Michael Brown, Ferguson and the Problem We’re All Ignoring
As we near the 30-day mark from when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO, I’m glad that our country has taken the opportunity to bring issues of racial profiling and the militarization of our police force into the national spotlight. But as we begin to examine our country’s race issues under a microscope, I hope we don’t just look at the issues on the surface – the ones that are acute and obvious and make for good television ratings. Examining these issues is a necessary start but it’s not the finish line.
What I mean by that is that we have a tendency in this country to distort our priorities based on the squeakiest wheel rather than focusing on the insidious problems that pose the greatest threat. Pink ribbons, for instance, drive sales and marketing budgets. As a result, we spend seven times as much on cancer research as we do on obesity even though obesity and it’s partner-in-crime, type 2 diabetes, is what will eventually bankrupt our healthcare system. Fear mongering is another example. Peddling fear leads to votes come election time. As a result, we’ve spent trillions of dollars over the past fourteen years fighting terrorism. Yet, we refuse to spend any money fighting climate change, when in fact, the slow but steady creep of climate change poses a far greater threat to our existing way of life.
My fear with the Michael Brown tragedy is that we’re heading down this same pathway on the issue of race. Racial profiling is certainly an important issue but it’s not THE issue we should all be focusing on. It’s a secondary issue that doesn’t go nearly deep enough. Rather, if we want to truly honor Michael Brown’s life we must start a deeper national dialogue, not on racial profiling, but about why racial profiling exists.[Disclaimer: This blog post has nothing to do with startups nor delicious, delicious burritos. But I think the issues we’re facing right now as a nation are too important not to write about. So, if you’ve never given a thought as to why racial profiling exists, I hope this blog post can serve as a starting point.]
Kobe Bryant, Stars and Bars, and the Black Guy on the El.
I guess I should start by giving you my background. I grew up in a city in California with like three black people. Kobe Bryant was one of them. Dennis Rodman was another. And for a brief period, Karl Malone was the third. I didn’t see racism growing up. All I saw were white people. For most of my childhood, I never gave racism much thought.
This changed for the first time when I went to college. I went to school in Atlanta. While the city of Atlanta did not appear outwardly racist, I remember taking my first road trip outside the city and stopping at a gas station filled with confederate flags souvenirs. I thought to myself “what the fuck? They really must not like black people at this gas station.” Shockingly to me, the next gas station was exactly the same. And the next one after that was the same. Holy shitballs. They were all the same.
And that’s when I came to realize that gas stations in the south are not for black people.
The next year, I remember taking another road trip with some of my Phi Delt fraternity buddies. We went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, which also had a Phi Delt chapter. We knocked on the door to see if we could come hang out for a bit. They were totally cool and told us to come in. That is until they realized that a few of our members were black. Then they told us we couldn’t come in.
And that’s when I came to realize that the South is not for black people.
After graduating college, I moved up to Washington, DC to start law school. During the 2004 presidential election, I volunteered with a bunch of other law students to go to West Philadelphia and serve as poll watchers to make sure that black voters were not being intimidated out of voting. I’d heard of these types of shenanigans happening in the south, but I had a hard time believing anything like this could happen in West Philadelphia. Sure enough, about two-thirds through an otherwise uneventful election day, we encountered a group of white dudes driving up to polling stations in a black suburban with out-of-state plates trying to intimidate black people out of voting.
And that’s when I came to realize that the North is not for black people either.
Fast forward to 2014, I was on the El in Chicago. The train was super crowded and this black dude with neck tattoos and a bunch of papers in his hand gets on next to me. He starts asking everyone for ten cents, twenty cents or fifty cents to make some copies of the fliers. No one responds. In fact most people in the vicinity put their head down to avoid eye contact with him. I started talking to him and asked him what was going on. It turns out his uncle was murdered the week before and he was putting up fliers with the picture of the suspect on every El train in the city. He had come in by bus from a neighboring state with no money and had been sleeping on the El train at the end of each night. He hadn’t showered in two or three days but was determined to catch his uncle’s killer even if he had to spend the next week sleeping on the train, away from his wife and four month-old-twins. Exasperated by peoples’ utter lack of compassion, he starts telling me how no one was helping him because he’s black. I thought about it for a second, and then sadly, I concurred and told him he was right.
And that’s when I came to realize that the Midwest is not for black people either.
So if the South is not for black people, and the North is not for black people, and the Midwest is not for black people, where is the place for black people?
The ghetto. The ghetto is for black people.
Over the last fifteen years, I’ve come to realize the same thing black people realize at a very young age – that America has a racism problem. It’s not a Southern problem. It’s not a Northern problem. It’s not a Midwestern problem. It’s an everywhere problem.
Now, as ugly as all these experiences were, none of them made me nearly as sad as what I would learn just a few months ago when I clicked a link on my Facebook feed.
Donald Sterling, Bomani Jones and America’s History of Housing Discrimination
In the midst of the seemingly buffoonish Donald Sterling-Clippers saga this past April, I stumbled upon a video of ESPN analyst Bomani Jones speaking out about how housing discrimination was the real evil in the whole Donald Sterling scandal. “Housing discrimination?” I thought to myself. “What is that?” What I would learn was eye-opening and disturbing.
