There is a good number of Americans who believe that we are more racially integrated than ever before and that segregation is a problem of the past. This is simply not true.
This is a mini-series or as I call them, ramblings. Since some people want a white history month so bad during Black History Month, let’s see what white America was up in the last few hundred years.
During the days when America was still actively expanding West, the Homestead Act gave away land to anyone who came to claim them– for free. Of course, by “anyone”, I meant white families. A significant portion of white Americans today can trace their family wealth to this Act. Throughout the 1900s, we know that the government distributed money in the form of GI Bills to veterans and also heavily encouraged building suburbs and giving out loans to “eligible” families to buy homes in those suburbs. During the Great Depression, FDR’s New Deal overwhelmingly benefited white Americans. It was at this time that redlining as we knew it began.
The maps drawn during New Deal America are still available today. You can see the maps here and they’re interactive too! The wording on the maps are also scary with word like “infiltration” and “undesirable” You can read delightful comments about black, brown and immigrant communities.
As with many other civil rights issues concerning black Americans, whenever there is progress, there have been swift and violent backlash. Most famously, Little Rock Nine and then-6-year-old Ruby Bridges when they were enrolled in all-white schools. Many white parents during this time pulled their their children out of school permanently. This reflects a huge shift in the mid-1900s where a mixture of new wealth, the building of suburbs, renewal of the ideal of a traditional nuclear family and a desire to maintain racial segregation and status prompted a massive white exodus from urban centers to the surrounding suburbs.
When whites fled, the urban centers were also abandoned by local and state-level officials. You can see this in what happened to the twin cities and more recently, you can see it in the fall of the automobile industry in the Midwest that prompted a mass exodus of the wealthier white population from cities.
This not only created a haven for those seeking the “American Dream” but it also meant that people were free to form neighborhood covenants barring any “undesirable persons” from moving into their communities.
Segregation codified in law wasn’t so long ago. Ruby Bridges is only 66 years old in 2021. She’s barely retirement age and for many of us Millenials and Gen Zers, that’s around the age of our parents. If your grandparents lived in America during that time, then your grandparents definitely lived through it.
Ask them about it and what they thought and did during that time. It may be hard to picture them that way but a lot of our own family members have first-hand experience and it is likely that they were at least raised racist or are still racist. The people in the pictures below are most likely still alive. The woman yelling with a mask of hatred on her face at the back of one of the Little Rock Nine, men pouring food and drinks, threatening and attacking those sitting in, and the man about to stab a black man with a flagpole mounted with Old Glory (looks an awful like the scene of the police officer being beaten with an American flag during the Jan 6th insurrection, doesn’t it?).
Many people like to believe that because they had black neighbors or grew up in the North, they weren’t racist and that their institutions and systems weren’t racist. Just look at Chicago, Detroit, Flint and New York City. You don’t need MAGA or Confederate flags to spot a racist. Those just make it obvious.
On a side note, the Civil and Human Rights Museum in Atlanta has a simulation lunch counter where you can experience a little of what’s it was like to be part of the sit-ins in the 60s. I recommend the experience. You don’t really understand the abuse black activists and ordinary citizens endured until you experience a little of it yourself.
Today, incarceration is both a humanitarian crisis as well as a drain on our economic systems. We spend more on keeping youths locked up than we do on them in school. The surface causes of mass incarceration are pretty obvious; black and minority populations are targeted and disproportionately punished for the same things that white Americans and especially white Americans get away with all the time.
A huge part has to do with individual racism as we can see from the videos released of fatal police encounters. But the part that’s harder to see and do away with is the institutional and systemic racism. These are all the abstract things couched in legal language, bureaucracy and doublespeak that are much more enduring and impactful than any one person’s racist actions. After all, there is a lot to be gained from having this massive prison population.
This all stems back to slavery. Police forces were initially formed as, sort of, neighborhood watches to catch runaway slaves. After the Civil War, black people couldn’t blatantly be enslaved anymore so they took advantage of the loophole in the 13th Amendment where it basically said that it was legal if the person was a prisoner. Then, black people started being arrested and charged for no reason. Most never saw trial and even if they did, only whites could serve on jury and so, it began.
Black people have always been targeted whenever America needed something to calm her nerves. Black oppression seems to be the anxiety pill whenever America is going through uncertainty and unrest. “Law and Order” preyed on white Americans’ fears of moral decline and the “encroachment” of black people and minorities into their communities. This resulted in the disappearance of millions of predominantly black boys and men into the prisons. You’ve heard those stories about the black children who stole $9 or a backpack or a candy bar who are now in their 50s and 60s still serving out their life sentences.
Prisons also make huge amounts of money. Prisons and other correctional facilities were originally maintained by states’ and the federal governments but they have since been outsourced to private corporations. These corporations sign lucrative contracts to lock people up and these contracts often contain quotas for minimum capacity where the government would have to pay them if the prison population dipped too low. What should have been an institution for rehabilitation and re-entry into society has now become a hugely profitable business and of course, incentives to lock and keep people locked up.
Imagine if you have to live everyday like you have a brother or sister or mom or dad away at war and afraid that they’ll never come back home. Because that’s what it feels like for millions of families. Neighborhoods targeted by police don’t trust the police. This distrust of what is supposed to be a third-party neutral agent means that, often, people in these communities organise to enforce their own form of social control. Instead of the justice system processing and passing impartial judgement on crimes and perceived personal slights and grievances, individuals now put it on themselves to seek justice. This could result in violence and would also be an opportunity for unscrupulous individuals to establish themselves there and exploit the people who live there.
If a parent is arrested, then this puts enormous financial pressure on the remaining parent. This family is now much more doomed to fail. This is not to even mention the trauma and psychological damage. Why do we hate on black single mothers when we were the ones who took away their partners? Why are fatherless or “my father is in jail” black children such a trope and made fun of and pitied in movies when we were the ones to take away their fathers?
Then, we talk about how instability and poor family life has made black children more likely to act out, more likely to commit crimes, etc. etc. Has anyone really looked at why or did we just all fall back on our lazy assumptions that violence and lack of achievement and effort are inherent to many in the black community? Always, always, check your biases.
This is a self-sustaining system. It positions itself as the only solution to a problem it creates. In the state it is in now, there does not need to be a prison system.
But that’s all for my rant today. Lemme know if there’s something else y’all wanna hear me rant about.
Keep learning and keep reading and keep connecting with people. I’ll see you next time!