Archive for African Americans
There is an amazing series airing on PBS this fall, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The documentary series is produced and narrated by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and made possible, in part, by JustFilms of the Ford Foundation, The Hutchins Family Foundation, as well as corporate sponsors. I mention the sponsorship at the top because you can see how the deep-pocketed funding pays off in this well-crafted, beautifully told, and thoroughly researched series.
The episodes include a wide sweep of just over 400 years of history, beginning with The Black Atlantic (1500-1800), The Age of Slavery (1800-1860), Into the Fire (1861-1896), and the most recent, Making a Way Out of No Way (1897-1940). Still to come are Rise! (1940-1968), and It’s Nation Time (1968-2013).
Each episode blends Gates’ avuncular narration and interviews with leading scholars and experts on African American culture with solid scholarship and a compelling visual style. These are also travelogues as we follow Gates re-tracing the steps of the African diaspora, across the Atlantic, to the American south, and then North and West through the great migration.
The tone of the series is on emphasizing the rather profound resilience, innovation, and resourcefulness of the African American people. Yet, it simultaneously takes an unflinching look at the centuries of white oppression that changes shape over time but remains a brutal, nefarious, and life-threatening constant. In my view, it strikes just the right balance between these two, always emphasizing how African American folks were able to “make a way out of no way,” while never pulling any punches about the unrelenting nastiness of white racism and the cruelty of institutional oppression.
(More Famous Quote Posters from PBS)
There are so many people in the US – the overwhelming majority, I think it’s safe to say – who do not know this history. To our great, collective shame this history is not part of the K-12 curriculum, and most adults will only learn it if they choose to take a “Black History” class in college. My hope is that this remarkable series might be incorporated into more curricula, as it was clearly designed to do.
Systemic racism persists and flourishes in this country because of an extensive set of racial myths created long ago and aggressively perpetuated by whites in major institutions of this society, decade after decade.
Given this white myth-making, empirical data on what is actually the case often become “radical.”
Consider this pervasive belief. Whites publicly assert that they get most of their jobs over their lifetimes only or mainly because of their merit and abilities. They pedal this fiction to everyone they can, and indeed get many folks of color also accept it as true.
The problem is that it is mostly a grand fiction.
For example, recently conducting hundreds of white interviews, sociologist and university dean Nancy DiTomaso has demonstrated well the important social networking patterns that reproduce great racial inequalities in U.S. employment patterns. Her many white respondents reported that they have long used acquaintances, friends, and family–their personal networks–to find most of the jobs secured over lifetimes of job hunting. That is, they use exclusionary networks. DiTomaso calls this a societal system of “opportunity hoarding.” It is, more bluntly, institutionalized racial privilege and favoritism.
These empirical findings flatly contradict the colorblind view of our employment world propagated by many Americans, and especially most white Americans– that is, the view that in the U.S. economy jobs are secured mainly or only because of personal “skills, qualifications, and merit.” Yet, wherever they can, most white job seekers admit that they typically avoid real job market competition and secure most of their jobs by using their usually racially segregated social relationships and networks.
And, even more strikingly perhaps, most whites do not even care that they benefit so greatly from such an unjust non-merit system—one that exists because of the 400 years that systemic racism has created a huge array of white material, social, and psychological privileges. In her many white interviews DiTomaso did not one white respondent ever openly expressing concern about their use of this highly unjust non-merit system.
Her data also flatly refute other common notions of white virtue. Whites contend that they are now the victims of “reverse racism” and “reverse discrimination,” two white-crafted terms and notions–in more recent versions of the dominant white racial frame–that are primarily designed to deflect attention from the society’s fundamental and foundational white racism.
In her white interviews Ditomaso found that the persisting opposition by most whites to affirmative action is not so much about fear of “reverse discrimination,” but much more about the way in which effective affirmative action programs have sought to weaken these centuries-old patterns of institutionalized favoritism for whites–including institutionalized bias favoring whites in competition for society’s better-paying jobs.
She found In the nearly 1,500 job situations that her respondents talked about in detailed interviews, she found only two situations where a white person might have conceivably lost a job because of an affirmative action effort on behalf of black Americans. Empirical demonstration of yet another white fiction.
