The Cry Heard Round the World:
I Can’t Breathe!
Times stay the same or are times actually a-changin’? I’ve asked myself this countless times during these past four weeks as national protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers have erupted in all major cities and many small towns across the nation. In historic protests immediately following Floyd’s death thousands of Black Lives Matter activists organized rallies and marches. I sat glued to my television set on May 30th, a Saturday afternoon, and also livestreamed Black Lives Matter speeches and a rally in Los Angeles. In utter astonishment hours later, protestors were met by squadrons of LAPD officers that resembled a military flank more than officers of the law dedicated to protecting and serving. In a blink of an eye the LAPD beat back peaceful, law-abiding protestors with tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons wielded with such force that it bruised and battered many. Structural damage to buildings such as the Minneapolis police department and numerous restaurants and retail stores in cities including Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. ensued. And, oh-so-eerily, watching the protests and unrest unfold brought me back to the events that sparked residents of Los Angeles to participate in week-long rebellions following the 1992 acquittal of the LAPD officers who brutalized Rodney King back in late 1991.
How is it possible in the more than four weeks little has actually been accomplished to improve the conditions for Black Americans? There have been moderate calls for reform such as banning the chokehold in several major cities. In addition, cities including Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, and Seattle have sought to end policing of students in public schools by voiding relationships with the police departments contracted to ‘keep the peace’ at schools. I use that term loosely (and sarcastically) as policing of students seems to do little but turn metropolitan schools into fertile ground for the prison-to-pipeline system nationwide. It is well-known that Black and brown students are suspended and expelled at far higher rates than their white counterparts. In the most recent week, there have been many signs of the erosion of racism and white supremacy. Unfortunately, these have been merely symbolic gestures such as the razing of statues of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and Confederate sailor Charles Linn. While the removal of such statues is a welcomed move, in the big picture, it does little to solve endemic systemic racism riddling the nation. A salve perhaps, but a solution? Far from it.
The reckoning taking place over countless Confederate statues and monuments hearkens back to the post-Reconstruction era when the ‘losers’ of the Civil War, the Confederacy and all those Southerners trying valiantly to keep the embers of their ‘Lost Cause’ burning brightly decided to erect statues of Confederate higher-ups. These statues mostly were erected either at the beginning of the 20th century in the decades of the 1910s-20s and then later in the 1950s-60s, reflecting the South’s attempts to memorialize and keep ‘sanctified’ its notions of itself. Curiously, or perhaps not so, those statues were built at times when Black Americans (and in the case of the 1910s-20s) and European immigrants were making some moderate gains. The Harlem Renaissance led by Alain Locke’s publication The New Negro in 1925 and James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” better known as the Black National Anthem, demonstrated early iterations of Black nationalism, which was viewed with anxious disdain by white southerners. The sobering look at the memorialization of the South and the nexus of memory and an imagined past is told in the anthology edited by historians Catherine Clinton, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Gary Gallagher, and Nell Irvin Painter in Confederate Statues and Memorialization. In order to overcome systemic racism plaguing us as a country, it is necessary to first understand the history of the treatment of Black people in America. What got us here in the first place?
What Got Us Here in the First Place
The short answer is slavery. The dehumanization and complete brutalization of enslaved African peoples began in this country in 1619 and continued nearly unabated until the end of the Civil War. Despite the prohibition over the slave trade in 1808, this only stopped international trade while domestic trade continued for several more decades. Even the pronouncement of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 only freed enslaved persons in the Confederate states while those in the border states continued to be held captive until the end of the war.
Following the official end of the Civil War in April 1865, there would be a period Black gains under the Reconstruction era which lasted a mere ten years. Promises of equality were offered by the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments; however, those promises were only partially met. Notwithstanding convict labor and the widespread use of Black codes to maintain white supremacy, in many regards even the promise of freedom from slavery was an illusion. To be certain, there were ways in which, although freed, Black people continued to be subjugated to forced labor and unfree movement across public spaces. This history is well examined by Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.
Reconstruction witnessed some short-term gains by Black people in the arena of politics. With Black men exercising the right to vote for the first time with the passage of the 15th amendment, 16 Black representatives and one senator were elected with hundreds elected to lower state and local offices. That door slammed shut in 1877 with the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes, a president intent on insuring that white supremacy was reimposed.
The Jim Crow era remained entrenched in American history for more than seven decades from 1877 to the early-1960s with the advent of the civil rights movement. Ubiquitous voter disfranchisement occurred through state-level measures in the form of grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and later literacy tests, pushing Black voters out of the polling booths. Social mores and the dominance of ‘Southern society’ (read: racism) continued the vile subjugation of Black people for the next decades. This was the period known as Jim Crow when white supremacy yielded a period of time that in many ways echoed slavery itself. From freedom of movement to racially coded roles, white people were free to do as they pleased whereas Black people lacked even semblances of freedom.
