Why the Rich Need Racists: Prejudice as Social Control

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HELP WANTED: RACISTS
Anywhere, USA

-Must have an irrational fear and hatred of all things African American.

-Must honestly believe black people get all the breaks, have it easier than whites.

-Must believe black people are naturally inferior to whites, lazy, prone to criminality, less intelligent, etc.

-Must believe racism ended with either (1) the civil rights movement or (2) slavery.

But must hide these beliefs under a thin veneer of civility. For instance:

-must never use the N-word (in public)

-must never beat or kill a black person (unless on the police force)

-must never light a burning cross on a black person’s lawn (and get caught)

-must never tweet or express these views publicly in a way that can be traced back to you.

Enjoyment of rap music, black culture or black sexual partners optional. Fox News viewership preferred.

Bonus pay if racism is unrecognized by the applicant.

No experience necessary. Apply within.”

If you saw an advertisement like the above posted in your local shop window, it really wouldn’t be so surprising. Would it?

Well maybe because of it’s bluntness. But it’s not really that different from campaign fliers for Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump vowing to “Make America Great Again!”

Throughout it’s history, when exactly was America great for black and brown people who have been denied equal rights? When was it great for women or LGBTs or a host of other non-cis/non-male/non-white people?

A pledge to make America great again is just a pledge to make America white again – or at least to propel male whiteness back to the center of normativity.

(In fact, much of what I’m going to say about racism here could also be said of all kinds of prejudice. But for the interest of clarity, I’ll try to contain myself to focusing on racism, though I acknowledge the high degree of intersectionality of the phenomena.)

Yep. A lot of folks are riled up because the flower of white male privilege is wilting, and they think too many are suggesting we let it die.

What can they do? White people’s only remaining claim on supremacy is based on a fleeting numerical majority that is fast coming to an end. Soon they’ll be outnumbered.

They’re so mad about even an incremental loss of white power, they’re willing to blind themselves to obvious injustices against people of color.

For instance, black people are killed by the police at twice the rate of white people. Unarmed black people are killed at five times the rate. Yet somehow it’s black folk’s own doggone fault.

What if he has a legal weapon, but it’s not anywhere in use? HIS FAULT.

What if he has no weapon? HIS FAULT.

What if he’s just a child? HIS FAULT.

What if it’s a woman mysteriously found hanged in her prison cell with no possible motive for suicide? HER FAULT.

What if he’s screaming in pain from an injury sustained in the police encounter? HIS FAULT.

What if he’s complaining on video that police are choking him and he dies as a result of those injuries? HIS FAULT.

I mean come on, people! How does a brotha’ got to die before white folks will admit to some culpability by police?
And that’s just one type of example. Consider: There are more black people in prison today than were slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation. Black people get harsher prison sentences than whites for the exact same crimes. Black people are segregated into poor communities with underfunded schools. People with black-sounding names are less likely to get a job than white counterparts with the same experience.

And on-and-on-and-on.

Yet you’ll find white apologists everywhere who will see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil of the racial caste system under which their black brothers and sisters are forced to live. They refuse to acknowledge it, get angry when you bring it up and will actively support it at the polls.

That’s racism, people.

It’s 2016. Legal slavery ended more than 150 years ago in this country. The civil rights movement ended more than 60 years ago. Why do we still have systematic racism baked into the fabric of America?

In 1963, the African American writer James Baldwin asked the same question. He said:

“The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people, and our representatives, it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they’re going to face and deal with and embrace the stranger who they’ve maligned for so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have the n****r in the first place. I am not a n****r. I am a man. But if you think I’m a n****r, it means you need it… You, the white people, invented him, and you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”

Why do white people need racism?

Today we have an answer. The short version would be this: because it’s useful.

It serves a function in society.

When people conceptualize each other into these highly dubious and unjustifiable categories of black and white, it provides a valuable service to the status quo. In fact, we couldn’t have the status quo without it.