The real societal worlds, when it comes to jobs and much else in the way of white wealth, assets, and privileges, are not those fictional worlds of distinctive merit and white disadvantage propagated by many, and especially conservative, whites—including those “well-educated” whites who serve on our high courts and in our legislatures.
Empirical data on how white-generated racism operates in the real world, once again, are themselves radical.
In need of a house? Affordable housing? Detroit has an abundance of housing with prices unimaginable to most Americans. You can purchase a large spacious home for as low as $100 or less in the underprivileged areas that span for many square miles throughout the city. You might lack public services ordinarily taken for granted in most places, such as police services and street lights. There has been such a surplus of vacant properties that Detroit’s been burning them down. In 2010 there was an estimate of 70,000 burned houses which does not include vacant buildings and those numbers continue to rise with each passing year. Where else in the world would homes that might be considered the picturesque of “the American Dream” be regularly set on fire despite the fact that this nation has its fair share of people who are homeless and/or in dire need of housing?
Devil’s Night in Detroit is when the most fires are set and typically begins on October 30th and runs through the 31st. People from other communities and states travel into the city to join forces with the local residents to help with their local adopt home and other property efforts against arson, as well as bolster local medical, safety, and first response services. In this light, the evening has been redefined as, “Angel’s Night.”
During the early 20th century, Detroit, “The Motor City,” was a growing industrialized city and predominately white prior to the 1920’s. In fleeing the Jim Crow of the south, Blacks began to migrate into the Detroit area during the late 1920’s on through the 70’s only to find they were equally unwelcome. Often met with violent racial hostility by the existing residents and police brutality, social exclusion from employment coupled with housing segregation, Blacks were blocked from equally participating in white society. With the deep seated feelings of entitlement, the settled whites who were already competing with each other for existing opportunities and resources in the Detroit area channeled much of their venomous fears and frustrations onto the Black communities who, like they, were seeking better lives.
The systemic racial issues bottled up coupled with rise of the Civil Rights Movements gave rise to race riots of the 60’s throughout the nation bringing down the racial apartheid. Detroit had the largest riots in the nation resulting in the enactment of Marshall Law on three different occasions. As the apartheid was being dismantled a Black middle class began to emerge where shortly after, the city fell into rapid economic decline. In direct response to desegregation, white flight took hold resulting in resegregation with the nation’s wealth and privileges being concentrated into the predominately white suburbs and higher social classes throughout the nation. In 1950 Detroit’s population peaked with 1,849,568 and declined to 713,777 in 2010. Rather than integrate, much of white society chose to abandon their business and residential property.
Nothing exemplifies white privilege more than with the abandoned properties throughout Detroit. Most of us are required to properly dispose of our unwanted belongings. Black Detroit residents are the primary beneficiaries of these major social problems and toxic environmental issues. In 2010, the population of Detroit was 82.7% Black and 10.6% white with the State of Michigan having 14.2% Black and 78.9% white populations with black inmates representing 55% of the total prison population. Detroit is the poorest city in the nation with 1 in 3 residents living in poverty and many others living near poverty. There are still some very wealthy residents in Detroit, but they live in segregation on the outskirts of the city.
Detroit has the highest murder and missing person rates. These issues may play some role in the highest arson rates as well. As noted by the Detroit fire fighters above, to some degree vandalism has been the culprit, but there are a combination of reasons ranging from desperation where residents set fires to polluted houses that have been abandoned with rotting trash or that pose other social and environmental threats (vigilante fires) to sometimes revenge. Arson is a mechanism the residents have resorted to as a means to correct their immediate problems since the city either will not, or cannot.
But further, some locals believe that the general public is deliberately misled on the level of arson carried out by the residents as some of the power holders of the city are believed to be financially vested with local demolition contractors. It is cheaper to remove burned down houses than those fully intact. This destruction is a form of social expression from abandoned and socially neglected voices. It is revolt as Feagin and Hahn (1973) outlined in their earlier work on Detroit riots, to the many forms of racism that have championed the abuse and neglect of Black communities throughout history on into current times. With the effects of deindustrialization compounded with ongoing blocked legitimate means of survival and societal abandonment, it is no wonder the thousands upon thousands of houses representing the very icon of the American Dream have been set on fire many times over. What American Dream?
