Why black folks can't breathe

December 8, 2014, 10:45 PM

— -- Order rooted in and maintained and restored by fear, intimidation, brutality and incarceration is immoral and untenable. Justice is order's intended soul mate. But serving justice is twice as hard as serving fear.

The twice-as-hard spirit -- which birthed our melting-pot experiment, envisioned a Fourth Estate informing the masses, unlocked slavery's chains, loosened Jim Crow's grip, and propelled us to the moon and back -- has sadly succumbed, once again, to the predatory nature of greed and lust for power.

America, it appears, lost the resolve to follow the road less traveled, the never-ending, obstacle-ridden path to perfection. Just six short years after a historic election, the promise and hope of President Obama leading the third leg of our racial relay race has been remade into a finish line.

If so, we lose.

The recent legal proceedings and maneuverings that sparked unrest in Ferguson and New York and across our nation expose our monumental failure to build on and protect the gains won during the civil rights era.

We failed to heed Martin Luther King Jr.'s advice. He conceptualized a Poor People's Campaign -- a connection between African-Americans' twice-as-hard journey and the struggle of the working poor -- designed to defend civil-rights gains from inevitable backlash. He visualized the poor, the vulnerable, the working class of all races coming together to uproot the political seeds planted to grow income inequality. He died before his campaign could take hold. Most of us are unaware that the Poor People's Campaign was the essential Phase 2 of the civil rights movement.

We're even less aware that Barry Goldwater's emphasis -- Law and Order -- formed Phase 1 of the backlash to civil rights.

Law and Order -- the American political strategy of choice the last 50 years -- did not put Goldwater in the White House in 1964, but Richard Nixon rode it there in '68 and Ronald Reagan used it to move into the California governor's mansion the same year.

L&O justified Nixon's drug war, harsh sentencing guidelines, the demonization of black offenders, and the preference for order rooted in fear and punishment. Law and Order spawned America's mass incarceration.

As a result, a decade-long era of organized civil disobedience in objection to legalized segregation and inequality produced a handful of useful laws that have been thwarted by a half-century of legalized mass incarceration and inequality.

It's segregation by incarceration. The great author and law professor Michelle Alexander calls it "The New Jim Crow."

Segregation by incarceration (SBI) has pitted the African-American community vs. the police. Segregation has never been a shadowy, impossible-to-pin-down conspiracy. It's been an American way of life. The people who opposed the civil rights movement and the end of segregation did not hold a news conference, concede defeat and pledge support for racial equality. They hatched a new strategy.

Segregation by incarceration removes the offensive, in-your-face, whites-only signs and replaces them with strategic enforcement of criminal laws that: (1) segregate poor people behind bars; (2) segregate ex-cons and their loved ones outside the traditional pathways to the American dream, aka, upward mobility.

SBI is much worse and more corrosive than Jim Crow.

Jim Crow had unintended benefits. It forced blacks to build and rely on their own economic, educational and social systems. SBI is a silent killer with no benefit. It extinguishes hope.

It's a virus that attacks the un-incarcerated with a ferocity that is nearly equal to its assault on the incarcerated. The media rarely examine and calculate the financial and emotional expenses of supporting the incarcerated. Our discomfort with mass incarceration stops at regret for warehousing more than 2 million human beings. The toll extracted from the roughly 20 million human beings who care about and/or depend on those 2 million doesn't even enter our minds.

Non-offenders suffer the consequences of incarceration, too. The examples of this collateral damage are littered throughout the sports world and our entire society. Derrick Rose and Reggie Bush -- who donned "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts supporting Eric Garner's family -- can see, feel and testify to what we in the media have ignored for too long. Yeah, they realized the so-called American dream, but many of the people they love have not.

Making it financially does not protect you, though. Genetic gifts and a gigantic professional contract do not shield athletes from the effect of damaged childhoods. You think a father in prison didn't contribute to the stunted intellectual evolution that led Adrian Peterson to father multiple children with multiple women and physically abuse at least one of those kids with slavery/prison-style punishment?

That's just one example. There are millions of unreported and undiagnosed negative repercussions of mass incarceration.

Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice -- God rest their souls -- are symptoms of a far more insidious crime. At this point, Brown, Garner, et al are more media distraction than useful symbols. Capitalism and television can be quite undignified. They routinely transform victims into props, ratings-driving talking points for Bill O'Reilly, Wolf Blitzer, Rachel Maddow and Charles Barkley and megaphones for opportunists masquerading as heirs to Dr. King.

Before continuing, I must state that the issue of law-enforcement brutality is personal for my family and me. In 2012, Indianapolis sheriffs tasered and killed Anton Butler, the greatest child my family ever produced, while he stood unarmed and posing no threat. To those outside my family, to the people who did not know Anton's backstory, a 28-year-old ex-con got what he deserved. Police allege he died because he had cocaine in his system. To me, to my family, to the people who knew Anton's story in full, a 28-year-old, kindhearted, lovable goofball died brutally on rain-soaked pavement without life ever giving him the chance to properly blossom.

Born in a different circumstance and zip code, Anton, a natural bookworm, would've been an accountant, an engineer, a doctor, a scientist, a sports columnist. Instead, he dabbled in a neighborhood trade -- hustling -- he had no real qualifications for, showed up one too many times at the wrong place at the wrong time, and was left with little choice but to plead guilty to several serious felony charges related to guns and drugs. The rap sheet with no context made his unwarranted death easy to dismiss for those who learned his story in the local newspaper. The pain is in the details and the context. The pain is immense and inescapable. I loved him. As a child, he and my other little cousins spent summers with me in Kansas City, Missouri.

Anton's picture sits on my living-room table. I look at it every day.

Police brutality is a real issue for me and my family, so I don't say what comes next lightly.

There is no widespread epidemic of cops shooting and/or killing unarmed black men. That's a false flag waved by the uninformed, the lazy and the crowd that needs Ebola and ISIS and disappearing airplanes for traction. Police killing unarmed men of any color is a man-bites-dog tragedy. It's rare, which is what makes the occurrence so television titillating. Of course, every instance is one too many, and as a society we should do everything we can to prevent it. But all this talk about "the talk" that black parents must have with their sons about interacting with police is slightly misguided.

Have "the talk" with your child about drinking and/or texting while driving, things far more likely to physically harm a child or adult than the police.

If you want to give additional substance to the activist/protest energy fomenting America, talk to lawmakers about the instructions and priorities they've given to law enforcement.

Talk about the real plague -- segregation by incarceration.

SBI is why the African-American community is distrustful of law enforcement. SBI decimated the black family structure, leaving our communities fatherless and leaderless. SBI fertilized the cultural rot that makes us believe prison culture is African-American culture.

SBI is why black and brown folks feel they can't breathe.

You grow the jail/prison population from about 400,000 to 2.5 million in a 40-year period and there are bound to be drastic ramifications. You place more black men under government, penal supervision than were enslaved before the Civil War -- as Alexander's groundbreaking book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," revealed -- and there are bound to be damaging repercussions.

The marriage of capitalism to incarceration is as destructive as Ike and Tina, as unethical as Bonnie and Clyde, as immoral as Woody and Soon Yi, and as stupid as Bobby and Whitney.

The front lines of our drug war feel like occupied territories. Citizens are stopped, frisked, followed, profiled and made to feel as inmates locked in their own neighborhoods by a heavily armed occupying force. The tension is thick, palpable and suffocating. Our politicians have authorized rules of engagement that mirror those in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's why grand juries refuse to indict.

The drug war reconstructed poor neighborhoods and schools into minimum-security prisons and prison yards, governed by the same gangs and no-snitch policies commonplace in penal institutions.

Why did the proliferation of street gangs accelerate with astonishing quickness in California in the 1970s and '80s? Why was gangsta rap born in Los Angeles?

Because Ronald Reagan planted the flag of Law and Order and mass incarceration in California first.

There are millions of unreported and undiagnosed negative ramifications from segregation by incarceration.

Eric Garner hustled loose cigarettes/contraband. Our Law and Order culture dictated that correctional officers repeatedly harass and arrest Garner for this minor offense. But Law and Order does not extend to the suburbs, white-collar crimes and Wall Street. The drug war isn't being waged in suburbia, where drugs are used and sold by white kids at the same frequency as people of color.

The bankers and brokers who fleeced the working class with predatory loans and brought the country to near collapse have never been targeted as Public Enemy No. 1 and tagged as the enemies of a war on corruption. There is no occupying force policing the activities of Wall Street. Bankers and brokers do not get stopped and frisked. They almost never go to jail. They looted 401(k) accounts and burned this country to the ground with impunity.

But a man lost his life over loose cigarettes. Has one Wall Street thug lost his life at the hands of overzealous law enforcement?

