Nov. 25, 2014
I didn’t really plan on getting into the muck this early but, for the last 24 hours, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews about the Ferguson grand jury decision and the riots that have followed. Besides my interest as a criminologist who studies racism, this issue intersects with this blog for two very important reasons.
First, my daughter is brown. I may be a white guy (with all the privileges that wins), but my wife is Mexican. That means our baby is Chicana (Sorry, honey. We got us a Chicano baby.) Life for non-white people is different than for whites in America, as much as “color-blind” whites try to deny it. I’m sure I will write plenty on white privilege, but this morning I am just thinking about how justice is not color-blind for people like my daughter. She is more likely to be pulled over by the police and less likely to believed when questioned by authorities. I don’t have to make the case that this is true; the data backs me up. I just hope it is less true by the time she is old enough to drive.
The second issue has to do with the fathers of Ferguson. Or the lack of them. The “War on Drugs” targeted poor minority communities not white kids in frat houses snorting coke. Besides quadrupling the prison population, this trumped up war also served to remove black fathers from their communities. In 2007, one in 15 black kids had a parent in prison, mostly fathers.
We have romanticized the image of the black rogue male with multiple kids from multiple women (Just turn on any episode of The Maury Povich Show.) But as much as I loved to hear The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” on the radio when I was a kid, this archetype undermines the recognition of the challenges of poor black fathers in America. This includes the days of AFDC, when welfare support was withheld if a father was present (Giving a valid reason not to be). The War on Drugs had a place for an awful lot of those fathers, behind bars.
So here we have a community decimated by poverty, disenfranchisement, and police targeting with a vacuum of fathers to help raise their children. It’s not surprising that many of those young men find empowerment in what Richard Majors and Janet Billson called the “cool pose.” (Two books for your reading list are Majors and Billson’s Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.) A version of masculinity exists in urban America that many whites (including at least one white police officer) find threatening.
I had a conservative white friend who was driving into the city. He asked me a curious question. “Randy, why do black people walk so slow when they are crossing the street?” He was upset that black pedestrians were holding up traffic (mainly, his huge pickup truck). Now I don’t know if black people walk slower or faster than any other group of people, but I asked him, “Do you know any other group that does that?” “Yeah, teenagers do it all the time!” he said.
So, then, I told him, if you felt like you didn’t have much power in the world, what would be one thing you could do to feel powerful? Stop your truck!
It’s not surprising the people are rioting. Especially young black men. It’s not sad that they are rioting. What’s sad is that there is still a reason to riot in 2014. The Watts Riots were almost 50 years ago, but the issues are exactly the same. Oppression is a complex matrix and masculinity intersects with race in ways that many whites never see. But the cumulative removal of minority fathers by a criminal justice system that has repeatedly demonstrated racial bias at every stage, from policing to parole, has a price. Each generation pays for that with fire and heartbreak.
Here’s an interview done right as the riots were starting. Don’t judge my fashion choices.