[The following analysis was sent to us by an experienced academic administrator.]
A Los Angeles Times article published on October 18, 2013 notes that an independent investigative report conducted at UCLA found instances of overt and covert racism involving minority faculty members. This information was gathered by an investigative review team appointed by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, Scott L. Waugh, under the direction of Chancellor Gene Block and involves findings from interviews with eighteen faculty members in individual interviews as well from ten written statements submitted after a Town Hall meeting. The external review team consisted of a panel of experts including former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, UCLA Professor emeritus Gary Nash, Bob Suzuki, former President of Cal Poly Pomona, Dr. Maga Jackson-Triche, former UC Davis Professor, and attorney Constance Rice.
The findings of the report include the identification of conflict involving a racial component in two UCLA departments, two reports of egregious incidents of bias experienced by UCLA faculty members, and three reports of perceived bias in hiring, advancement, and retention.
The academic department is the cultural environment that shapes how minority and women faculty are supported and welcomed, the way conflicts are resolved, and how power is distributed. The department chair sets the tone in the academic department, but the makeup of faculty in a given setting, such as the predominance of long-serving tenured faculty, also impacts the departmental dynamic.
Case in point, the study highlights allegations of systematic exclusion of minority and female faculty in what is called “Department A” that ranged from telling junior faculty of color that they would not attain tenure, to discriminatory remarks such as “I thought Asian women were supposed to be submissive.” A white faculty member who was tenured and subsequently left the department indicated that he had spoken out against such conduct, been retaliated against by the department chair through a recommendation against a merit increase in pay, and he then retired rather than continue in that atmosphere.
In “Department B” two faculty members alleged that the department was divided along racial lines, indicating that they had experienced incidents of bias or discrimination by other faculty members, including senior faculty. One faculty member indicated what he perceived to be a clique of Caucasian male professor who ran the department, and said he had personally witnessed senior faculty use racially or ethnically insensitive language.
Incidents of racism noted in the panel’s findings include the report of a Latino faculty member in the health sciences, who indicated that shortly after his hire as a fully tenured faculty member, a senior faculty member in his department, upon encountering him for the first time in the hallway, asked in a loud voice in front of a group of students “What is that fucking spic doing here?” When the Latino faculty member reported it to his assistant dean, the assistant dean, although sympathetic, advised him against going to the dean since it would cause more trouble. The Latino faculty member feels threatened by the senior faculty member, and also believes that the individual left a screwdriver in his mailbox in 2010.
The majority of incidents identified to the reviewers involved process-based discrimination in hiring, advancement, and retention. Faculty members believed that they were denied advancement due to bias and discrimination, usually through an unfavorable letter from the department chair or dean and a negative departmental vote.
Recommendations for action in the report include the need for: 1) adequate training of UCLA employees, including faculty, on what constitutes biased or discriminatory behavior; 2) review of UCLA’s policies and procedures for clarity in how to report incidents of perceived discrimination and the subsequent investigative process; and 3) a centralized Discrimination Officer to address incidents of alleged bias, discrimination, and intolerance. The Discrimination Officer would have independent authority to conduct fact-finding investigations as a core responsibility of the office, would plan education and training, and ensure appropriate followup and recordkeeping. In essence, the Discrimination Officer would create the needed infrastructure to address informal and formal complaints and implement proactive and preventative measures to address forms of covert and overt discrimination.
The UCLA report highlights the importance of a framework of structural components that support an inclusive environment within the decentralized organizational environment of university departments. Recent research on academic departments finds a high degree of variability in the climate and interactions within academic departments that can be strongly influenced by the leadership of the dean and department chair.
Given the decentralized structure of universities with varying micro-climates and cultures, the experiences of women and minorities within departments can reflect very different realities depending on how power is operationalized through leadership, demographic makeup of the department, and intradepartmental interactions. The steps UCLA is taking are important by not only calling attention to the persistence of forms of subtle and covert discrimination, but also in creating the clear and unequivocal leadership expectation for an inclusive work climate throughout the university that supports the progress and contributions of diverse faculty and staff.