The nail that slammed the coffin shut on the ability to gain better jobs, education, and access to public accommodations was the enactment of “separate but equal” under the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which involved African American Homer Plessy and his attempt to use a white-only railroad car. The ruling upheld states' rights in matters of racial segregation and codified the concept of “separate but equal” allowing racial segregation to become the law of the land in most aspects of life. Thus, the decision against Homer Plessy set up a system whereby almost all aspects of black life in the South were legalized, from subjecting Black people to substandard health care and education, to daily humiliations of being served last in stores and having to make way for whites on public sidewalks. The period from the 1890s into the 1910s was the high point of institutionalized racism, when Jim Crow laws ruled the lives of most African Americans in addition to a myriad of customs, rules, and unwritten laws that reinforced white supremacy. Henry Louis Gates’s masterful work Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy and the Rise of Jim Crow unpacks this period in U.S. history when Black experiences were scarcely different than they had been under the institution of slavery.
The standard narrative of postwar America is that the growth of the suburbs occurred because of the advantages of GI benefits and FHA home loans allowing many families to escape metropolitan cities for the insulation of the suburbs. However, there was a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’ in this expansion—whites reaped rewards from G.I. benefits allowing them to receive educations and purchase homes in the ‘burbs while Black G.I.s were historically excluded from VA benefits as many received dishonorable discharges, thus preventing them from buying into the ‘burbs. Moreover, redlining was a common practice of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) put in place as part of the New Deal. Underwriting of loans prevented racial integration as the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) established in 1933 was the association designed to regulate loans. HOLC adopted a color-coded rating system for assigning values to property. This redlining was born when HOLC designated the least desirable properties as “red” coded, and unsurprisingly it was the Black potential properties that fell into this category. Further separating out Black and white homeowners were the bevy of restrictive covenants regulated by seemingly innocuous Neighborhood Improvement Associations. Many of these organizations existed to "improve" the neighborhoods by ensuring that Blacks and other ethnic minorities did not buy homes in the neighborhoods. Realtors encouraged and sometimes required residents to sign these covenants. These practices continued unabated until the Federal Housing Act of 1968 prohibiting discrimination in housing. One need only look at the dispersal of communities in major cities like Minneapolis to see how these home buying practices have been made manifest. It is an enduring legacy that has created a huge wealth gap in America along racial lines.
The best book I have read on this history of Black exclusion from home buying and the buildup of white economic security in the suburbs is Thomas Sugrue’s brilliant The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. In it, Sugrue shows how an “arsenal” of racial exclusion, followed by the “rust” of segregation, all catalyzed in the “fire” of what would follow in the virulence of White neighborhood improvement associations (read: whites desire to keep Black up-and-comers out of their neighborhoods). Besides the blatant racism in home buying, changes in such regions as Detroit occurred. It was common practice for unions to show bias against hiring Black workers even in such mainstay industries as auto manufacturing. The refrain of “last hired, first fired” characterized experiences of Black men during the heyday of automobile manufacturing. This was a tinderbox for the uprisings witnessed in the mid 1960s in places like Watts, Detroit, and Chicago circa 1965-1967.
LBJ’s Disregard of the Kerner Report and Trump’s Parallel Universe
By the mid-1960s, uprisings in major cities across the country emerged not unlike what is evolving at this moment over racial injustice and police brutality. This period was known as the “long hot summer,” as beginning in 1965 with the Watts uprising and continuing into the summer of 1967 more than 150 uprisings erupted. This tinderbox was due to many of the concerns of racial injustice from the Jim Crow era to the postwar period. With the coming of the civil rights movement, gains had been made politically as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and granted equal employment opportunities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been passed safeguarding the voting rights of all citizens regardless of race. Certainly, President Lyndon B. Johnson did much to push through these two legislative acts and also ushered in his Great Society. Still, he largely ignored the endemic systemic racism plaguing the nation and erupting in full force by 1965.
By the summer of 1967, there was growing unrest across the nation commencing in 1965 with the Watts Riot and continuing through the summer of 1967 with marked uprisings in Newark and Detroit. Unrest occurred because of racism in policing in all three communities: in Los Angeles, the arrest of Marquette Frye, a Black driver under suspicion of drunk driving; in Newark, John William Smith, a Black cab driver assaulted by police while in his vehicle; and in Detroit, a gathering at a bar frequented by Black patrons was stormed by local police who brutalized clubgoers. In all incidents, unrest ensued catalyzed by a single event but also in protest of high rates of unemployment, police brutality, and other pernicious forms of racism that subjugated Black communities in all three cities. Thus, on July 29, 1967, Johnson issued Executive Order 11365, which established a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders better known as the Kerner Commission.
