch up and be “equal” in any tangible manner, without deploying counteracting measures that account for the obvious financial damage, and allow African American communities to make up some of the lost time.

While monetary reparations in the form of a check makes many Americans balk, there are countless other instruments and methods that could be considered. But to even get here, true understanding is necessary.

Where We Go From Here

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that we have made progress as a country since slavery. Afterall, we did elect a Black president not too long ago. That he too benefitted from the privilege of being, at least culturally, a middle-class African man from a family that afforded him the kind of education and network that helped keep him out of real trouble isn’t lost on me. It is important to acknowledge our progress, it reminds us that it is possible to achieve it no matter how bad things look, even as we are faced with the reality of how much work there is left to do. The status quo is simply unacceptable to us, and it should be to you too. So here are a few thoughts on how you can get started:

  1. Educate yourself and your loved ones. Allyship starts with understanding. It starts at home, and then at school. Too many of you still don’t know what is happening because it isn’t overt, in your neighborhood or in your face. Too many would-be allies still don’t know their history, how it’s all connected and feel lost in serious conversation. This affects us all. White allies in particular need to speak up and be outraged. Especially the wealthy and connected amongst us. We cannot afford to have the powers that be on the sidelines, not taking sides. Allies, their progeny and their parents need to be part of the solution if Blacks in America stand any chance of overcoming institutional racism.
  2. Make changes in your organizations. Many of you are business owners or leaders that influence hiring practices. From your boards to your management teams, ask yourself whether your companies are drivers of change and diversity. In the 30s, corporations were quick to adopt redlining practices that still impact Black employment. Today, organizations like Ben & Jerry are setting a new standard for ethical corporate citizenship. Where does your organization stand?
  3. Register to vote, and help others do the same. 2020 marks the 100-year anniversary of women’s right to vote and 150 years since Black men were afforded the same right when the fifteenth Amendment was passed. Racial equality is important to Black people but not singularly so. If not for the historical efforts of some to disenfranchise blacks, their involvement over the past century and a half might have helped accelerate progress on issues beyond those that matter to Black Americans, like Women’s Rights, Sexual Identity and more. So get involved, get politically active, help get the vote out and register folks to vote so that their voices are heard too.
  4. Do not fear radical ideas, like defunding the Police. If you are white, and don’t get uncomfortable with some of the ideas you are asked to support or some of the situations you have to put yourself in, then perhaps you are not trying hard enough. Change is never comfortable, and what we are trying to change probably favors you in some way.
  5. #PrioritizeEquality. If your outrage is real and I’m sure it is, consider prioritizing racial equality as a central issue. Make it a priority in deciding which organizations you donate to. Make it a priority when deciding on electoral candidates. This may mean not making the most favorable tax policy a deciding factor. And if you are not willing to do this, recognize the implications of that decision. You can’t call yourself an ally and then make choices that are directly detrimental to Black people.
  6. Get political. Write to your senators and governors and let them know how important racial equality is to you. Let them know it will definitely determine how you vote in the next 8 years. Then commit to making black lives and more importantly racial equality one of your top agenda items. Political action is required for change to happen. With the power of the internet we must generate the kind of change momentum that generational leaders like Malcolm X, MLK and others did 70yrs ago.
  7. Lobby corporations like Google and/or other “trusted” technology partners to sponsor the democratic organization effort. Let grassroots political candidates present their plans. And let the people decide what makes the most sense to them. Organizations like BLM and others have ideas and young leaders; what they lack are tools and capital. Democracy has been stuck in the stone age for far too long. We need to organize, at every level of government. Policing in our cities isn’t decided at the federal level, it is decided at the municipal and county levels, and without transparency we have no say in how our police are funded, equipped or trained, or who makes those decisions. Platforms can give power back to the people with new levels of engagement. Let’s turn posts and protests into political platforms and policy.
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As long as we keep ignoring the depth of harm done to Black people, American institutions and U.S culture, or the massive work and investment required to undo it, we will consistently find ourselves in this familiar place, wondering how and why we are here again, pointing at more police brutality, more Black unemployment, illiteracy rates, poverty or any of the multitude of other realities that plague our communities. Unfortunately those will still be symptoms, not the root causes or principal issues.

Taken individually, each of these efforts could take decades to accomplish. But perhaps as a unified response to recent events, under the umbrella of a Green New Deal-like Dream New Deal, and candidates behind which to rally, we can at last finish the work Dr. King and others led 60 years ago.

Jean-Claude E. Homawoo

References

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