Black Americans and other Americans of color have endured many hardships ever since twenty Africans set foot in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. For 85% percent of our nation’s existence, white-imposed systems of oppression via slavery and Jim Crow “separate but equal” were the bloody and violent norm. Since that time, the persistence of racial discrimination has remained a routine part of their everyday experience. Black folk have worked very hard on a steady path of social mobility through group uplift and self-determination against overwhelming odds. In this milieu of racist deprivation, some black Americans have managed to find economic, political and other forms of success against the hegemonic countervailing forces of white institutional racism and all of its permutations that thwart black life as we know it. This systemic inequality has an impact on more than class position. It influences human biology and physiology at the cellular level, leaving the bodies of the poor, the impoverished, and the targeted more vulnerable to chronic disease.
Epigenetics is the science of how the external environment affects us at the molecular level by altering gene expression and function that can, in turn, be heritable. It refers to chemical modifications or “tags” that mark specific genes around the intricate DNA complex. These modifications can alter gene expression influencing our biology and function. Think of a tag as a volume control knob that signals the gene to turn up or down its programmed function. Our genes listen for cues from the environment such as the food we eat, the kind of milieus where we live and work, the circumstances of our birth, and the race and class-based interactions we share with one another. These factors, in part, determine how our genes respond in ways that expose more vulnerable populations to disease.
Human wars, famines, droughts, plagues, physical and emotional abuse, and other forms of social deprivation not only leave their mark on society in harmful ways, but they also reek havoc deep within the cells of our bodies. The cells react to stressors in the larger social structure at crucial developmental times in the womb that have an influence on human health later in adult life, leaving us more sensitive to our environment and susceptible to disease. The longitudinal Dutch Famine Birth Cohort study that began shortly after World War II in 1945 captures the complexity of environmental factors on our genes. The study analyzed the long-term physical and emotional effects in children who were exposed to maternal malnutrition in the fetal environment. They found that poor nutrition leads to epigenetic changes in gene regulation of the fetus and its developing biological systems, which predisposes cells to certain diseases of slow accumulation that include obesity, kidney disease, lung problems, cardiac disease, breast cancer, and a host of additional physical and mental health disorders.
In epidemiology and other closely related social science disciplines, it has been well established that social class position is inversely linked to poor health. Further, it is well known that health status follows a social gradient with class-based differences in disease frequencies that mirror society. African Americans are constantly relegated to the margins of society where there are continuously exposed to the mundane effects of white-imposed discrimination. Within this space, many African Americans endure daily hassles and sustained assaults for just being black. These micro-aggressions can have negative health-related consequences for their mental, emotional and physical well being by epigenetically-altering the expression of certain cells that control for important bodily functions. Research over the last four decades has mounted strong evidence that race-based mistreatment on the basis of physical characteristics (i.e., hair, bone, lips, skin color, eye shape, etc.) takes a heavy toll on black people not only at the social, political and economic levels of society, but also at the physiological level where cortisol, the body’s “fight or flight” hormone, is seen at elevated levels in African Americans. DNA and its sequencing is genetically programmed to perform functions of the body such as this very stress response. However, biological processes that regulate these functions can be epigenetically altered to increase the physiological stress response in the body at a rate higher and longer than what is normal. This, in turn, can influence the normal function of a cluster of differing cells that regulate blood pressure, kidney function, and cardiac function. Scientists can now investigate these epigenetic modifications on cells induced by the environment such as in the Dutch famine example.
The science of epigenetics is unlocking significant clues as to how racial discrimination can induce changes to the expression of certain genes linked to biological development and the existence of disease. These epigenetic changes can linger for a lifetime and can potentially be transmitted to offspring. Because black Americans and their forbears have endured over 20 generations of white-imposed race-related inequities in every major sector in society, including persistent race-based discrimination in housing, education, healthcare, jobs, and the prison industrial complex, they carry a higher burden of disease. Health and disease are no longer purely infectious in nature, but instead, social and environmental factors account for most chronic disease. It is a function of the dynamic interaction between our genes and the larger society, and epigenetics is providing deeper understanding as to how our genes operate in these situations.
