Eric Garner: No Country for Black Men

I have written on Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown before. The most recent addition in this sad and ongoing story in American history is Eric Garner.

I have the privilege of knowing young black people in their teens from middle class and upper middle class upbringings who were largely oblivious to racism until the Mike Brown and Eric Garner decisions. They are now fully awake to the injustices prevalent in our society.

This is sad because contrary to popular belief it’s not as if Black people have annual community meetings to discuss how they are going to focus on how racism is holding the community back, although that is a common punchline in jokes and commonly invoked in social commentary. Actually, generation after generation of young black people are open to the idea that maybe the country has finally gotten past racism and it’s not a thing that has to color (pun intended) their existence or something that they have to pay attention to, only to have several social events awaken them to the ugly reality that racism exists within the system and the effects of racism have real consequences for their lives and the lives of others.

Over militarization of the police is an issue, but even that issue is entangled with race. After all, police didn’t begin to become seriously militarized in this country until the onset of the “War on Drugs” which by no small coincidence started shortly after the conclusion of the Civil Rights movement. The war on drugs was just the latest installation of racist police policies which allowed over policing in high poverty areas which are disproportionately populated by Black people. The militarization of the police has since been fast tracked by the “War on Terror” which has pretty much succeeded in terrorizing urban centers with police tactics and resources closer to what you might see in a war zone. Perhaps the United States government can start by tackling this issue.

For Black people the answers are much more complicated. For decades young black men have been getting harassed, intimidated, and killed by police, for nothing more than loosely fitting the profile of an alleged criminal. Furthermore, affirmative action is being rolled back with every court case presumably because it engineers racist outcomes in favor of Black people even though evidence still shows that a person with a name that appears to be African American is less likely to get a call back for a job than a person with a name that appears Caucasian and the unemployment rate for Blacks continues to be at least 5 percentage points higher than that of Whites. I could go on and on about wealth and income inequality as well, but the point is that unless you attribute all these obstacles for Black people to some kind of racial inferiority that Black people have i.e., their racial disposition not to work hard or their inherent tendency toward criminal lifestyles, you can’t help but come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with a system that continues to produce these outcomes.

To make matters worse, apparently most White people are of the mind that the Civil Rights Movement and the election of a Black president has solved racism. So much has been made of America being post racial, but we are still living in the same divided America. It has gotten so bad that there are even White people undertaking projects to show other White people that racism exists! There are articles stating that the only way some Whites will accept the reality of the racist system is if other Whites let them know about it. In other words, some White people can’t even accept the idea that a situation or system has racist consequences if told that it does by a Black person. If that isn’t racist then I don’t know what is.

The reality is society is increasingly hostile to the idea that racism could have anything to do with the position of Blacks in American culture. Blacks protesting in the streets of Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, or, Sanford is not going to change any of the things that really make life difficult for Black people. In fact, the whole idea of protesting by marching is misguided in 2014.

To be clear marching as a form of protest was effective during the Civil Rights Movement, because it created a spectacle. As depicted in the upcoming movie Selma, it created a scene wherein the white power structure at that time would respond against Black people with unconscionable and immoral violence. This gave context to the movement by showing Whites and Blacks across the country that there was nothing that Black people were doing to deserve the kind of second class citizenship they had.

In parallel, we’ve finally accomplished this in the case of police brutality with the Eric Garner case. Therefore marching is irrelevant as a strategy. We have already seen what happens, and the nation is properly shocked. The protests may be a justifiable way to blow off steam, but if Black people want to make actual gains then protesting in the streets is not the way. It certainly won’t be anywhere near as effective in 2014 as they were circa 1964.

The Civil Rights Movement was (partially) successful, because it combined spectacle with political and economic action which required the response of the government. During the Civil Rights Movement the economic action was the bus boycotts and to some extent the sit ins which made it difficult for businesses to make money. Martin Luther King was then called into meetings with political leaders which allowed him to put pressure on them to legislate equality.

Therefore, political and economic moves must be made. The Civil Rights Movement set the foundation for Black people to achieve full citizenship but it only granted it in theory. The system has shown that it won’t move unless pressure is applied, and Black people have not been diligent enough in applying pressure. The catch is that the task of applying political and economic pressure to the system requires Black people to mobilize in such a way that we strengthen our businesses and professional networks in order to demonstrate that Black people can operate independently. Once Black people do this they will be able to gain control of the education of their children and begin to exert political will by electing leaders to represent their interests. This is long term thinking.

I know this line of thinking runs counter to some in the Black community who mistrust any strategy that includes working within the system. But the fact is that we live in America and the only way to impact the existing system is to work within its confines. Any attempt to manipulate the system from the outside has usually been met with failure and often times is afflicted with a lack of competence due to the fact that if you want to change something it might be wise to learn something about how the thing works. We have too many people who are proud to say they don’t know anything about politics. You don’t have to be a politician to be a student of politics. In addition, one of the great things about America is that in this country you can influence the system by voting and by financial contribution.

Finally, no political leader in this country should be happy or satisfied with anything I have written here. These views reflect the sad and cynical conclusion that America will not truly consider Black Americans first class citizens until Blacks force the issue. Martin Luther King’s dream was that not only Whites and Blacks but all Americans could be equal partners in opening the doors for everyone to enjoy the American Dream. After 50 years this is still simply a dream we have tried but are failing to realize. The starkly different reality is that Black people must continue to fight even more diligently to ensure that children have proper education, that they have access to the social networks that will help them find jobs, and that our neighborhoods are economically and politically secure. Once this occurs Black people can put public servants in place that will be responsive to the needs of the Black community. Then and only then will we see police officers think twice before gunning down unarmed Black men and children for something as trivial as selling cigarettes illegally.