When historians look back at the ancient Spartan empire of 900 -192 BC, there is little confusion why their society was so highly militarized. Few historians wonder why such a small population organized themselves into a military state. They needed to control the vast network of slaves dispersed throughout their community. The conquerors were massively outnumbered by the conquered so they resorted to militarized fear to keep their social structure intact. They weren’t afraid of invaders from without. They were afraid of invaders from within.

Likewise, if humanity survives our current moment in time, historians of the future will undoubtedly be in agreement about the reasons for American racism. It’s the same reason found in ancient Sparta. We need it to keep our society together.
In America today, the top one percent own more than the bottom 90 percent. The richest 85 people have as much wealth as the bottom half of the country. And it’s only getting worse.

A country with such vast wealth inequality cannot survive without a scapegoat – black people. The majority of the population would not let the top one percent gorge themselves on our riches unless they had distracted us with something.

Don’t pay any attention to the Wall Street bailout. Look at those welfare queens, which is code for black people sucking away our wealth.

Don’t pay attention to the overt militarization of the police force. Look at those violent black criminals they have to deal with by pulling their service pistols and shooting them into submission.

Don’t pay attention to the inequitable distribution of education funding to your public schools. Look at how these black kids don’t pull up their pants, and if they manage to graduate, they’re given undeserved preference over more qualified white people through affirmative action.

Think about it. Why do we have a sizable black population in the first place?

Slavery. The very presence of a substantial black population is attributable to market forces. We needed a cheap workforce for our agricultural industry – especially tobacco and cotton. It was a labor intensive process and the only way to make a substantial profit at it was immoral thrift. And you can’t get much cheaper than forced, generational servitude.

Why weren’t black people treated equally after the Civil War?

We still needed that cheap workforce. The wealth of our nation depended on it. We needed legal ways to keep them subjugated. We needed to keep them on the farm or in prison so the economic engine of agriculture could continue unabated. If they all had the right to vote or could protest their conditions, that would hurt the bottom line. They’d gain freedom, but we’d lose money. Not gonna’ happen.

Why didn’t equality come after the civil rights movement?

Agricultural mechanization had decreased the need for cheap labor, but having an underclass is profitable for whoever can take advantage of them. The invisible hand of the market will preserve human subjugation for as long as it can and as long as it turns a profit.

Moreover, throughout the entire history of this country, the rich have needed something to keep white labor in check, too. Fair wages, overtime pay, child labor laws, vacation pay, workplace safety – all of these rights had to be fought for tooth and nail – usually by the most demonized of social institutions, the labor unions. We needed something to stop the rising tide of economic fairness. Giving white workers someone to kick around made them more satisfied with their own lot in life and less willing to fight for a larger share of the pie.

It went something like this: You may have to work in the factory all day, but at least you aren’t one of THEM. You might be bone tired while the bosses get rich off of your labor, but at least you can feel proud of your race.

What an amazing swindle! The rich have actually convinced many hard-working white people to feel proud of the pigmentation of their skin! No. Not their cultural heritage. Not the struggle of their moms and dads, their ties to a homeland across the sea, their religion or ethnicity. No. The color of their skins!

If intelligent aliens ever crossed light years of space and time to investigate the intellect of human beings, that one fact would have them rushing back home shaking their tentacles and multiple heads in disbelief!

Just look at how racism has been used to justify the actions of the wealthy throughout history!

Europeans discover a New World in 1492 full of riches to plunder and exploit. But how do you justify doing that when it’s already populated? How can you do that morally? After all, doesn’t our God command we love our neighbors as ourselves? Isn’t murder and theft a… gulp… sin?

Well obviously the indigenous peoples don’t count. They’re not like us. They’re not Christians. They’re heathens.

But wait a minute! The church is forcing them to adopt our religion. This justification has a sell-by date. It won’t last long enough for us to suck every drop of wealth out of the Americas.

So we came up with a new way to dehumanize people – racism. It’s not just that they’re heathens. They’re subhuman, too. FWEW! Problem solved.