African Americans and their descendants have paid an exorbitantly high price for living in an unequal society in a number of reprehensible ways through the practice of forced labor, high incarceration rates, frequent under/unemployment and low educational expectation. And now, significant health care challenges are among the more salient forms of white on black discrimination. In the absence of sweeping governmental reforms that place human rights over property rights, African Americans must take greater ownership in their own health care by becoming better informed on effective ways to reduce stress—to the extent possible given the maintenance of systems of domination and oppression—to have an impact upon the quality of black life. Otherwise, these persistently elevated stress levels from chronic exposure to race-based discrimination have been shown to be physiologically and mentally bad for health and well-being, both at the individual and institutional levels of society. The result is epigenetic tags with harmful gene expressions.
Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith. This was originally posted at Huffington Post.
In doing some research on capitalism and racism lately, I have been rethinking Oliver C. Cox’s pioneering and excellent Caste, Class, & Race; A Study in Social Dynamics book, which was first published in the late 1940s. It is still very much worth reading and learning from. It is available for free in various pdf and ereader formats for the Monthly Review Press edition here. (I use the Kindle formatting in quotes below.)
Oliver Cox was one of the few early black sociologists in the United States, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1938. He was a student of Robert Ezra Park, yet provided some of the deepest and most insightful critiques of Park, the early Chicago school, and Gunnar Myrdal’s famous An American Dilemma in this book, Caste, Class & Race. I highly recommend his analysis, both for its penetrating assessments and importance in sociological history.
One of the key figures historically in the Black Radical tradition, Oliver Cox was probably the first to argue in some detail that racist framing and exploitation arose in the various stages of modern capitalism:
Racial antagonism is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits. It may be demonstrated that racial antagonism, as we know it today, never existed in the world before about 1492; moreover, racial feeling developed concomitantly with the development of our modem social system. Probably one of the most persistent social illusions of modem times is that we have race prejudice against other people because they are physically different—that race prejudice is instinctive. (Kindle Locations 461-487)
Modern race prejudice and framing is not instinctive but develops in the material context of early capitalism. Cox added that
The interest behind racial antagonism is an exploitative interest— the peculiar type of economic exploitation characteristic of capitalist society. To be sure, [a white person] might say this cannot be, for one feels an almost irrepressible revulsion in the presence of colored people, especially Negroes, although one never had any need to exploit them. It is evidently the way they look, their physical difference, which is responsible for one’s attitude. . . . [However] the individual is born into it and accepts it unconsciously, like his language, without question.
Racist prejudice and framing are learned in the broad material context of racial exploitation, and is generally accepted by most whites without question, even those who see themselves as uninvolved in exploitation. In this negative white racial framing black Americans
must not be allowed to think of themselves as human beings having certain basic rights protected in the formal law. On the whole, they came to America as forced labor, and our slavocracy could not persist without a consistent set of social attitudes which justified the system naturally. Negroes had to be thought of as subsocial and subhuman. To treat a slave as if he were a full-fledged human being would not only be dangerous but also highly inconsistent with the social system. (Kindle Locations 461-487).
Once put into place in the U.S. case, this racial prejudice and broader racial framing spread globally:
Our hypothesis is that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America. (Kindle Locations 8327-8329).
Later on, he summarizes this way:
Race prejudice in the United States is the socio-attitudinal matrix supporting a calculated and determined effort of a white ruling class to keep some people or peoples of color and their resources exploitable. In a quite literal sense the white ruling class is the Negro’s burden; the saying that the white man will do anything for the Negro except get off his back puts the same idea graphically. It is the economic content of race prejudice which makes it a powerful and fearfully subduing force. . . . However, it is the human tendency, under capitalism, to break out of such a place, together with the determined counterpressure of exploiters, which produces essentially the lurid psychological complex called race prejudice. Thus race prejudice may be thought of as having its genesis in the propagandistic and legal contrivances of the white ruling class for securing mass support of its interest. (Kindle Locations 11973-11982).
. . . . [Whites] should not be distracted by the illusion of personal repugnance for a race. Whether, as individuals, [they] feel like or dislike for the colored person is not the crucial fact. What the ruling class requires of race prejudice is that it should uniformly produce racial antagonism; and its laws and propaganda are fashioned for this purpose. The attitude abhors a personal or sympathetic relationship. (Kindle Locations 11990-11997).
