In the wake of the killings of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Ernest Hoskins, Jordan Davis* and others at the hands of police officers, security guards and self-appointed vigilantes, I’ve heard people ask the following: If black men know the system is unfair to them, why do black men do things to get in trouble?
This question forgets how systemic racism is in America. At its foundation, we are a nation that was established by white men drafting rules and laws from their point of view. The mistreatment of people of color has never been an isolated incident. It’s a continuum of purposeful, often legal, actions to keep people of color in a constant state of second-class citizenship. As noted by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his article “The Case for Reparations,” America’s history includes 250 years of legally justified slavery, followed by 90 or so years of lightly challenged Jim Crow polices, overlapped and followed by 60 or so years of separate-but-equal doctrines, and followed by almost 40 years of state-sanctioned economic policies that control where or if black people could own homes. Today, thanks to the effects of the so-called war on drugs, we’re living in a new era of Jim Crow. Although rates of drug use are comparable across racial lines, police and prosecutors disproportionately target people of color for arrest and prosecution. The U.S. jails a higher percentage of its black population than did South Africa at the height of apartheid, according to Michelle Alexander in her devastating book, “The New Jim Crow.”
“Once you’re labeled a felon,” Alexander writes, “the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.”
Why are we then surprised that a system constructed and tweaked over the course of hundreds of years to ensure control over a second class would take more than a generation or two to dismantle? It’s naive to think that these historical actions have not continued to evolve or that they don’t currently impact social policy.
America labels black boys and black men a threat or a problem shortly after we are born. Studies from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have shown that zip code and race are strong predictors of life expectancy. For a great many of us, our life outcomes are determined, and sometimes judged erroneously, before we are born. For black boys and black men, this labeling continues from elementary school all the way through graduate school. We’re branded as less than human as we acquire employment and seek loans for a mortgage. This labeling persists whether our pants are sagging below our waist, whether we are wearing lab coats or if we are impeccably dressed in a tailored Hart Schaffner Marx suit. Neither our college degrees nor our professional titles and accomplishments grant us immunity from this labeling and disrespect.
Introduction to the system does not require trouble. Introduction to the system doesn’t begin with a police encounter. It does not begin with an appearance before a judge. It begins at birth. Black men are born into a larger system that doesn’t recognize their full humanity. As a result, it puts limits on our future attempts at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Of course, one can purposely insert himself into the criminal justice system by committing crimes. But there are a number of black males who, by merely existing, also face arrest and adjudication in an unjust system just by fitting a description.
In front of every gateway to opportunity is a gatekeeper that likely is not black. This doesn’t mean that they are evil or dislike black people. It just means that there is no frame of reference to review when someone of color seeks access to that opportunity. Their denial of opportunity is likely based on an inability to see someone of color as they see themselves. Yes, my sons will encounter greater hope and change and love and acceptance and opportunity than their grandparents and even I have seen. There has certainly been great progress. However, there are still those they will encounter who will deny them opportunity, unreasonably fear them, or, worse — all because of the color of their skin and an inability to see them as deserving of equal opportunity.
Sam O’Bryant serves as deputy director of SchoolSeed, a public education foundation in Memphis. As a former resident of Little Rock, Sam was instrumental in developing community-based programs with a focus on anti-poverty, youth development, and college access.
A previous version of this column misidentified Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old murder victim in Jacksonville, Fla., as Jordan Dunn.