From time immoral, history has provided us with myriad examples of the mistreatment of one group of people by another. The Old Testament reminds us that the people of Moses were abused and enslaved by the ancient Egyptians. The period that inaugurated the rise of the empire building nations of Western Europe, and the conquest of the global economy by capitalism, gave rise to pogroms in Western Europe (during the period of the Black Death) and Russia targeting Jewish members of the human family. These pogroms culminated in the horror of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi’s occupation of Continental Europe (Bloch, 1954). The discovery of the Atlantic World, marked the large scaled extermination and marginalization of its native people; and World War II witnessed the large scaled imprisonment –i.e., internment—of many law abiding Japanese Americans. Finally, while slavery marked the first large scaled imprisonment of African Americans, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not result in the end of this practice. Since 1865 and as a direct consequence of the growth of the prison industrial complex, large numbers of black Americans’ civil and human rights are routinely violated by the police and the American criminal justice system. These violations and abuses stem from far too many white Americans’ fear and loathing of African Americans.
The legal murder of Trayvon Martin is the latest incident in a long history of black males losing their lives because of the fear and loathing of far too many members of America’s dominant group. The not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin’s case moved President Barack Obama to uncharacteristically make an impromptu speech about race relations in contemporary America. The response to President Obama’s speech by conservative Fox News commentator, Bill O’Reilly aptly captured the dominant rationale used to justify the violation of black Americans, in general, and black males’, in particular, legal and civil rights. That is, Mr. O’Reilly when responding to President Obama’s speech regarding the not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case remarked:
“… It was wrong for Zimmerman to confront Martin based on his appearance. But, the culture that we have in this nation does lead to criminal profiling, because young black men are so involved in crime. The statistics are overwhelming. But here is the headline; young black men commit homicides at a rate 10 times greater than whites and Hispanics combined. When presented with damning evidence like that, the civil rights industry looks the other way or makes excuses. They blame the barbarity on guns or poor education or lack of jobs. Rarely do they define the problem accurately. The reason there is so much violence and chaos in the black precincts is the disintegration of African American family.”
Arguably, Mr. O’Reilly’s comments captured the dominant narrative linking race and crime in contemporary America. The significance of Mr. O’Reilly’s comments is that it effectively perpetuates the view that African American males are responsible for the vast majority of crimes, in America. Consequently, this article provides a cursory critique of Mr. O’Reilly’s comments by first providing a summary of two examples that demonstrates that far too many whites’ perceptions/assumptions about race and crime have effectively criminalized black males. These two examples are the not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case and the New York City Stop-and-Frisk anticrime program championed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly. Contrary to scholars who advocate the view that America has entered a post racial period in its development, I argue that blacks and whites are treated differently by the American legal system, particularly when black Americans are criminally violated by whites (Gordon, 1994; Flateau, 1996; Cuffee, 2008). Second, my analysis challenges the dominant assumptions linking race and crime; and third and final, my analysis concludes with cursory remarks that demonstrate that inequity in the application of the law based on race has been a dominant element of the African American experiences.
Trayvon Martin and the NYC Stop-and-Frisk Law
On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman claimed that the reason why he shot Mr. Martin was because he feared for his life. On July 13, 2013, a jury consisting of six women agreed with Mr. Zimmerman’s account and acquitted him of the charge of second degree murder. No surprise to me. Predictably, the not guilty verdict sent shockwaves throughout the black American community and ignited latent feelings of betrayal and mistrust.
Shortly after the not guilty verdict, one of the six jurors identified as Juror B37, remarked in an interview with CNN journalist Anderson Cooper that she had “no doubt” Zimmerman feared for his life in the final moments of his struggle with Trayvon Martin. Moreover, she remarked that Zimmerman’s fear for his life was a definitive factor in the jury’s final verdict. She continues by stating that,
I think George Zimmerman is a man whose heart was in the right place, but just got displaced by the vandalism in the neighborhoods, and wanting to catch these people so badly that he went above and beyond what he really should have done.
While she emphasized that race was not a factor in the verdict, I cannot help but wonder that if she was the one walking in that gated community and was pursued by Mr. Zimmerman, would the outcome of the confrontation been the same? To buttress my point, I offer the following links to a television show titled What Would You Do? Specifically, this particular episode may very well capture most American’s views regarding race and crime. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0kV_b3IK9M. After viewing this video you may still disagree with me that the verdict reached by the six jurors was indeed inaccurate. Moreover, you may be strongly inclined to retain the view that the American judicial system is race neutral, and that black and white defendants, irrespective of race and class, are accorded the same rights. However, my key argument is that the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case is the latest in a long line of reminders that far too many whites believe that blacks, in general, and black males, in particular, are dangerous and constitute the faces of crime in contemporary America. Given this perception, discriminatory anticrime policies such as the New York City Stop-and-Frisk Law, which is routinely used to violate (mostly poor) blacks’ legal and unconstitutional rights, are rarely scrutinized.
