Favorite

A racist system 

Eric Garner with his family image

Eric Garner with his family image

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.

Favorite

Speaking of Eric Garner, Ernest Hoskins

Comments (11)

Showing 1-11 of 11

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-11 of 11

Add a comment

People who saved…

Readers also liked…

  • Seven

    The controversy over the Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol lawn just won't go away.
    • Feb 9, 2017
  • Why a change of leadership at the LRSD now?

    Johnny Key's abrupt, unilateral decision to not renew Baker Kurrus' contract as superintendent strikes us as shortsighted, misguided and detrimental to the education of our children and the health of our community.
    • Apr 21, 2016
  • Schlafly's influence

    Phyllis Schlafly, mother, attorney and longtime antifeminist, died recently. What Schlafly promoted was not novel or new. Men had been saying that men and women were not equal for years. However, anti-feminism, anti-women language had much more power coming from a woman who professed to be looking out for the good of all women and families.
    • Sep 15, 2016

Most Shared

Latest in Guest Writer

  • Seven

    The controversy over the Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol lawn just won't go away.
    • Feb 9, 2017
  • No relief for renters

    If you are hoping to see new laws that improve rights for people who rent homes or apartments in Arkansas, you will find disappointing two bills proposed so far this legislative session — SB 25, by Sen. Blake Johnson (R-Corning), and HB 1166, by Rep. Laurie Rushing (R-Hot Springs). Even if both bills become statute, Arkansas would still have the worst landlord tenant laws in the country.
    • Feb 2, 2017
  • Let them eat cake

    An unproductive and harmful bill attempting to curb obesity passed easily out of committee last week at the state legislature. House Bill 1035 attempts to address this serious public health issue by preventing poor families who rely on SNAP (the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps) from purchasing certain items such as candy and sodas.
    • Jan 26, 2017
  • More »

Visit Arkansas

Forest bathing is the Next Big Thing

Forest bathing is the Next Big Thing

Arkansas is the perfect place to try out this new health trend. Read all about the what, why, where and how here.

Event Calendar

« »

March

S M T W T F S
  1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31  

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Don't cry for Robert E. Lee

    • Thank you Max. Wonderful, pointedly (if that is a word) laying out what is so…

    • on March 25, 2017
  • Re: More on pits

    • Well, aren't we the compassionate one - "own family members" can mean small children -…

    • on March 24, 2017
  • Re: More on pits

    • Of course you don't care. If you cared, you might want to find a solution…

    • on March 24, 2017
 

© 2017 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation