“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’” —Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail
I recently came across two New York Times columns – one written by David Brooks, and the other written and narrated by Jay-Z. David Brooks was telling high school football players not to kneel during the national anthem because such a protest would be divisive and counterproductive. Jay-Z was arguing that the Drug War has been destroying the lives of black (and Latino) men for forty years. After reading both articles, I felt a profound sense of impatience. I had to say something immediately and— most importantly—I knew what I wanted to say.
David Brooks’ article is atrocious. It’s like the inverse of a Shakespearean sonnet: it gets shittier the more you think about it. Brooks’ chief sin is one of cowardice; he clearly has a meaning, but he doesn’t have the courage to say it explicitly (an unforgivable sin for someone who argues for a living). He says to the protestors, “I hear you when you say you are unhappy with the way things are going in America,” but he isn’t telling the truth. What he actually (unquestionably) means is, “I don’t think things are as bad as you do.” Here’s a simple way to test my reading: if segregation still existed in America, would Brooks’ still say it was “counter-productive” to draw attention to the unique plight of black Americans? In the time of Jim Crow, would Brooks argue:
“If we don’t transmit that creed through shared displays of reverence we will have lost the idea system that has always motivated reform. We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together.”
That wouldn’t make any sense, would it? So what we he really means, writing about today, is that he doesn’t think black people today are being treated shitty enough these days to justify this “divisive” protest. Let’s just call it what it is.
The flaws in Brooks’ argument can inform our national conversation about “Black Lives Matter.” At this point, Black Lives Matter is still a loose, disparate outcry – a shared feeling, not necessarily a unified organization. It’s easy to focus on the protestors we disagree with as a means of dismissing a conversation we never really intended to have. It’s easy to let our individual biases – a support for law and order, a distaste for protests, for stupid college students, for race-based governmental policies – prevent us from an honest analysis of the opposing arguments. We need to have real discussions. Please.
Let’s set aside the bullshit smokescreens. The problem with Brooks’ article is that it isn’t serious. It’s a dodge. And now is a time to be serious; now is a time to look right at the center of things. If Brooks were to be honest about his feelings, then his efforts might be part of a productive dialogue, even if I disagreed with his analysis. As it stands, his article is a parody of dialogue – a superficial social analysis that focuses merely on effects, avoiding the necessary argument of whether the cause even exists.
Jay-Z makes the specific arguments that David Brooks chooses to avoid. Jay-Z’s article focuses on the Drug War. He argues that the application of the Drug War is discriminatory – an example of the systemic bias symbolized by the protestors kneeling during the national anthem. Now – as a matter of full disclosure – in the decade-long war between Jay-Z and Nas, I was always for Nas. That should be said up front. If this is the beginning of a beef between between Jay-Z and David Brooks, however, I can tell you from the start that I stand with Jay-Z, unequivocally. Jay-Z is exactly correct that the war on drugs is an “epic fail,” and that it has been waged disproportionately against young, poor, black men.
Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow is an exhaustive treatment of Jay-Z’s central argument. One of the simplest, yet most striking, arguments of Alexander’s book is a reminder that correctional control does not end when someone leaves prison. Let’s imagine, for example, that some people might attribute the problems black men are facing to a problem of “culture.” I would ask anyone who holds that position if they are fully aware of what happens to someone in this country once they get a felony conviction. Depending on the state you live in, the following can be true for a felony convict: it will be very difficult to find work, you can’t vote, you are ineligible for federal student loans, you are ineligible for subsidized housing, you can’t get food stamps, and you are at a higher risk of returning to prison because of probationary restrictions such as allowing warrantless search and seizure.
Roughly 20 percent of all federal and state prisoners in this country are serving time for drug offenses, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The war on drugs, as Alexander argues, is a system of control that extends beyond raw incarceration statistics. And the effects of this system of control can be seen if we pay attention to the conditions on the ground in many cities across America.
For example – I live in Milwaukee. Just over a month ago, Milwaukee citizens were rioting. When the riots died down, there were lots of discussions on social media about what we could do – what we had to do – in order to help our city heal. Communal gatherings were organized in a show of solidarity. Some people donated money to youth organizations; others donated their time. Each of these approaches, in and of itself, was a virtuous, selfless response to someone else’s suffering. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that such efforts – virtuous as they may be – were the practical equivalent of missionary work in a war-torn region. The purpose of Jay-Z’s Op-Ed, the purpose of Michelle Alexander’s book, and certainly one of the purposes of this article, is to beg everyone to realize: it’s time to stop the war itself.
Wisconsin locks up black men at twice the national average – 1 in 8 black men of working age are in state prison or jail. According to research done by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, half of all black men between ages 30 and 40 in the city of Milwaukee have been to prison. Forty percent of all black men incarcerated in the last thirty years were incarcerated for drug offenses. Between 2002-2005, black men were incarcerated at a rate 11 to 12 times higher than white-men for drug offenses. The problem is that research indicates that blacks and white use and sell drugs at basically the exact same rate. Consider that in many cases, associating with felons is a violation of one’s parole status. Now also consider that 2/3rds of all Milwaukee’s incarcerated black men come from the city’s 6 poorest zip codes. As Michelle Alexander has argued – in many cities in America, you can’t walk to the corner store without violating your parole.
David Brooks, or anyone suspicious of the Black Lives Matter movement, should be required to offer an accompanying analysis of the conditions on the ground. They should attempt to explain, for example, why black Americans perform horribly relative to other racial groups in this country. Black males have higher unemployment. Lower graduation rates. Higher rates of murder and violent crime. Less voter participation. And black males are the most likely to be killed by the police. The protestors who are kneeling during the national anthem – from Colin Kaepernick to Megan Rapinoe to the high school athletes of Brooks’ essay – think that there are governmental (systemic) causes for these outcomes. If they are correct, then I don’t know why we’d waste time arguing about the manner of their protest.
Anyone who is angry at the protestors for disrespecting our national anthem should remember that we are dealing in symbol. The only question is whether the symbolic gesture of these athletes has a justifiable interpretation – is it fair for them to suggest that black Americans are being treated unjustly in our country? I want David Brooks, and all skeptics of Black Lives Matter protests to please answer this question. Please position yourself in this debate- the only debate that really matters – or else please acknowledge that you don’t have a position. It’s ok if you don’t have a position – it’s okay if you don’t know the answers. I’d just kindly ask that you act accordingly and let the rest of us do the talking.