Sadly, with respect to race relations in America, things sound alarmingly similar to the 1960s. Replace the name Marquette Frye—the individual who was brutalized by the LAPD in August 1965 as Watts, California began to burn to the ground following the incident—with Rodney King and you have an eerie parallel. Replace the assault in Newark, NJ in 1967 with Messiah Young and Taniyah Pilgrim, the two college students brutalized by the Atlanta PD with taser guns while ensconced in their vehicle in June 2020, and it demonstrates that things remain the same nearly 50 years later.
The Kerner Report released their findings seven months later in February 1968. Unlike the view held by Johnson and others who perpetuated the myth of outside agitation as the cause of the uprisings that seized the nation, the Kerner Commission, much to Johnson’s chagrin found differently. They conceded that the more than 150 rebellions occurring during the summer of 1967 were caused by white racism, which was
“essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”
In total, there were more than 100 deaths, millions of dollars of property damage, with Detroit alone accumulating some 7,000 arrests, 42 deaths, and 2,500 businesses looted or burned to the ground. The conflagrations, continued the Kerner Report, owed itself to such urban problems caused by systemic racism where pervasive discrimination had yielded lopsided unemployment rates, substandard housing, and inadequate public education for Black Americans; a high degree of white flight to the suburbs with Black people remaining landlocked in the inner cities where deteriorating services and needs remained unmet; and segregation and poverty translating into despair, crime, drug addiction, and resentment by those left with limited opportunities in the cities. It was a powerful indictment of the postwar prosperity experienced by white suburban families. The Kerner Commission summed up the problem with police as being “not merely a ‘spark’ factor.” In other words, many Black people viewed the problem of police brutality not only a problem in and of itself but that the “police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.”
The words revealed in the Kerner Report are instructive to us even in 2020—the primary cause of the unrest capturing the nation in 1967 was white racism meaning that the Kerner Commission recognized the lopsided wealth gap, de facto employment realities, housing conditions, and educational discrimination as being caused by the growth of the suburbs and biases in federal entitlement programs like VA benefits and the FHA. It is a stunning recognition of the legacy of slavery, if you think about it. The Kerner Commission made strong recommendations for overturning systemic racism such as developing neighborhood task forces to achieve more effective communication with city government; creating greater transparency in law enforcement including allowing “redress against the police and other municipal employees” and also recruiting more Black officers. But perhaps the most significant Kerner recommendations were those that called for the creation of 2 million jobs over three years with 250,000 private sector and 300,000 jobs in the public sector during the first year and home loan supplemental programs geared at assisting low-income families in purchasing homes. This last two recommendations seem stunning rebukes to widespread job discrimination and the unchecked housing disparity made possible by redlining and racial covenants. One of the best books that looks at the Kerner Commission and Johnson’s response to it is Steven Gillon’s Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commision and the Unraveling of American Liberalism.
Why didn’t Johnson implement any of these changes? By early 1968, Johnson faced a welter of growing problems. The Vietnam War was becoming a widely contested war in the eyes of American public with opposition reaching a fever pitch after the Tet Offensive. Many Americans believed that Johnson was mishandling the War by 1968. The aforementioned racial unrest across the nation resulted in hundreds of deaths, thousands of arrests, millions in property damage, and a present, perhaps, too egotistical to take notes of the Kerner recommendations. It was an opportunity lost. Then, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, and cities once again burned to the ground in angry response to losing one of the greatest civil rights heroes in modern history. Johnson finally took action in late 1968 but not in enacting any of the Kerner reforms. Instead he passed the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968 which gave $400 million grant to police departments for technology and beefing up departments. Johnson was intent on touting himself as a “law and order” president and wisely stepped down from a pursuing a second term. The nation instead chose Richard Nixon who ran on a “law and order” campaign and ultimately was subjected to more law and order policies, plus veiled racism.
In an eerie parallel to the 2020 election and current presidency of Donald Trump, I’m predicting that like Johnson, Trump is plagued by too many controversies to be seen as a viable candidate to win the 2020 presidential election (not to mention the bigotry and racism on display daily). This whole scenario makes for a Twilight Zone episode. The Trump administration is in its own parallel universe—plagued by a mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a blatant disregard for any type of racial justice in America, and a quest to be deemed as a “law and order” president through the worst photo op stunting in presidential history. What president in a democratic society uses the militia to clear a public space of thousands of peaceful protestors in order to take a photo outside St. John’s Episcopal Church at Lafayette Square? Not only is Trump not a member of that church, it is a left-leaning church well-known for its dedication to social justice in D.C.!