The New York City Stop-and Frisk Law was first employed by former New York City Mayor, Rudy Giuliani. However, the application of this law has enjoyed widespread use under New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Raymond Kelly. The dominant rationale used by Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly to justify the stop-and-frisk anticrime program is that it reduces crime by diminishing the number of guns and drug sales on New York City streets. Opponents of stop-and-frisk have correctly countered with the argument that it provides law enforcement officers with legal tools for terrorizing and criminalizing black and Hispanic youth. Thankfully, organizations such as the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Center for NuLeadership are leading the fight to curtail this discriminatory anticrime program.
Opponents of stop-and-frisk have not only provided impressive empirical data that cast doubts on its effectiveness, but have also demonstrated that this anticrime program overwhelmingly targets blacks and Hispanic males. For example, the NYCLU’s quantitative analyses of stop-and-frisk data revealed that,
No research has ever proven the effectiveness of New York City’s stop-and-frisk regime, and the small number of arrests, summonses, and guns recovered demonstrates that the practice is ineffective. Crime data also do not support the claim that New York City is safer because of the practice. While violent crimes fell 29 percent in New York City from 2001 to 2010, other large cities experienced larger violent crime declines without relying on stop and frisk abuses: 59 percent in Los Angeles, 56 percent in New Orleans, 49 percent in Dallas, and 37 percent in Baltimore (NYCLU website: http://www.nyclu.org/node/1598 ).
Mr. O’Reilly’s vigorous defense of the view that black males are inherently dangerous, therefore whites have a right to fear them and Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly’s use of statistical evidence to support their undying defense of stop-and-frisk share a dubious linage. The erroneous assumptions underlining the aforementioned advocates of law and order were anticipated by W.E.B DuBois’ study of race and criminality in The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899, 1967).
Specious Links between Race and Crime
Dr. DuBois, an unacknowledged founder of Sociology, was the first American sociologist to use empirical evidence to study African Americans in the City of Philadelphia. As the eminent sociologist, Dr. William Julius Wilson correctly remarked,
… The Philadelphia Negro is a pioneering study in sociological field research -that is, research that combines descriptive statistics, urban ethnography, and social history. Yet, if students of sociology were asked to cite the trailblazing works of field research on urban race and ethnic relations, they would invariably mention studies published two decades or more later such as William I. Thomas and Florian Znanieclu’s two-volume study (1918-20) The Polish Peasant: Monograph of an Immigrant Group, or Louis Wirth’s (1928) The Ghetto, or Harvey W. Zorbaugh’s (1929) The Gold Coast and the Slum. These works are on most graduate students’ reading lists in sociology and are required readings in many of the comprehensive examinations for the Ph.D. On the other hand, hardly anyone mentions or discusses The Philadelphia Negro in graduate classes. Many students can go through their entire graduate program without being exposed to any of Du Bois’ work, not to mention The Philadelphia Negro (Wilson 1996:78).
The significance of Dr. DuBois’ analysis of race and crime was that he did not rely on simplistic conclusions based wholly on empirical data. While Dr. DuBois’ study divides Negro criminality into three distinctive periods—i.e., the colonial, the antebellum, and the post antebellum periods—one of his major conclusion was that crime is not a phenomenon that stands alone, but is rather “a symptom of countless wrong social conditions” (DuBois 1899, 1967:242). For Dr. DuBois, blacks’ poverty, marginalization, and exclusion from mainstream Philadelphia were greater determinants of black criminality than some alleged inherent biological deficiency. However, the assumptions that underlined and governed the arguments and ideological commitments of Mr. O’Reilly, Mayor Bloomberg, and Commissioner Kelly can be traced back to the Reagan Revolution and its successful stratagem of casting blacks as the major force behind many of America’s social problems.
The Reagan Revolution was influenced by conservative thinkers and writers committed to building an ideological bulwark to counter the Black Power phase of the Civil Rights movement and the violent riots that engulfed many urban centers in the late 1960s. These American urban centers included Newark, Watts, and Detroit (Rustin, 1970). By the 1970s, these conservative writers had succeeded in labeling blacks as criminals, drug dealers, drug addicts, welfare cheats, etc. The explosion of America’s drug culture and the widespread use of heroine, in the 1960s and 1970s, and crack, in the latter part of the 1980s, shaped the domestic policy agenda of President Ronald Reagan that resulted in the widespread use of prisons to warehouse generations of black males.