This dichotomy is at the heart of the criminal-justice cynicism pervasive throughout black culture. The dichotomy is not unintentional. Neither is segregation. The opponents of desegregation anticipated the impact of Law and Order. L&O was Goldwater's sales pitch to white voters afraid of the end of American apartheid. Nixon doubled down on L&O and won the presidency, and three years later labeled the scourge of drugs the biggest threat to American freedom and focused law enforcement on cleaning up the poor communities that rioted in the 1960s.

Bill Clinton persuaded Southern whites to vote for him by jumping on the Law and Order bandwagon. The original "first black president" instituted draconian three-strikes and mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines, removing a judge's discretion from our criminal courts.

It took a bipartisan, power-hungry village to completely erase rehabilitation and compassion from our criminal justice system.

It happened because Law and Order is evil but brilliant politics. It's the primary tool separating working-class/poor white people and working-class/poor black people. The criminalization and demonization of black people appeal to inherent biases and seduce working-class whites to vote against their self-interest. In matters not involving life or death, racial protectionism trumps self-interest. Poor and working-class whites take one for "their" team.

Unfortunately, many African-Americans help their natural allies overlook an abundance of common concerns and interests by framing inequality discussions in the most extreme, distorted and polarizing manner.

Dumbed-down, irresponsible Twitter hashtags won't stop segregation by incarceration. They empower it. They keep the national conversation steered away from the real problem and real solutions.

Sensitivity training and body cameras for law enforcement treat segregation-by-incarceration symptoms. Body cameras will have no impact on the fast-growing, multibillion-dollar prison industrial complex that recruits new inmates in poor minority zip codes and then swindles an inmate's family and friends with court fees, calling-card fees, commissary fees, clothing fees and fee fees.

What do taxpayers get in return? Our prisons spit out men broken and scarred by a barbaric system. We're stuck caring for their abandoned children who have been infected with the virus that makes them predisposed for incarceration. We're stuck with the cultural decay that undermines the integrity necessary to maintain a civilized society.

You want to curb police brutality? You have to seek order through justice, not fear and punishment. You have to feed the poor hope, not hopelessness.

You want to curb police brutality? The American media have to prioritize discussing complicated issues in a nuanced, informed and transparent fashion.

Our republic fails without an informed public. We're not informed. We're entertained.

Charles Barkley, whose inflammatory and pandering comments about Ferguson made national news last week, is a too-easy target. Truth is, he's no more or less informed/credible on the issues surrounding Ferguson than most of the other opinion-makers babbling on television. Cable TV demands pandering to a base and irresponsible commentary.

Barkley's labeling of rioters and looters as "scumbags" and "not real black people" is less offensive than the left-wing intellectuals who condoned the rioting and looting from the comfort of a TV studio. Baiting and/or suggesting to the poor, vulnerable and hopeless that they take risks you would not is cowardly, exploitive and narcissistic. It's a tactic of a demagogue. Demagoguery fuels TV.

It's unfair to single out television media. Print media gave up analyzing race and culture as a serious endeavor decades ago. Newspapers and magazines used to cover race as a beat. Reporters and editors specialized in the topic. We turned away from that kind of pervasive and measured coverage in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, especially once the best black journalists fled black media outlets to work for mainstream publications. African-Americans gutted their most powerful and effective voice: black-owned newspapers.

And as mainstream print publications lost their advertising financial monopolies and became reliant on a handful of major corporations, while the right wing demonized any discussion of race and inequality issues, serious coverage of difficult subjects virtually disappeared from print.

Internet journalism has mostly disappointed so far. Traditional media repurposed for the Internet are trapped between being too concerned with clicks and too fearful of irritating their old base with unsettling content. New Internet media -- although commendably ambitious -- are too reliant on untrained, unseasoned and assimilated millennials whose worldview is shaped by, and whose day-to-day interaction with urban America is limited to, social media and pop culture.

Holistic journalism, the kind that pushes America toward a more perfect union, is a twice-as-hard undertaking. It can be done only with resources, commitment, experience and life-experience-rich diversity. Holistic journalism challenges us to think, re-evaluate and discover our better selves. At its best, America has often overcome its flaws and found the courage to embrace the task of self-evaluation and renewal. We survived the Civil War, the assassination of President Lincoln, the tumultuous 1960s, and the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

One of the biggest differences between then and now is the quality of the information provided to the masses. The collapsing business model for the institutions that traditionally informed us in a nuanced way has compromised what we're willing to tell the masses. This has led to the goal of true equality being replaced by the impossibility of attaining colorblindness.

Colorblindness, in a country with our complex racial history, has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with disregarding the sins of bigotry. Colorblindness is a ploy to avoid the difficulty of pursuing justice.

Justice is blind. America is not.

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