Some 65 years ago, Cox vigorously argued that racial prejudice and framing are the results of concrete social and material contexts, not some psychological gremlins inherent in all human beings. And they destroy personal and empathetic relationships. These early classics are indeed well worth reading again today.
The pattern is fairly clear for those who are paying attention. The recent rash of mass killings in the past 15 years seem to be predominately committed by young, white, middle-class males living in mental isolation and painted as “outcasts,” many having a history of early childhood trauma. Routinely, these young men felt unloved, underappreciated and invisible; some were bullied, tormented and chastised for being “different.” There’s another similar pattern of violence emerging in black middle-class males where isolation, doubt, and despair exist exerting more emotional labor to cope with constant microaggressions and other power dynamics working to undermine their character and dignity.
African Americans are routinely branded as incompetent, insubordinate, and incapable of measuring up to an unattainable white standard. Many professional black men find themselves having to defend their credentials and right to exist in the workplace as an equal on a daily basis. In a forthcoming publication on workplace mistreatment among physician assistants (health care providers) by Smith and Jacobson, black PAs were found to experience discrimination at a rate of forty times that of their white counterparts. In other words, for every one white person that felt discriminated against in the workplace, there are forty blacks that feel similarly. Taking this idea a step further, where three white providers report feeling undervalued and mistreated, there are 120 black Physicians’ Assistants (PAs) that report similar experiences. The shear magnitude of mistreatment in this context underscores the daily hassles that black Americans face. These experiences do not dissipate; they accumulate within the souls of black folks, always teetering on that one tipping point. Everyone internalizes his or her experiences differently. Some suffer in silence, only to have it play out in the form of physiological disease and early death. Some take this pain and frustration out on themselves and those closest to them, causing strife in their home life. And others still, without social support of any kind, eventually turn to random acts of violence, mayhem, and even murder.
The nation experienced another tragedy as innocent victims fell at the hands of a seemingly deranged man with no known cause. Aaron Alexis, a civilian contractor for the Navy, reported similar accounts to Christopher Dorner with feelings of shame and disrespect at the hands of Whites. Beneath the carnage of unimaginable hurt and suffering of the families who lost loved ones at the hands of Alexis, of those physically and emotionally wounded by the actions of Dorner, and of those forever scared by the terror of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo lies an early desire for humans to connect, to be loved, and to feel as though we matter in life. These distraught men and many others like them, driven to kill innocent people in a fit of rage or despair, just as Klebold and Harris did at Columbine High School in 1999, are a reflection of our deep and unresolved inequalities as a society. As we overly pathologize the suspects, we fail to go deeper into the structural and unequal institutional arrangements in society that make these men feel as though they have been singled out for exclusion in the first place. Though the actions and reactions of these young men are deplorable and even considered evil by many, it does not discount the origins of their despair—our unequal society.
American racism imposes constraints on the material conditions of life by limiting access to society’s valued resources, which are the fundamental building blocks of good mental health and social well-being. When opportunities to fully participate in society as co-equals are denied or restricted because of arbitrary and superficial differences in melanin, some black Americans, understandably, crack under the constant pressure of having to measure up to white societal standards and norms of a community where the rhetoric of colorblindness prevail. Though most do not see murder as the outlet, black men in America from all socio-economic strata can relate to Christopher Dorner and Aaron Alexis in at least one important way, their persistent frustration working in a predominately white and hostile work environment where people of color are made to feel devalued in a supposedly equal society.
Most Americans refuse to talk about race, believing it does not exist the workplace. Yet, corporate America is teeming with unexamined white racial attitudes that Blacks must reconcile in some particular way. Because black men have largely been shut out, left out, locked up and left behind, there is very little else to turn to but one’s pride. We humans care a great deal of what others think and feel about us. The threat of being shamed and humiliated are often the trigger for violence, particularly in African Americans who are more vulnerable to these shame-producing and debilitating effects.
The degree of social isolation and exclusion that Dorner and Alexis both professed is a reality for many black people, especially black professionals, who know all too well about the difficult and isolated experiences they encounter in white spaces. Ignoring the perceived experiences and lived realities of subaltern peoples and seeing them as less competent than their white counterparts has been shown to result in a higher probability of mental health disorders among Blacks. So maybe it was mental illness and reports of schizophrenia that drove Alexis to commit these unspeakable acts. And maybe it was also the pressure of being black and male in a society of white domination and group entitlement that at least contributed to his collapse. These very public displays of mental corrosion by black men are a growing cancer in our society, a scourge that, in part, stems from deep systemic inequalities. And just maybe, we are asking the wrong questions when it comes to efforts of stopping these horrific and tragic events.
Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the white supremacist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls. The girls’ death and the long wait for justice raises important questions about civil rights, racism, and the nature of restorative justice.
(Clockwise from top left: Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Cynthia Wesley (aged 14),
Carole Robertson (aged 14) and Denise McNair (aged 11), image source.)
If you’re not familiar with the case, you can begin by listening to this interview from 2008, Mr. Christopher McNair – father of the youngest victim – offers his recollection of that devastating day with NPR reporter Michele Norris. And, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to watch Spike Lee’s documentary about the bombing, “4 Little Girls,” which is quite compelling.
This year, President Obama awarded the four girls with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civil honor. However, it took many decades before the bombers – four white supremacists, Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry - were brought to justice.
The decades-long-delay in prosecuting the assailants in this case raises vexing questions about the nature of “justice,” questions that Willoughby Anderson takes up in a 2008 analysis (“The past on trial: Birmingham, the bombing, and Restorative Justice.” California Law Review 96, no. 2 (2008): 471-504). Anderson writes:
“The community, media, and scholarly responses to these trials point to the way that a crime’s effects can reach far beyond the individual perpetrator and victim. In the context of unresolved civil rights-era violence, one murder or bombing inevitably expands outward and into the larger story of segregation and massive resistance; into the systemic, racially-based injustices of southern law enforcement; and to the New South’s willingness to move quickly forward without reconciling its troubled past. Restorative justice theory, a reform movement within the criminal justice system, can help contextualize the broad consequences of these crimes. Taking the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as an example, I use restorative justice theory to expand the concept of harm resulting from this one incident. Rather than understanding the crime in traditional terms as an abstract harm against the state, we must imagine it as an act with consequences for the victims, the community at large, the offenders themselves, and the relationships between all three.”
“But what can this criminal justice reform movement teach us about approaching historic unsolved crimes from the civil rights-era? The responses of communities, the media, and scholarly observers to renewed civil rights-era investigations were critical and mixed. Some saw justice long-delayed, but ultimately achieved. Others questioned the value of trials delayed for so long. Most simply wondered about the years of non-prosecution. Murder trials have a limited ability to address broad concerns about systemic injustice and the passage of time between an offense and its prosecution. These infamous crimes exposed the harm inflicted on whole communities through the violence of segregation and selective enforcement of criminal laws, a harm that cannot simply be understood as Alabama v. Defendant.“
“The criminal justice context also overlooked the plight of the families of the perpetrators. The effects of the crime on Cherry’s family strife illustrate how the bombing’s harms were not restricted to one side of the equation. Thomas Cherry, estranged son of the bomber, describing how his childhood was blighted by the crime, forcing his family to relocate to Texas, and providing the subject of conversation at every family reunion. The son was subpoenaed to testify in front of the grand jury, and the newspapers described him as “anguished over his father but . . . also haunted by the bombing.” After the verdict, Thomas Cherry tried to explain how the crime cast a long shadow: “[i]t leaves you an awful empty feeling in you [to] know that your father is going to the penitentiary for the rest of his life.” Cherry’s trial also featured conflicting testimony from ex-wives and a loyal grandson as to his character, the meaning of his Klan membership, and his motives for racial violence. After the verdict, the Birmingham Post-Herald ran a large picture of Cherry’s daughter Karen Suderland sitting on the ground weeping. One wonders what the effect of the competency protests might have been on this wide spectrum of family members, both estranged and otherwise. How could the trial possibly have brought them a sense of closure? In evaluating harms and victims, an inquiry into the effects the crime has on the offenders’ families is necessary, no matter how much this complicates otherwise simplistic condemnation of criminal offenders.“
Fifty years on from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls we are still struggling to understand what the nature of restorative justice might look like in a society that remains mired in racism.