Police violence against unarmed African Americans occurs against a too-often-ignored backdrop of economic disparity that both fuels and informs the resentments and racial tensions behind the events.
As Rep. Keith Ellison wrote in an oped for The Guardian, encounters that are often over in minutes, but yield weeks of headlines, debates and unrest, occur in a socioeconomic context that goes back centuries, so far that it and the conditions it creates seem to have no origin.
“During nearly 250 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow segregation,” Ellison writes, “the U.S. government and big corporations cut African Americans out of the economy.” Thirty years of Republican policies led to the economic abandonment of black communities. The remnants and results inform the mistrust and resentment between predominantly white police forces and African-American communities in cities all over the country.
● The making of Ferguson, Missouri — where officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown — was driven by federal, state, and local policies. During the post-war expansion of the suburbs, the federal government upheld racial covenants meant to keep white neighborhoods segregated. Combined with discriminatory lending practices, these policies meant that generations of African-American families missed out on decades of equity.
Local zoning laws crowded blacks into neighborhoods that were often adjacent to or surrounded by industrial areas. Difficulty in buying a home, due to discriminatory lending practices, led to overcrowding. black areas were often denied access to city services, like water and garbage pick-up. This led not only to the creation of slums, but the association of blacks with slums, and attendant issues in the minds of whites.
● In the Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray died in police custody, unemployment was above 50 percent between 2008 and 2012. Baltimore was among those cities hit hard by the decline in manufacturing, as government policies made it easier for companies to ship jobs overseas — good jobs, with benefits and wages that could raise a family to middle-class status. black men were disproportionately represented in these jobs, which were among the best attainable with just a high school diploma. African-American neighborhoods saw little to no benefit from millions of dollars invested in building sports arenas and turning the city’s harbor into a tourist destination.
A similar economic backdrop exists in McKinney, Texas, where another incident of excessive use of force this weekend led to more headlines and protests. African-American residents of the Craig Ranch neighborhood, a gated planned community in McKinney, held an end-of-the-school-year party at the community swimming pool, attended by a racially mixed group of teenagers, most of whom lived in Craig Ranch. Residents complained that the teenagers were too rowdy. The organizer of the party said that a security guard appeared and began asking the black teenagers if they had pool cards, and insisting the black teenagers leave.
Witnesses agree that the situation escalated when a white adult resident told the African-American teenagers to “go back to section 8 housing,” got into an argument with, and slapped the African-American teenager who organized the party.
McKinney, Texas — which Money magazine ranked last year as the best place to live in America — has a long history of housing discrimination. The city is split by Highway 75. The wealthier section of McKinney (where the Craig Ranch community is) lies west of Highway 75 and is 86 percent white. The older, poorer section of town sits east of the highway, and is 49 percent white.
In 2009, McKinney settled a large housing discrimination lawsuit, alleging that the city was blocking the development of affordable housing for tenants with Section 8 vouchers, in the whiter, more affluent west side of the city. But a court settlement doesn’t mean the issue of housing discrimination is settled, as the reported comment about Section 8 housing indicate. The white resident alleged to have made this comment obviously associated African Americans with what she considered slum housing.
Another reported comment that the black teenagers should get used to the bars outside the pool because “that’s all they were going to see,” reflects assumptions many people make about young blacks.
● Research shows that people — including police — see young blacks as less innocent, and less young, than white children.
● A study published in the Journal of Personality And Social Psychology showed that black boys are 10 times as likely to be mistaken as older accused of a crime, and face police violence.
● Another report on school discipline show that black girls are seen as “unsophisticated, hypersexualized, and defiant.”
The same assumptions are reflected in the actions officer Eric Casebolt, seen in video footage tackling a bikini-clad 15-year-old girl to the ground, and handcuffing her as she cried out for her mother. Casebolt drew his weapon and pointed it at the teenagers who rushed to help the young woman. Another video shows Casebolt chasing and cursing at the black teenagers, while saying nothing to the white teenagers at the party. The white teenager who recorded the viral video footage confirmed that police officers seemed to only focus on the black teenagers.
The actions of the white residents at Craig Ranch, and of officer Casebolt, reflect a white fear as old as the economic contexts of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. Maya Angelou once said, “Sometimes people are at your feet, and as the winds of fortune change, they’ll be at your throat.” For decades white fear of slave uprisings and black resistance led to the Black Codes, which made it illegal for blacks to gather in large numbers. Vagrancy laws for blacks led to arrests, and fines. blacks were forced to work as unpaid laborers if they could not afford to pay bail.
Today, according to a 2010 study, whites tend to overestimate the amount of crime committed by blacks by 20 to 30 percent. Numbers like these make it easy to understand why white residents may call police to “handle” a black resident— perhaps even a neighbor — in unfounded anticipation of violence. In some communities, like Ferguson, Mo., involvement with the police can lead to black residents being caught in the never-ending cycle of fines and court fees designed to enrich city coffers, sometimes at the cost of their livelihood and even their freedom.
The economic context and conditions behind events in Ferguson, Baltimore, McKinney, and elsewhere, are not products of nature. They are man-made, and as such they can be unmade, as Rep. Ellison said, by creating jobs, preparing infrastructure and avoiding bad trade deals that offshore good-paying jobs. In other words, things can change if our elected leaders do what is right, and then only if we demand it.