On Sunday, 10 police officers were shot in Baton Rouge. Three died from their injuries. This incident comes after a month of racial tension, and less than two weeks after the deadly shooting in Dallas which left five officers dead and nine injured. At the memorial service for those gunned down in Dallas, former President George W. Bush said “Your loss is unfair. We cannot explain it. We can stand beside you, and share your grief.” Of course, the problem with Bush’s powerful speech was that these murders can, in fact, be explained.
The shooter, Micah Johnson, was responding to release of two viral videos depicting police brutality—and the graphic deaths of two black men: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Sterling and Castile are the latest examples of a generations-long trend of black Americans losing their lives at the hands of law enforcement and white vigilantes. Just recently: Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, etc.
For this reason, we must have some perspective as we grapple with the recent deaths in Baton Rouge and Dallas—especially with so many rushing to blame Black Lives Matter. Milwaukee County sheriff, David Clarke, even went so far as to declare war on the movement. But this kind of sentiment sorely misses the point.
Slavery officially ended in the United States on Dec. 6, 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. It has been roughly 151 years since a time when our country allowed the ownership of human beings by other human beings based on little more than skin pigmentation. It has been just 62 years since the Supreme Court ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional because separate is inherently unequal, in the first Brown v. Board of Education ruling. However, though America’s “peculiar institution” has ended, and segregation is no more, being black in America still means being unequal.
After the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board ruling(s), which desegregated public schools and gave the court the power to enforce those efforts, de jure segregation became simply de facto segregation. The Democratic Party lined up behind a civil rights platform, but that alienated the “Solid South” which had been the power behind FDR’s New Deal coalition. Some within the Republican Party sensed opportunity. Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon ultimately implemented what became known as the Southern Strategy—making appeals to white southern conservatives who were angered by the Democratic Party’s new direction. As political strategist Kevin Philips told the New York Times in 1970, “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that.”
Since the birth of this infamous strategy, GOP lawmakers have scored political points using black Americans as fodder—to varying degrees of subtlety. As GOP guru strategist, Lee Atwater, explained in 1981, Republicans had to adapt their racial appeals to the changing times:?
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Republicans ever since have been following this outline.
Ronald Reagan, who began his campaign with a “states’ rights” speech to an all white crowd waving Confederate flags, in Neshoba County, Mississippi—known for the deaths of three civil rights activists—stumped about feckless black people. “Welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” who would buy T-bone steaks with food stamps were living off tax dollars from hardworking white Americans.
George H.W. Bush ran his infamous “Revolving Door” and “Willie” Horton ads aimed at scaring white voters with the video representation of the stereotype of black criminality—a tradition dating back to the infamous 1915 silent film, Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and was loved by president Woodrow Wilson.
The election and reelection of America’s first black president marked a turning point, however, as it was the last time GOP presidential candidates could rely on Atwater’s coded approach. Republican base voters demanded more, many seeing increasing political and cultural awareness (political correctness) as an end of their way of life. Gone are the days when Newt Gingrich called America’s first black president “The Food Stamp President,” and Mitt Romney called his ideas “foreign”—questioning whether or not Obama understood what it is to be an American. Now is the time of Donald Trump who openly questioned whether or not Obama was a natural born citizen.
But the Democratic Party is not free of blame in the race-baiting politics game—in spite of the fact that the party relies heavily on black voters, it got in on the racial appeal action as well. In the 1990’s the New Democrats, led by Bill and Hillary Clinton, sensing the changing political tides, embarked on a crusade of “triangulation”—which essentially meant abandoning Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, and the progressive left—to recapture socially conservative, southern white voters. President Clinton sought to be tougher on “crime” than either of his Republican predecessors, and promised to “end welfare as we know it.”
Several problems came along with this rhetoric from both parties like racial violence from white people, angry at the stereotypes they’d been sold (the majority of racially motivated hate crimes are white on black), and of course, Policies designed to hurt black America and appease the south—things like the Drug War and mandatory minimum sentencing, welfare reform, cuts to the safety net, voter ID laws, racial gerrymandering to minimize black representation etc.
All of this have taken a heavy toll:
1. Poverty is highest among Black Americans with the exception of Native Americans.
2. Some have pointed out that black Americans commit more crimes as a percentage of the population than white Americans, but the former are more likely to be punished for offenses the latter get warnings for. That’s because research indicates that most Americans subliminally associate blackness with criminality.
3. Though more white Americans are killed by police every year than Black Americans in the aggregate, when population is taken into account, the latter group is 2.5 times as likely to be killed by police officers, and more likely to experience use of force (except shootings).
4. Black Americans statistically receive harsher sentences than white Americans for comparable offenses.
5. Black Americans account for 37.6 percent of the federal prison population, but only 13 to 14 percent of the total U.S. population.
The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile fit into a larger trend that black Americans are all too familiar with: unequal treatment in the U.S. by law enforcement and the criminal justice system altogether. This situation is intolerable. Too many black Americans are losing their lives, and outrage is a natural response—especially given the history.
The fact is, Black America has never had an opportunity to recover from slavery. In spite of the fact that black Americans have fought and died in virtually every war this country has ever fought; in spite of the fact that black Americans have enriched our country and our culture; in spite of the fact that said culture was built on the back of black Americans, no reparations have ever been paid. Adding insult to injury, since the moment the “peculiar institution” was abolished, black Americans have been used as political chess pieces, and there have been intentionally placed obstacles to equality.
While America reacts in horror to the recent shootings of police officers, it should not be shocked. As horrific as these incidents are, they are predictable. Violence is inevitable in the face of overwhelming, unaddressed inequality—but it is not the fault of Black Lives Matter.