The major innovation of the Reagan Revolution’s ideological offensive against black America was that it framed its assault in race neutral language ensconced in empirical data (Gordon, 1994; Donziger, 1996; Wise, 2010; Pettit, 2012). The use of empirical data supported many of the erroneous ideas held by many whites eager to believe spurious ideas about blacks. The propagation of the idea that blacks were inherently irresponsible and violent, led to whites’ flight from urban American to the suburbs financed and supported by the Federal government’s creation of superhighways, redlining, and FHA loans. Government programs that indirectly financed whites’ flight were consequential in three respects. First, they perpetuated whites’ social and geographical distance from their black counterparts. Second, the social distance of whites from blacks facilitated the legitimacy of invented knowledge that portrayed blacks as culturally deficient and irresponsible (Gans, 1970; Gans, 1995). Finally, it led to what Dr. Charles Wright Mills (1959) derided as abstracted empiricism. That is, statistical data about blacks’ alleged irresponsibility and criminality were deduced and ripped from viable social contexts resulting in them becoming devoid of historically grounded meanings. Consequently, based on statistical evidence gathered from incidences of black criminality, Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly could safely conclude that, “More than 90 percent of homicide suspects in New York City are blacks;” and Mr. O’Reilly could confidently lead his viewers to conclude that whites are more likely to be murdered by an African American as opposed to someone from their own race. The fact that blacks, as members of the human family, love their children as much as whites, Hispanics, and Native people is overlooked, at best, and ignored, at worst. Why do I say this? Mr. O’Reilly’s sweeping critique of the reason(s) why Mr. Zimmerman was found innocent and many whites’ belief that black males are dangerous serve to illustrate my point, most aptly.
Mr. O’Reilly’s critique of the not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case captures national attention because it is filled with half truths grounded in abstracted empiricism detached from real contexts. First, white Americans need not worry because most murders, in America thanks to our highly segregated neighborhoods and schools, are committed by individuals sharing the same race as their victims. Second, while blacks and whites use drugs at almost the same rate, blacks are sent to prison at a significantly greater rate than whites for drug use and distribution (NAACP, 2009). Additionally, studies of the American commodity chain regarding dealership in drugs and guns reveal that the higher up we go in this supply network, the whiter the participants and the more profitable the business. However, over the past 30 years the Conservative’s perspective on crime has dominated our national imaginations. Scholarly works, newspaper articles, and myriad reports on the evening news affirm and reaffirm most Americans’ perceptions about crime and race. Specifically, when we read scholarly articles about poverty and dysfunctional families in America, most segments of these articles use black families to illustrate their salient points (Jordan, 2004). When we read newspapers’ articles about welfare, they are usually accompanied by pictures of a single black female with her illegitimate children in tow. When we watch the evening news broadcast stories about crime in urban America, they are usually accompanied by buildings in minority neighborhoods littered with graffiti and young black men huddled in menacing packs on dark street corners looking suspicious. These are the easy targets of anticrime measures championed by Mr. O’Reilly, Mayor Bloomberg, and Commissioner Kelly. The criminality of whites that worked in the financial industry that robbed many Americans of their life savings and homes, as a direct consequence of the 2008 financial meltdown, are overlooked (Stieglitz, 2012). An often ignored fact is that the reason why blacks are featured so prominently in empirical data on crime is because they live in communities that are heavily policed by law enforcement agencies. These communities are commonly characterized by failing schools, shortage of jobs, and young adults that are disconnected from school and work. When these African-American communities are targeted by the law enforcement agencies their residents are easily transformed into fodders for America’s prison industrial complex. Examples of the latter are easily found in the following American zip codes: 10029, 100456, 11207, 19124, 19129, 19140, 46201, 46218, 77026, and 77033.
Research has consistently demonstrated that blacks are arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced more harshly than whites, for similar criminal offenses. In a final insult, empirical data on the high rates of arrest, persecution, and conviction are used to justify and legitimize the abuses and violations of black males’ legal rights, on a daily basis. Sadly the use of empirical data to justify the continued abuses of African Americans by the American criminal justice system reaffirm Dr. Dubois’ pronouncement that for how long can a nation teaches “… its black children that the road to success is to have a white face?” As such, I leave you the reader with the burden of answering this question, and to Mr. Martin’s parents, I am compelled to say your son’s sacrifice was not in vain.
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Jordan, G. (Spring 2004). The Causes of Poverty Cultural vs. Structural: Can There Be a Synthesis. Perspectives in Public Affairs, 18-34.
Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
NAACP. (2009). Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. Baltimore, Maryland: NAACP.
Pettit, B. (2012). Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Rustin, B. (1970). A Way Out of the Exploding Ghetto. In R. Mack, Prejudice and Race Relations (pp. 255-268). Chicago: Quadrangle Books.
Stiglitz, J. (2012). The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, Inc.
Wilson, W. J. (Spring 1996). DuBois’ The Philadelphia Negro: 100 Years Later. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 78-84.
Wise, T. (2010). Color Blind: The Rise of post Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
The following link provides copious examples of black males killed because of racial profiling and erroneous assumptions about the inherent criminality of black people. http://www.theroot.com/multimedia/beyond-trayvon-black-and-unarmed
 Please review the CNN Fact sheet for the Trayvon Martin case at http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts