Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Michael Brown — These are the names of seven unarmed black men killed by law enforcement, the last four of which police officers shot, choked or tased to death in the past month alone.* These men, along with the deaths of hundreds of others over recent years, have left a bitter but vital reminder of the previous 23 decades of oppression faced by Black Americans. Together with the recent shooting of Michael Brown, these men’s deaths have created a national outcry that refuses to swallow the lie about racism being buried alongside Jim Crow or Martin Luther King, Jr., and demands that we look ourselves in the mirror and see racist America for what it is: a country where black people risk death at the hands of law enforcement sworn to protect them, simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the early afternoon of August 9th in Ferguson Missouri, Michael Brown found himself in that situation. Darren Wilson stopped the 18 year-old teenager simply for jaywalking. After what three eye-witnesses identified as a struggle between the two men, Wilson fired a shot from within his police car and continued shooting as Brown, unarmed, attempted to run away. After realizing he was hit, Brown turned approximately 35 feet away from the police car and faced Wilson with his hands up. The officer proceeded to fire several more shots until Brown died on the spot sporting six bullet wounds.
Brown’s untimely and tragic death has sparked several conversations about targeted policing and the abject poverty and oppression experienced by Black Americans. Several sources have illuminated, for instance, the shocking disparities between whites and blacks in our legal system. According to Lauren Williams and Ezra Klein of Vox Media, as well as the NAACP, Black Americans make up 50 percent of homicide victims while only constituting 13 percent of the population, and one in three black men are expected to be imprisoned in their lifetimes as opposed to only one in 17 white men. When the majority of the people in our prisons come from a minority of the population, we have to ask ourselves: why? Because of racist and targeted policing, because of systematic barriers to opportunity, and because of over 200 years of inferior stereotypes projected from whites to blacks that have solidified into a glass ceiling.
Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, voiced the reality of this oppression in an interview, “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level where they feel like they don’t got nothing to live for anyway.”
Others who prefer to ignore racist these realities cite “black-on-black” crime as the leading cause of disproportionate black deaths in America. This concept of “black-on-black” crime projects the illusion that with the high rate of black victimization in homicidal crimes, blacks are more violent — another false rationalization of racism. The rates of white-on-white crime are astronomical as well, and almost equal to those of black-on-black crime (83 percent versus 91 percent, respectively, as of 2011), which means that blacks are dying more because they are being murdered more. Further, the rates of black-on-black crime are also tied to decades of systematic racism.
Crime rates are known to increase in situations of abject poverty and these pockets of poverty have been created through decades of racist policies that fail to protect blacks as well as other minorities. Take Chicago for example. According to The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, “on-contract” housing schemes were used to manipulate blacks out of money and property. With no mortgage or equity, sellers would increase monthly payments to prices buyers couldn’t afford and would then be forced to forfeit all payments and property. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration ensured private mortgages, but only to buyers living in specific “in-demand” areas, free of black and minority influence. This herded all Blacks who were able to afford homes into Central-city areas, that quickly deteriorated from the absence of new investments due to the FHA’s negative appraisal. Thus black communities became ghettos, while white sellers profited from their poverty. Today for instance, the North Lawndale community of Chicago is now 92 percent black, with a homicide rate that is three times that of the rest of Chicago, an infant mortality rate that is more than twice the national average, and income rates three times lower than white neighborhoods in Chicago.
Blaming black poverty on black culture, or the astronomical rate of black death on black-on-black crime is not only ignoring a legacy of systematic oppression from whites to blacks, it is senseless victim-blaming that effectively says “it’s not our problem, so we don’t care.” It is denying the responsibility we all share to actively work towards freedom for all people.
*Trayvon Martin was not killed by law enforcement, but by a private security officer. The Collegian regrets its error.
Collegian columnist Caroline King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.