Then comes 1776. The American colonies revolt and write up some high minded language about all men being equal. If we actually believed that, it would necessitate a new social order. Much easier to find new justifications for the old one.

Well we already agreed the Native Americans are naturally inferior. These African slaves we stole are likewise beneath our high ideals. The same with women. And the poor. And immigrants. And homosexuals. And whoever else we need to subjugate. They just don’t count.

When idealism and capitalism have come into conflict, the rich have invariably chosen capitalism. And when the rest of us choose racism, prejudice, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia, we’re doing them a favor. We’re backing up their interests.

Stop being such chumps, white people!

A racist is invariably a traitor to his own class. A sexist is a sycophant to the smart set. A xenophobe is a diversion to the hands buried in your pocket robbing you blind.
Your interests have much more in common with all those people you’ve been taught to hate. You could be coming together in common cause with all those black and brown people. You could be rising up and demanding your due. We could join together and demand a fair shake, an equitable piece of our gross national product.

But instead we are content to protect an ever shrinking share of our national wealth if we can just keep that ridiculous and childish pride in our lack of melanin.

During the same interview, Baldwin was asked if he thought there was any hope America would change it’s ways. He said:

“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.”

I agree.

It’s all up to us, white people.

Racism doesn’t serve us. It subjugates us just like it does everyone else.

They throw us a bone and we jealously guard it like its a prime cut of steak.

When are we going to wake up? When are we going to put away hate and choose love?

When are we going to join our brothers and sisters in the struggle and demand what’s ours?

The rich may need racists, but we don’t.

Racism is Just One of Two Things Shown in Alton Sterling Killing

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Americans are notoriously bad at holding two thoughts in our heads at the same time.

We look at the police shooting of Alton Sterling and can’t decide whether it was racist or if the 37-year-old black man just had it coming.

But we’re missing the point. Sometimes twice.

Baton Rouge Police shot and killed the father of five on July 5th.

The 37-year-old man was killed outside a convenience store in Louisiana because police allegedly got a tip someone was selling CDs and was armed. In the resulting scuffle, Sterling was shot and killed.

If the whole thing weren’t caught on a cell phone video, it probably wouldn’t be more than a sad headline. Just another black dude killed by police.

But the resulting attention has made his name a hashtag and his death a source of outrage – for good reason.

On the video, police tackle Sterling to the ground before gunshots are heard.

One of the officers shouts “gun” before shooting, but store owner Abdullah Mulfahi told the media that Sterling’s hand was not near any weapon and the alleged gun later recovered from his pocket was not visible.

People watch the video (or not) and immediately take sides.

Who is to blame – the police or Sterling?

Was the black man armed? Maybe – though Louisiana is an open carry state so he would be within his rights to do so.

What should he have done when confronted by police? What actions of his might have resulted in police not shooting him dead?

Did he have a record? Is that even relevant since police had no access to that information at the time?

Typically people come to conclusions based on their convictions and not based on the evidence. If you think black people are being victimized by police, then you’re probably on Sterling’s side. If you think black people are naturally violent and police rarely do any wrong, you’re probably on the side of law enforcement.

But what both sides are ignoring is a sense of context.

This was the 15th American killed by police so far in July alone.

Not the 15th black person. The 15th person. Period.

There’s some dispute over exactly how many people have been killed by police so far this year, but the number is surprisingly high. You’d think that would be something the federal government would keep track of, but no. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program tabulates every criminal statistic imaginable – except homicide by law enforcement. Alarmingly, it leaves this to the private sector – almost as if it had something to hide.

Much of this is done by the news media, both in and out of the country. The Washington Post puts the number of Americans killed by police this year at 505 people. The Guardian puts it at 560. An open sourced database called Killed by Police puts the number at 580.

Any way you look at it, no matter which tally you go with, 2016 is turning out to be one of the deadliest years for police shootings since people have been counting.

It’s a problem for everyone. Police should not be killing such high numbers of civilians. In fact, in other countries, they don’t. Police kill more people in the U.S. in days than they do in other countries in years.

For instance, U.S. police killed 59 people in 24 days last year. In England and Wales, 55 people were killed by police in 24 YEARS!

And the numbers aren’t that high solely because the United States has a larger population. The entire nation of Canada has about as many people as the entire state of California, yet Canadian police killed 25 people last year to 72 by California law enforcement.

That may be due in part to a lack of accountability.

Despite such high body counts in this country, not a single police officer has served jail time for it in the last few years. Several officers went to trial in 2016, but none were convicted, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Last year had the highest number of officers being charged for shooting civilians in a decade. That number? 12. And none of them – not one – was convicted of murder or manslaughter.

We have a real problem here. American police kill far too many people.

However, this doesn’t mean that racism isn’t a motive in many of these police shootings. In fact, the numbers back that up.

Though more white people are killed by law enforcement in this country, it is black people who are killed at a disproportionately high rate. They only make up 13.2% of the population, yet they are twice as likely to be killed by police as whites. Nearly a quarter of all police homicides this year resulted in dead black folks.

What’s going on here?

First, we live in a police state. Officers often kill suspects with impunity and face little to no consequences. Not all police, certainly, but far too many.

Second, black folks are killed more regularly by police than whites. In fact, if all things were equal, you’d expect MORE white people to be killed than already are. Whites make up 77.7% of the population, yet they account for only half of the victims of police shootings.

This isn’t because black people are so much more violent than whites. According to the Center on Disease Control’s annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, they engage in violent behavior at similar rates to whites.

For instance, they carry a weapon (whites 17.9% to African Americans 15.2%) and carry guns (whites 5.5% to African Americans 6.5%) at about the same rates. However, blacks are twice as likely to be arrested for weapons possession.

The same holds for assaults. African Americans report being in physical fights at similar rates (36.5% versus 32.5% for whites) but are three times more likely to be arrested for aggravated assault.

It should come as no surprise then that black people are more likely to be killed by police. This holds with everything else we know. When it comes to the criminal justice system, black people are penalized more often and that includes being shot and killed by law enforcement.

Why? Because they’re black. Because of societal attitudes, fears, phobias and prejudices.

For many of us, when we see Sterling’s last moments enacted on that cell phone video, we’re confronted with that fact. We put ourselves in his position. What could he have done differently? Whether he was guilty of a crime or not, what action on his part would have assured that he got out of this situation alive?

Eric Garner was choked to death by police while repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe!” Tamir Rice was shot by police in two seconds. What exactly could a black person do to avoid being shot if law enforcement already perceives him or her to be a threat?

These are important questions. But they aren’t the only ones.

America has a problem with police violence. In fact, it has two problems. And we can’t solve one without solving the other.

We have to come to terms with this. It is not a case of racism or a police state. It is a case of BOTH.

Great Reading Must Be Felt, Not Standardized

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I made my classes cry today.

That sounds terrible, but if I’m honest, I knew it would happen and meant to do it.

I teach in an urban district and most of my 8th grade students are African American and/or impoverished. We’re reading Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” together, and the kids were loving it.

Until today when we got to the verdict in the Tom Robinson trial.

Jaquan closed his book with wide eyes.

“What the heck happened?” he asked.

Other students in the room murmured their agreement.

“They found him guilty!? What the F!?”

“I hate this book.”

“This is so freakin’ racist.”

I let them go on for a moment.

Frankly, it was the reaction I had been expecting.

It happens every year around this time.

Until this moment, my kids were really into the book. They were enjoying the case and excited by how well the defense attorney, Atticus Finch, had proven that Tom, a black man in the 1930s South, is innocent of raping a white woman.

But even last night I knew what was coming. The next day – today – I’d have to go and break their hearts when they read what the jury actually decides. Some of them were bound to be crushed. And today they were.

For those who haven’t cracked this book open in decades, let me recap.

There is no physical evidence that the crime actually took place. Moreover, because of a crippling injury as a child, Tom is physically incapable of perpetrating the crime in the first place.

