Tag Archives: criminal justice

Race Basics: Colonialism and Religious Bigotry

18 May

I don’t play in the oppression Olympics. Yet, I’ve argued that anti-Black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy. This statement has generated some controversy, with some saying I’ve overlooked Native people, and others saying there is a hierarchy of oppressions in which Blacks suffer most.

All this talk got me to thinking about the particular racism faced by Native people and how it fits into my analysis.

I recalled a time, some years back, when I got stuck in a soft spot on the shoulder of a road on my way to a speaking engagement. I tried to wave down help, but to no avail. For hours, no one stopped.

When I got to my destination, I told the story to my host who promptly said, “You’re in Indian country. They thought you were Native American.” What the…? Lots of white folks, he explained, are afraid of Native people in reservation-adjacent areas in Oregon.

A year later, I was in Idaho for a reception with an LGBT rights group. Near the end of the evening, two Native American men arrived. As they walked to the ticket table, one of the guests referred to them by using the “N” word preceded by the word “prairie.” Again, I was shocked.

When years later I worked in criminal justice reform out West, I learned a bit more about the racism faced by Native people. In Montana, urban Indians are profiled as vagrants and targeted for  harassment. Native drivers were regularly pulled over and assumed to be either drunk or driving without insurance. The latter is often true because the extraordinary poverty rate among Native people in Montana means many can’t afford insurance.

In 2000, Native Americans were more than 20% of all prisoners in Idaho and Wyoming in spite of being approximately 7% of the populations of those states.

Later, as a program officer of a social justice foundation, I visited Native groups all over the Northwest, both on reservation and off. Among them was the Wind River Alliance in Wyoming. From them, I learned that the Wind River had been reduced to a trickle on the reservation by white farmers whose water rights trumped Indian treaty rights.

To make the point, they aired a video of a local judge explaining his decision against the tribes’ water rights lawsuit. He said “we” already won that “war,” and water rights are one of the spoils.

This conquerer mentality regarding Native people is everywhere. It is expressed by those who say Native people are “vanishing.” It’s indicated by the current fight over re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act. That Act is opposed by the House Republican majority in part because of special provisions concerning violence against Native women.

It may also explain the soaring unemployment rates of Native Americans, topping 18% in the West.

I’ve toured the Crow Reservation on visits to the Center Pole Foundation in Montana. Many there live in dilapidated and poorly insulated trailers.

During the freezing winter, space heaters run constantly. Families sleep as close to the ceiling as possible in order to feel the heat. But the bills run so high that the electricity is eventually cut. Families wait until summer to earn enough money to settle back bills and avoid freezing next winter.

I also met members of the Chinook Nation. The University of Oregon describes the Chinook tribe of Washington as historical relics.  Some claim they are “extinct.” Yet these supposedly extinct people continue to fight for recognition of their tribal sovereignty.

The situation of Native Americans today is the legacy of genocide, relocation and forced assimilation. This legacy is as much a part of our history as Yankee Doodle Dandy, WWII, and and the invention of the car all rolled into one.

When Columbus first arrived in North America, the Library of Congress claims that 900,000 Native people lived here. Some demographers claim as many as 7 or 8 million. By the 1890s, only 250,000 remained. Whole nations were destroyed. Others were pushed onto reservations, and many more were simply terminated.

This history speaks to another dimension of racism: colonialism and religious prejudice.

While Africans were profiled as animals to justify race slavery, Native Americans were profiled as anti-Christians to justify wars over land and resources. Today’s debates over the dominance of Christianity in our politics echo this history. Religious bigotry continues to drive the expansion of American Empire in the form of the war on terror/Islam. And, that war is part of a larger culture “war” that is knocking down rights of LGBT people, women, and religious minorities.

I continue to believe that anti-Black racism drives white supremacy. I believe it because I know that the converse of Black in our culture is white. In order to justify slavery, white identity was created as the lever of white supremacy with anti-Black racism as the fulcrum.

But, anti-Indian racism is very real. It is an extension of a long history of colonialism, and its legacy is the mentality that drives the expansion of American Empire and Christian jihad.

I won’t play in the oppression Olympics, but I do believe that to fight racism we need a game plan. That game plan is incomplete if we overlook anti-Native racism.

Read This Book!

7 May

Today is my birthday. The passage of time has me reflecting a lot on the years behind me, especially as I’m looking down the barrel of 50.

Among the most frustrating yet inspiring experiences I’ve had over the years was the time I spent working on criminal justice reform. During those years I spent a lot of time in juvenile detention facilities, jails, prisons, and courtrooms. From that perch, the racism of the system seemed so plain as to be indisputable. Just as plain was the amazing resiliency of people caught up in the system, many of them non-violent drug offenders whose convictions as “criminals” erased their status as parents, siblings, sons and daughters.

But as close to it as I was, I always struggled for the language to describe the racism of our criminal justice system in ways that got more than a “yeah, that sucks” reaction. Now Michelle Alexander has written a book that’s changed that for me. If my birthday wish comes true, all of you will read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It’s just that powerful.

