As Freddie Gray was laid to rest, Americans watched as Baltimore residents protested the death of the 25 year old, whose spinal chord “mysteriously” snapped while in police custody--causing his death. On Friday, six officers were charged with crimes ranging from manslaughter to murder.
As thousands marched in Baltimore's street, hundreds of thousands more took to news outlets, blogs, and social media to comment on the protests that followed Gray’s death. What many black and brown people saw as reactionary anger to systematic racial injustice, many whites and conservatives saw as a threat to peace and dangerous civil unrest.
One Fox News reporter even suggested that the protests were so barbaric that cops should begin executing people in the street for their roles. Many whites and conservatives have failed to look for the root cause of these and other civil unrests around the country, and have moved to an easier and more comfortable narrative of lawlessness by criminals.
Their failure to ask the question, however, does not make it any less a question. Why have black and brown American’s alike been protesting, engaging in civil unrest, and riots? The answer is simple.
Romanticizing the Civil Rights act of 1965 has led conservative, and all together uninformed American’s in a false belief that we are living in a post-racial society. With the removal of signs that designate “white only” establishments, those privileged enough to never be oppressed believed due diligence was done to eradicate racial disparities. However, having an oppressed class has always, in every society, created economic profitability for the ruling class. Jim Crow in America was no different. Thus, there had to be some systemization of racism that was not so overt as to defy the Civil Rights Act, but could keep economic prosperity and privilege in tact.
Enter institutionalized racism.
This may or may not be a common phrase, depending on what circles you run in. But it can be proven. In the 1950s, experts projected that within 30 years prisons may not be needed in the United States. Within 30 years prisons went from roughly 200,000 inmates to over 2 million, with over 45 percent of the prison population black. What made blacks become more dangerous in those years? Nothing.
What changed was not behavior of a race but extension of “what is criminal” in the United States in the late 1960s—not ironically right after the Civil Rights Act was signed. Privatization of prisons that also followed made it profitable to states to fill prison cells, with some states having (and still having) contracts that guaranteed beds would be filled or pay penalties at taxpayers’ expense. Easy targets had to be found and were created.
Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs ensued. Criminal codes were expanded. One notorious example made it punishable by a minimum of 10 years to have 10 grams of crack cocaine (a poor man’s drug commonly found in black communities). The same sentence for powder cocaine, a preferred drug of the wealthy, white and high priced, required big enough bags that would legally be considered trafficking. The far more ironic problem was that powder cocaine was needed to make crack. But the government targeted the black community. Interestingly, in a famous scandal, then-Sen. John Kerry—now the Secretary of State—uncovered that the Reagan administration was purchasing cocaine from South America and selling it to impoverished communities. A few people were fired. Regan claimed no knowledge. And the war on drugs continued.
The rise in crack use in black communities was no different than the rise in drug use in any lower socio-economic communities. Vietnam veterans were one example, suffering from PTSD and war fatigue. Few concessions were made for them. Even fewer if you were black. Black men and boys were sent to fight for freedom in foreign countries that they weren’t even awarded at home. They came home and self-medicated. They were made targets for their self-medication. Soon, a generation saw more black people imprisoned than were enslaved in 1850.
The ensuing crisis ran deep. Children were left without fathers and mothers. The entire financial burden of families was laid on one parent or in many cases, an extended relative. Once thriving black urban communities became desolate, inner cities. Redlining made it impossible for any attractive business to come in and stimulate the economy of black communities. Lack of job opportunities led to poverty. Poverty led to lower tax revenues to fund the public schools of America that are paid for by property tax. Schools failed children. Children turned to the streets. A vicious cycle emerged.
Decades after Alabama Gov. George Wallace bellowed “Segregation Today, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever,” the political system and courts screamed with unjust laws, racially biased policy, and blindness to the plight of an oppressed people that only privilege can bring.
Generations of oppression lead to hopelessness. Hopelessness begets survival by any means necessary. If a young black man or women will likely go to jail or prison in his or her life for something their white counterparts will never even be chastised for, how can they believe in blind justice of the law? If YouTube affords them the ability of watching young, white, men and women defy law enforcement and law and never get punished but they lost parents, friends, and loved ones to prison for far less, why should they believe they have equal protection under the law?
Moreover, why should WE believe that?
As Baltimore continues to rally, perhaps it is time we put our respectability politics away and ask ourselves “why?” Why are the young and old alike taking to the streets to in anger, frustration, and refusal to capitulate? Is there something more to their claims of decades of racism that maybe America can’t face?
Can we, for a moment, at least ponder the idea that we exchanged Jim Crow for Legal Racism because it looks much better? Can we take the facts of what it means to be black in America and compare them to the facts of what it means to be white in America and give real consideration to whether we are all protected equally?
Here at Brave New Films we have made a film examining some of those facts. It is by no means exhaustive. But it is a start. While “Baltimore Burns” as the conservative media says, something should be burning inside of us to help them put out the fire.