Housing discrimination is the insidious evil that has plagued our country since the end of the civil war. Through housing discrimination we have systematically created an America for white people and a separate America for black people. Housing discrimination is the root cause of the ghettoization of black America. It has robbed generations of African Americans from trillions of dollars of accumulated wealth and has placed an entire race in an endless cycle of violence and generational poverty.
If you’re not familiar with the issue, here are the spark notes.
(1) Housing discrimination started with bigotry: In the post-civil war era, white people saw whites as a superior race and blacks as an inferior race. If you were black in post-civil war America, white people didn’t want you living in their neighborhoods for fear that you would rape their daughters and bring sin upon their race.
(2) State sponsored discrimination: In order to keep you out of their neighborhoods, federal, state and local governments worked in collusion with banks, mortgage lenders, appraisers and real estate agents to enact racist laws and business practices to prevent you and your family from living amongst white people. For instance until 1917, fifteen states had laws on the books denying black people from living in white zoned neighborhoods. From 1917-1948 nineteen states allowed real estate developers to place restrictive covenants into their deeds forbidding white property owners from selling to blacks. It wasn’t until 1968 (103 years after the end of the Civil War) that the federal government finally made it illegal to outwardly discriminate against black people in the housing industry.
(3) Terrorism:During this period, if you somehow managed to navigate around the laws and restrictive covenants forbidding you from living in a white neighborhood, white supremacist neighborhood associations created for the sole purpose of keeping blacks out, would instigate a mob to swarm around your house and terrorize you and your family with violence until you agreed to sign away the deed to your house and move back to the neighborhood where you belonged. That’s what happened in the northern states. If you were a black family trying to exercise your constitutional rights in the South, there was a good chance you would just be lynched.
(4) Ghettoization: Forbidden from living anywhere else, you were forced into segregated ghettos. The creation of the ghetto was 100% intentional. It was the result of state sponsored housing discrimination and outright terrorism. The goal was to keep you where they belonged.
(5) Systematic theft: To add insult to injury, even if you had the means to own a home in the ghetto, you were denied access by the federal government to mortgage loans offered to white people. This practice was known as redlining. Without access to capital your only option for owning a home was to buy an overpriced property through a predatory practice known as contract buying, where the title to a property would not be transferred to you, the buyer, until all contract payments had been made. If you missed a single payment, you forfeited the house and all prior payments. The owner of the house would then kick you and your family to the street and sell it again to another unsuspecting black family
(6) Generational poverty: Faced with nearly insurmountable hurdles to homeownership, you, along with most other black families ended up renting instead of owning, all the while paying exorbitant rents to slumlords who allowed their properties to become dilapidated because knew you had no other options. While white Americans began to accumulate wealth and pass this wealth on to their children through homes purchased using subsidized capital from the U.S. Government, you and other African Americans were intentionally impoverished and systematically denied the ability to pass on generational wealth.
The end results of housing discrimination have been disastrous for this country. Think about this: where you live affects everything in your life. It affects your safety, the schools you attend, the role models you see in your neighborhood, your chances of incarceration, and ultimately your opportunities for work. All these factors compound on each other creating a feedback loop that is near impossible to escape. By choosing to institutionalize our racism through local, state and federal housing laws, we have chosen to create two different Americas — one where the American dream exists and one where it doesn’t. And what’s really fucked up, is that most of us are okay with that.
Michael Brown, Accountability and Changing the National Dialogue.
There’s no denying that we’re failing as a country when it comes to the issue of race. At the very least, it’s time to look in the mirror and start asking ourselves why.
In the case of Michael Brown, it’s easy to single out the police as the bad guys. It’s easy to call them racist and place all the blame on them. But singling out the police is a cop out (no pun intended). In doing so, we attempt to absolve ourselves of any blame. We try to limit the scope of our country’s race problems to a few rotten apple police officers, when the reality is it’s not just a few apples that are rotten – it’s the entire system. At the epicenter of this system is housing discrimination. And whether through commission or omission, we’ve all helped to create it.
When we don’t speak out about racism, we are the problem. When we accept as normal and never think twice about the fact that white people and black people don’t live in the same neighborhoods, we are the problem. And when we see Frankenstein kill another black teen, and then blame Frankenstein but fail to acknowledge our very role in creating the monster, we are very much the problem.
Change starts with taking responsibility for the system we created. As long as we choose to continue segregating our cities, robbing our black youth of quality educations, and impoverishing 10% of our population — we’re going to continue fostering an environment for high urban murder rates, racial profiling and the killing of unarmed black teens.
If we really want to see change in this country, we must stop looking at the surface for answers and hoping one will magically appear. We’ve seen this narrative enough times to know that it doesn’t change. Scapegoating the police is not going to solve our problems. Eventually, we’re going to need to look a lot deeper both into our history and within ourselves and come to grips that we are all part of the problem. And until that day happens, we can safely conclude that America is not for black people.
If you’re interested in further reading about the issue of housing discrimination, here are three pieces of various lengths that heavily influenced my thinking.
10 min – Bomani Jones Nails the Part of the Controversy Everyone Has Ignored (Eye-opening. At least it was for me)
1 hour – The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nihisi Coates (this essay is the single most powerful piece of writing I’ve read in years)
1 week – The Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle (Excellent book about housing discrimination in 1920s Detroit. Reads like a novel)