My fiancé, a teacher, came home from work the day after the election. “A little boy was sitting on the side of the playground crying today,” he told me. “When I asked him what was wrong he said, ‘Black lives don’t matter. I don’t matter.” This young, middle school aged boy knew the personal significance of the election, and was devastated by the results.
Much like the rest of American history, the plight of African Americans has been sanitized, reworked and retold. There is no reason, many white Americans think, that black people shouldn’t be able to just get over slavery and move on. Some people believe there is no reason they shouldn’t operate like white America if they would just try harder.
The truth is that the system has been stacked against African Americans since they were first brought to America as slaves. When they were emancipated in 1863, they initially gained citizenship and the right to vote with the 14th and 15th amendments. It didn’t take long, however, until angry former slave holders and the frightened South overthrew any progress made, determined to stop social change. Manisha Sinha, Professor of Afro-American Studies and History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said, “African American ideas about emancipation were deferred until the Civil Rights Movement led to the passage of new laws to implement black citizenship.”
“Vagrancy,” or the inability to prove ones employment, was a criminal offense. Author Douglas Blackmon, in his book, Slavery by Any Other Name, said:
“Vagrancy…was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men.”
Once incarcerated, these men were put to work on farms and used as other free labor sources for local businesses. Blackmon discovered one encampment that “supplied tens of thousands of men over five decades to a succession of prison mines ultimately purchased by U.S. Steel in 1907.”He said these men were “‘leased’ by state and county governments to U.S. Steel or the companies it had acquired.”
In 2016, it was discovered that Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, made a shocking confession to Harper Magazine 22 years earlier, saying:
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
In 1982, Ronald Reagan upped the rhetoric on drugs, declaring a war and a problem that didn’t exist. In fact, according to Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, “It was an astonishing move. Drug crime was declining. Only 2 percent of Americans viewed drugs as the nation’s most pressing problem. Drug treatment therapists were shocked by Reagan’s unfounded claim that America could ‘put drug abuse on the run through stronger law enforcement.’”
The “war on drugs” has disproportionately impacted black and brown lives, though drug use is more often, or equally, prevalent among whites. One survey showed that 17.1% of whites surveyed used cocaine compared to 9.9% of blacks. When it comes to crack cocaine, the survey showed 3.4% of whites had used crack cocaine compared to 5% of blacks. 17.2% of whites used hallucinogens compared to only 6.7% of blacks. Both races, 1.8%, admit to using heroin equally.
While African Americans represent only 12% of the drug use population, 38% of those are arrested for drugs and 59% are in state prison for drug use, says the NAACP. The Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that, in 2011, of the 225,242 people serving time in state prisons for drug offenses, African Americans made up 45 percent, while whites made up just 30 percent. Not so coincidentally, private prisons have been a $70 billion industry, using prisoners to make a fortune.
African Americans have historically been targeted by police, relegated to subpar housing, and denied decent education. White Americans, on the other hand, have been lied to about “the good old days” when America was “great.” As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, says:
“Jim Crow laws were wiped off the books decades ago, but today an extraordinary percentage of the African American community is warehoused in prisons or trapped in a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights—including the right to vote; the right to serve on juries; and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.”
The new, or at least rehashed, political regime is represented by fear and ignorance. When there is fear, social progress ceases to exist. And the little boy sitting on the side of the playground is rightfully afraid. We, as a nation, have the obligation to prove to him that indeed black lives matter. His life matters.