Slavery in America may have ended but the US state has reproduced it through mass incarceration of blacks and police violence in poor black communities due to its hidden economic gains
THE LAST WORD: By Andrew M. Mwenda
Recent events in the United States; where police shot and killed two black men in cold blood may have dominated the news but they are actually normal and regular. What was unusual was a lone black man who decided to take matters into his hands and strike back at America’s institutionalised system of racial subjugation and violence, killing five police officers and injuring seven more. Since then, there has been more outpouring of sympathy for the police, including from President Barack Obama, than to the daily victims of police terror.
When I was young and naïve, I was like many Africans, holding an idealised view of America as a nation that stands for democracy and human rights. As I grew older, lived in America and read extensively about racial issues in that country, I learnt that racial injustice against poor black people is a deeply rooted aspect of American life. Although police are the violent face of this racist state, racial subjugation is a bipartisan political strategy that is largely implemented through the American criminal justice system.
Widespread and blatant racial injustice has survived in America for over 400 years only because it is the logic of the state and its political and economic calculus. Its name and form have changed over time – from indentured servitude, to slavery, to Jim Crow (America’s name for apartheid), and now to mass incarceration. But its substance has remained the same. In spite of the different guises, racial subjugation relies on America’s democratic institutions to keep black people as a racial under-caste.
This indictment of America may sound harsh because that country has also produced Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Barack Obama, Condoleeza Rice, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, Denzel Washington, etc. If the American system can allow such black people to emerge and succeed, some people argue, surely the nation cannot be accused of being built on the subjugation of black people.
However, we must remember that in spite of slavery and Jim Crow, America produced many great blacks: Anthony Johnson, Samuel Francis (a rich businessman and friend of America’s founding father, George Washington), John Baptiste De’Sable (the man who founded Chicago in 1772), Granville Woods (called the “black Edison” for patenting the induction telegram system), Frederick Douglas, Jack Johnson (the first African American to win the world boxing heavyweight championship of the world), Ralph Bunche (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950) etc.
Yet the emergence of people like Obama at the top of the American system is the way the system legitimises its violence against black people. By allowing these few blacks to succeed against insurmountable odds (which they do by internalising white superiority and how to work around it to their benefit) these few blacks create the wrong impression that America is a post-racial society. Indeed these cosmetic black achievements may be the real impediment to dismantling the American racial caste system.
When people see police stalking black neighborhoods, stopping and searching black people and rounding them off to jail, they think America is fighting crime. Yet the U.S. criminal justice system is not a system of crime prevention and control but of racial subjugation and social control.
Let me first give the facts before analysing their implications. In that self-acclaimed democracy of high civic and moral values, a black man is killed by a highly militarised and racist police force every 28 hours – yes, every 28 hours. Today in 2016, there are more black people in the prisons of America than were enslaved in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Today in 2016, there are more black people who are disenfranchised (denied voting rights) than in 1870 when the 15th amendment prohibiting discrimination in voting rights based on race was passed.
Today in 2016, there are more black youth in prison than in college. For example, in 1999 in the state of Illinois, 902 blacks graduated from college; 7,000 graduated from its state prisons. In Chicago, the hometown of America’s first black president, 80% of the adult black male population has a criminal record. A black child in America today has less chance of being raised by both parents than under slavery. Today 70% of professional U.S. black women are not married because mass incarceration of black males has taken them out of the dating pool. The incarceration rate of black people in America today is ten times higher than in apartheid South Africa.
I can go on listing these tragic facts ad infinitum. Last week Obama read another long list of these racial biases in police stops, searches, seizures, arrests, sentencing etc. that I should not belabor them here. The aim of this article is to show that the political superstructure of America and the economic base on which it rests are both sustained and reproduced by this system of racial subjugation. To understand this system, we need to appreciate the fact that crime in America has a color – it is black.
Black people constitute about 10% of the U.S. population but over 50% of its prison population. Media talking heads in USA claim that this is because of violent crime in black communities. Yet 75% of blacks are in jail for drugs and study after study has shown that blacks and whites sell and use drugs at the same rates. In his book, `When Work Disappears’, William Julius Wilson found that after controlling unemployment, the differences in crime rates between white and black communities disappear.