In a world where black males could be tortured and killed just for whistling at a white woman – like Emmett Till – it’s clear that Tom is the victim, not the aggressor.
It seems like a slam dunk case. Yet the all-white jury finds Tom guilty, and ultimately he is shot 17 times in prison after losing all hope and trying to escape.

It’s no wonder that when we read that cascade of Guilty’s from the jury’s mouths today, my kids couldn’t believe it.

Some of my best students closed the book or threw it away from them.

So I let them express their frustrations. Some talked about how the story hit too close to home. They have family members in jail or who have been killed in the streets by police. One girl even told us that she’s never met her own mother. The woman has been locked away since the child was an infant, and because of a missing birth certificate, my student hasn’t even been allowed to visit.

“Mr. Singer, when was this book written?” one of the girls in the back asked.

“The late 1950s,” I said.

“I thought you were going to say it just came out.”

And so we talked about what the book has to do with things happening today. We talked about Eric Garner. We talked about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.

At a certain point, conversation ceased.

My class of rowdy teenagers became quiet. We could hear people stomping in the hall, a movie being shown a few doors down.

There might have been a few tears.

I knew it would happen.

Last night I debated softening the blow, preparing them for what was about to take place. When we read “The Diary of Anne Frank” a month ago, I made sure they’d know from the very beginning that Anne dies. It should have been no surprise to them when Anne and her family are captured by the Nazis. It’s scary and upsetting but not entirely unexpected.

However, with “Mockingbird” I just let events unfold. And I stand by that decision.

It’s frustrating and painful, but my students need to feel that. It’s something I can’t shield them from.

It’s not that they have never felt this way before. Many of them have experienced racism and injustice in their everyday lives. But for this book to really have the desired impact, they need to FEEL what the author meant. And it needs to come from the book, itself.

A book isn’t just sheets of paper bound together with glue and cardboard. It’s a living entity that can bite. That’s the power of literature.

I can’t in good conscience shield them from that. They need to see it and experience it for themselves.

Writer Flannery O’Connor put it like this:

“I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

“When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

This is what our policymakers either misunderstand or forget when they demand we assess understanding with standardized tests.

The meaning of a story is not expressable in discrete statements A, B, C, or D. We wouldn’t read them if it was.

Every person is unique. So is every reaction to literature.

You can’t identify the meaning of this story on a multiple choice test. You can’t express what it means to YOU. All you can do is anticipate the answer the test maker expects. And that’s not reading comprehension. It’s an exercise in sycophantry. It teaches good toadying skills – not good reading strategies.

Perhaps that’s why Common Core encourages us to shy away from complex texts like “Mockingbird.” We’re told to focus on short snippets of fiction and to increase our student’s diet of nonfiction. Moreover, we’re told to stay away from narratives like Anne Frank’s. Instead, we should have our children read from a greater variety of genres including instruction books, spreadsheets, recipes – just the facts – because as Common Core architect David Coleman famously said, “No one gives a shit what you think or feel.”

Frankly, we don’t do a whole lot of that in my class. We still read literature.

Today, even after the blowout, we kept reading “Mockingbird.”

My kids suffered along with Jem and Scout. They reveled in Atticus’s example. They feared where it was all going.

And when class was over, a few of them had come around.

“This is such a good book, Mr. Singer,” one girl told me on the way out.

“Is Atticus going to die?” another asked to which I smiled and shrugged.

Jaquan stayed after the bell to ask his own question.

“Do you think in a hundred years things will be any different?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean do you think people will still do things like THIS?” he said holding up his book.

I looked at him and swallowed.

“I don’t know, Jaquan,” I said. “But things are better now than they were. We can hope.”

He nodded.

I clapped him on the back and wished him a good weekend.

You don’t get that kind of reaction from Common Core, and you can’t assess it on a standardized test.

Students can’t ask such questions to computer programs.

They need teachers with the freedom to teach and assess as they see fit.

Otherwise, it is not just Tom Robinson that suffers a miscarriage of justice.

We all do.