Monday, September 1, 2014

Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos

The shooting of unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo has thrust the topic of race back to the forefront. Many media pundits urge us to "discuss" the incident and racial tensions. "We can talk about Ferguson," a recent headline of the Portland Phoenix declares.

But for many black residents of Ferguson, and other predominantly African American communities, the time for "talk" is long over. Talk, as they say, is cheap.

We do not need another university-style discussion on race and police brutality. These sorts of indiscriminate shootings of unarmed young black men--with the memory of Trayvon Martin still fresh in our minds--have gone on far too long.

What we need now is action.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate for African Americans is nearly double that of whites--at 11.5 percent as of June. Yet, as Demos senior fellow and former New York Times columnist, Bob Herbert notes, in a recent article for AlterNet ("Ferguson Just the Latest in Long Line of Racist Fueled Tragedies," 08/27/2014), soaring unemployment rates have plagued the black community long before Wall Street crashed the economy.

"I remember the stunned reaction of so many Americans back in the summer of 2005," Herbert writes, "when legions of poor black people in desperate circumstances seemed to have suddenly and inexplicably materialized in New Orleans during the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina."

He continues, "...People found themselves staring at the kind of poverty they thought had been largely wiped out decades earlier."

We like to believe that racism is a thing of the past. We think of slavery as an ugly, unforgivable stain on our country's history, but one that we have, in modern times, more or less atoned for. Republican politicians grossly misconstrue Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call to judge others not by the color of their skin, but "by the content of their character" as a free-market argument against affirmative action programs.

In the years since President Barack Obama's election, some pundits have even gone so far as to claim we now occupy a "post-racial" era.

Last year, the Supreme Court took this suggestion even further by obliterating key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts echoed the "post-racial" concept, writing, "Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions."

Yet this sort of childish thinking merely allows for the perpetuation of white supremacy--which is likely the point.

Even here in lily-white Maine (94.4 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white according to the 2010 U.S. census), we are not immune to racist bigotry.

When I (briefly) worked at Staples in Falmouth last year, a young co-worker complained that he "didn't see what the big deal" was concerning the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. (These were his exact words. I kid you not.) He suggested that the death of "one black kid," did not, in his mind, compare to the "dozens" of his white friends who were "killed by black people." Can you see now why I quit...?

Yet, in an unqualified display of hypocrisy, this same individual, who is Jewish, threw a fit one night after a customer made what he perceived to be an anti-Semitic remark. Noam Chomsky is correct: "For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit."

Every significant political philosopher has understood the inherent--and inextricable--link between racism and capitalism. Socialism of any sort can never fully take form without eliminating racial as well as income inequality.

Karl Marx observed this link in Capital (Vol. 1), writing of the factors that lead to the rise of capitalism:

The discovery of gold in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of the continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.

He continues later, "In the United States of America, every independent workers' movement was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured part of the republic."

While the antiquated, overt forms of slavery and racial segregation of the 19th century have been (mostly) done away with, the corporate state now uses more subtle, sophisticated methods to keep African Americans in chains.

The most common apparatus of racial segregation is the U.S. prison-industrial-complex--the largest in the world. Today, the vast majority of young black men are in prison--most of them for petty crimes or minor drug possession charges. Blacks constitute 1 million of the nearly 2.3 million Americans in prison, according to the NAACP. Blacks are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites. In fact, a recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based reform group, the Sentencing Project, estimates one in three black males will go to prison at "some point in their lives."

This system of racial incarceration constitutes the "new Jim Crow," according to author and law professor, Michelle Alexander, in her provocative 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander argues the mass incarceration of black Americans has effectively made them a permanent "under-caste."

"We have not ended racial caste in America," Alexander writes, "we have merely redesigned it."

So, by all means, let's discuss the situation in Ferguson.

But let's also understand that any discussion without meaningful, preferably nonviolent, action to back it up, is meaningless and will change nothing. Let privileged corporatists like Portland musician Samuel James split hairs over whether Brown's death was motivated by "race" or "class," seemingly oblivious to the intricate connection between the two.

Let us return, as Herbert does in his piece, to the words of James Baldwin. In his 1962 classic, The Fire Next Time, he writes:

"I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand..."

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