Trump is playing hard ball with a “law and order” approach out of political expediency, though every poll out there suggests dwindling numbers. Moreover, recent findings by Pew Research suggest that 67% of the American public supports the Black Lives Matter movement (notably 86% of Blacks and 77% of Latinx support such efforts). In that same poll conducted on June 12, 2020, Pew found that 48% of Americans think Trump has made race relations worse (with 68% of Blacks and 55% of Latinx). To that, add a failed reelection rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma and the release of John Bolton’s book The Room Where It Happened, which is a caustic indictment of Bolton’s former boss and you get the perfect storm for a disastrous reelection campaign. If the George Floyd murder taught mainstream America anything it was to get woke—the cross-section of people marching in cities and towns alike suggests that there are hundreds of thousands of people who finally get racial injustice. Or at least that is what the support for BLM rallies and marches suggests.
The racial inequities plaguing the country are not new. While there may have been some minor economic successes experienced by Black America and the federal government’s attempt to ameliorate conditions in the city centers in the 1970s, with the advent of President Ronald Reagan, a new ‘sheriff’ was in town—one who stressed a “War on Drugs” something that had been ushered into New York politics by Governor Rockefeller in the late 1970s. The War on Drugs exacerbated the two-pronged criminal justice system with widespread racial profiling in “stop and frisk” of both drivers and pedestrians alike, disparate sentencing based on drug type, and by race. Perhaps not as well-known as President Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” under then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller stringent drug laws were put in place. Laws such as sentencing guidelines that incarcerated nonviolent offenders and also low-level drug dealers effectively created an industrial prison complex. Reagan in the 1980s continued those policies.
The best book for understanding how the double standard in the criminal justice system that effectively created a second era of Jim Crow is undoubtedly Michelle Alexander’s masterly The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This is one of my all-time favorite books and it transformed my thinking about the prison system, criminal justice, and just how truly demented our penal system in the United States is. I read the book on a road trip to Portland, Oregon in summer 2013 and was immediately blown away by the sheer magnitude of what I was processing. Yes, I knew of the disproportionate figures of Black and brown men in the prison system, but I underestimated the way in which incarcerating low-level marijuana sellers and users has turned a whole cadre of people into a perpetual underclass. The second Jim Crow comes from being blocked from casting a vote as a convicted felon, prevented in most cases from securing decent housing or even an employer willing to extend a felon a job. When all those Black and brown men (and women) are shunted from these pathways, it yields despair and hopelessness. This book was a well-needed gut punch and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is another terrific book that details the countless individuals who are convicted erroneously because they lack the means of securing legal representation. These are heavy books but important ones to understand the bias in the criminal justice system, which gets us back to George Floyd.
A Way Forward
In the 30 days since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis what has transpired in terms of reform? As previously mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the chokehold has been banned in several major cities across the nation. On June 8, the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband the Minneapolis police department and instead put in place likely community-lead public safety committees. To some it sounds far-fetched, but in 1967, the Kerner Commission suggested some of the same alternatives for public safety. The Commission recommended developing “Neighborhood Action Task Forces as joint community government efforts through which more effective communication can be achieved, and the delivery of city services to ghetto residents improved.” It further recommended creating more opportunities for “city residents to participate in the formulation of public policy and the implementation of programs affecting them through improved political representation, creation of institutional channels for community action, expansion of legal services, and legislative hearings on ghetto problems.”
Black Lives Matter recommends defunding the police. In Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti has promised to reallocate some $100-150 million from the LAPD budget, but this is only a drop in the bucket for a department that is currently funded at $1.8 billion. Basic math suggests that though Garcetti’s heart may be in the right place, when the reallocation amounts to a mere 5-8% of the police department’s budget, it is a hollow gesture. For real defunding to take place, police departments may need to part with more than 5% of their budgets. For real actualized efforts to truly improve the conditions of Black Americans, it is high time that the discussion of reparations be addressed. If, as the Kerner Report suggested more than 50 years ago, white racism is responsible—and in the 2020s we’d call this white privilege—it is time to remedy these gross disparities in meaningful ways. What does that look like? It may begin with some of the solutions Kerner suggested. It’s time to extend accessible home loans to BIPOC first-time homebuyers. It’s time to reallocate money from overfunded suburban schools back to the city centers where BIPOC remain shunted from meaningful educational systems. It’s time to reallocate monies from the police departments into social services, job training, and mental health. Ta-Nahesi Coates’ brilliant article “The Case for Reparations” included in his collection of essays titled We Were Eight Years In Power delves into some of the causes of the wealth disparities that I also outlined in this essay. He eloquently writes,
“Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm.”
It’s time for America to consider its history.