In just 261 six by nine inch pages, excluding end notes and index (both of which are very useful), the current paperback edition of The New Jim Crow relates the history of the drug war starting with it’s origins in the Nixon years all the way through the present.

In the present, one in 10 black males between the ages of 25 and 29 are in prison or jail, and the majority in the same age group bear the stigma of past convictions. That means they are limited in their ability to contribute financially to their families. Many are unable to live in public housing and may be separated from family members who do. Parolees are in constant jeopardy of being incarcerated again because of parole violations that include not associating with others who have been incarcerated which, I repeat for emphasis, includes an overwhelming number of their peers.Today, a black child is less likely to be raised by both parents than a child born in the age of slavery.

According to a 1998 report by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, 13% of black males lost their right to vote to felony disenfranchisement laws. In some states, as many as one in three lost their voting rights. The report predicted that if the trend continued, 40% of black men would lose their right to vote in states that disenfranchise felons.

In 2000, felony disenfranchisement in Florida very likely cost Al Gore the presidential election.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“Jarvious Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”

The shame of this reality should be enough to cause a society-wide revolt. Alexander helps us to understand why we have remained largely silent by describing the way racial caste manages to morph over generations, creating a “new normal” of civility that accommodates continued racism and the structural exclusion of African Americans from democratic decision-making.

Make my birthday wish come true. Read this book. Share what you learn. Don’t let yourself be part of the “new normal” that stands in the way of true democracy for all of us.

Blackness Is The Fulcrum

4 May

I’m often asked why I’ve focused so much more on anti-black racism than on Asians over the years. Some suggest I suffer from internalized racism.

That might well be true since who doesn’t suffer from internalized racism?  I mean, even white people internalize racism. The difference is that white people’s internalized racism is against people of color, and it’s backed up by those who control societal institutions and capital.

But some folk have more on their minds.  They say that focusing on black and white reinforces a false racial binary that marginalizes the experiences of non-black people of color. No argument here. But I also think that trying to mix things up by putting non-black people of color in the middle is a problem because there’s no “middle.”

So there’s most of my answer. I’m sure I do suffer from internalized racism, but I don’t think that racism is defined only in terms of black and white. I also don’t think white supremacy is a simple vertical hierarchy with whites on top, black people on the bottom, and the rest of us in the middle.

So why do I expend so much effort on lifting up the oppression of black people? Because anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.

A fulcrum is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the support about which a lever turns” or, alternatively, “one that supplies capability for action.” In other words, if you want to move something, you need a pry bar and some leverage, and what gives you leverage is the fulcrum – that thing you use so the pry bar works like a see-saw.

The racial arrangement in the U.S. is ever changing.  There is no “bottom.” Different groups have more ability to affect others at different times because our roles are not fixed.  But, while there’s no bottom, there is something like a binary in that white people exist on one side of these dynamics – the side with force and intention. The way they mostly assert that force and intention is through the fulcrum of anti-black racism.

Hang in there with me for a minute and consider this. Race slavery is the historical basis of our economy. Yes, there was/is a campaign of “Indian removal” in order to capture natural resources and that certainly is part of the story. But the structure of the economy is rooted in slavery.

Our Constitution was written by slave owners. They managed to muster some pretty nice language about equality, justice, and freedom for “men” because they considered Africans less than human. Our federal system is based on a compromise intended to accommodate slavery. Our concept of ownership rights, the structure of our federal elections system, the segregated state of our society, the glut of money in politics, our conservative political culture, our criminal codes and federal penitentiaries all evolved around or were/are facilitated by anti-black racism.

And this is not just about history.  Fear of black people drives our national politics, from the fight over Jim Crow in the 50s and 60s, to Willie Horton and the Chicago Welfare Queen in the 80s, and the War on Drugs, starting in 1982 right up to the present. Since 2001, the U.S. has spent about 1.3 trillion dollars on war. Since 1982 we’ve spent over 1 trillion dollars on the drug war.

About 82% of drug busts are for possession, while about 18% are for trafficking. Sound like an irrational way to wage a war on drugs? Not if it’s a war on black people.

According to Human Rights Watch, black males are incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white males resulting in one in 10 black males aged 25-29 being held in prison or jail in 2009. The same report states:

blacks constitute 33.6 percent of drug arrests, 44 percent of persons convicted of drug felonies in state court, and 37 percent of people sent to state prison on drug charges, even though they constitute only 13 percent of the US population and blacks and whites engage in drug offenses at equivalent rates.

And why a war on people?  The war on drugs is the cornerstone of the “tough on crime” messaging campaign that is key to the Republican Southern Strategy. It suggests that extending civil rights to African Americans resulted in the crime wave of the 1970s (and not the baby boom as is suggested by sociologists) in order to drive white Southerners into the Republican Party.

And that “tough on crime” thing, that’s not just against black people.  It’s a propaganda war that is weakening civil rights and civil liberties for all of us.

There’s no hierarchy of oppressions where race is concerned, but anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.

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