I originally wrote this small bit for a monthly newsletter we send out to staff members in the office. I figured since today is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I would repost it here.
There was a time when human beings were bought and sold, forced to work without compensation, and had zero rights. It was socially and institutionally acceptable and legal to treat human beings as private property. In the United States, those human beings were Africans, brought over in mass numbers as slaves, owned by white people of European descent, and abused for economic profit. After the Civil War, when the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was adopted, slavery became illegal. How did white plantation owners of the South deal with this? Not well. A new structure of social organization and disenfranchisement must be instituted in order to keep a system of racial and class hierarchy. Jim Crow was born.
After the Civil War, slavery was abolished, but a new system of racial caste was born in the United States. Jim Crow, named after a popular minstrel song stereotyping African-Americans, was a system of racial segregation and oppression in the United States; it was a set of state laws for white supremacy that took place in many states, not just the South. Jim Crow legally segregated all public places and other institutions including schools, restaurants, transportation, hospitals, marriage, the military and more, and disallowed African-Americans from voting or holding government offices. In came the era we know as the Civil Rights Movement, where members of the African-American community protested and fought for equal rights within the United States. Since we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. this month, I will focus on his role within the civil rights movement and his beliefs.
Committed to non-violence, Martin Luther King, Jr., as we know, was one of the major organizers of the civil rights movement in the South during the 1960s. He believed that the United States needed a complete reconstruction of society moving away from national and international violence, poverty, racism, militarism, etc. and towards a peaceful and socially and economically just nation with foreign policies for peace and economic justice, as well. He believed that large, peaceful and well-organized protests were a way to get media coverage of the struggle against segregation and for full equality, and news of this struggle spread to the North and were well known amongst government politicians. MLK Jr. did not support any particular US Party because he felt both the Democratic and Republican parties did little to endorse racial equality. He also believed that African-Americans should be compensated for the historical atrocities committed against them, which left them in a state of poverty, and segregated neighborhoods with little resources and opportunities. The struggle for equality and justice grasped the entire nation in different ways and racial inequality and segregation became unacceptable amongst much of the public, finally changing legal policy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in a world without war, without police brutality, without racism, and with full economic and social justice. What would he think of the United States today, where it is commonly stated and believed that we, Americans, live in a colorblind, fully integrated society with opportunities for all? I think he would be gravely disappointed. There were great achievements of the civil rights movement. Yes, Jim Crow was dismantled, institutions became integrated, individual racism has dwindled, and affirmative action has helped to diversify institutions and provide opportunities to African-Americans that they didn’t have before, but what about institutionally? Is there really economic and social justice? Stated plainly, no. As Michelle Alexander stated in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” The United States went from slavery, to Jim Crow, and now prisons and the criminal justice system. There are more African-Americans under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850. No, it is not because African-Americans commit more crimes than anyone else. In fact, the rate of incarceration has little to do with the rate of crime. Crime rates in the United States have dropped while incarceration rates have increased; while other countries are dismantling prisons and have decreasing incarceration rates, incarceration rates in the U.S. has increased exponentially in the past few decades and are the highest in the world. Three decades ago, the US had about 150 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. Today, the US prison population has quadrupled, with 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, while Mexico has 208 and Germany has 90. The War on Drugs that began in the 1970s has much to do with these incarceration rates. A majority of people under correctional control within the US are due to drug charges, and a majority of those charges are for possession; these are not big-time drug dealers, nor people who have committed violent crimes, yet the harsh legal sentences allow those charged to be in prison for many decades. An overwhelming majority of those charged are African-American. No, it is not because African-Americans are more likely to use drugs than anyone else. In fact, the rate of drug use amongst different ethnicities and races tends to be the same. So why do people of color, a majority being African-American, represent more than 60% of the prison population?
The designed segregation of neighborhoods makes it easy and convenient for the drug war to be waged in African-American communities. Stop and Frisk policies, which are used by many police departments, most notably the NYPD, are policies that are legal under federal law, allowing police departments to stop and search anyone, whether on foot or in a vehicle, for no reason at all. The police often target African-American and Latino communities, who then get shuffled into the criminal justice system. Once someone becomes a prisoner in the criminal justice system, they are denied opportunities for the rest of their lives. These people will spend their entire lives trying to find legitimate housing and get back into the mainstream economy, being denied application after application because of their charges or convictions. Most will never be able to vote again. Is it any wonder that those who served time in prison end up going back to prison? While countries like Germany use drug rehabilitation and treatment for those caught with major drugs, the United States sends mostly African-Americans and Latinos to prison for many years (marijuana included), effectively disbarring them from the rest of society forever.