Tearing Down More Than Flags

The Charleston Massacre was a horrific event. Dylann Roof, the white supremacist terrorist, entered a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed 9 people. While a host of Republicans and corporate media pundits found the tragedy inexplicable, the details of Roof’s racist motivations are made explicit in his manifesto.

It is important to keep in mind two facts about this tragedy. First, the reasons for this massacre are both explicit and comprehensible. White supremacist ideology provided the apparent justification and motivation for Dylann Roof to carry out this terrorist attack. Secondly, and most importantly, Charleston is not an isolated incident. Violence against African-Americans is a recurring aspect of life in America. Ending this violence will require substantive policy changes.

Individual acts of terrorism pale in comparison to the violence and socio-economic destruction perpetrated against African-Americans by the state-sanctioned policies of police brutality and mass incarceration. Unfortunately, when it comes to America’s police and judicial systems, the kind of violence witnessed in Charleston is not the exception, but the rule. The exceptional element of the tragedy is both the transparency of the killer’s motives and the rapidity in which he was arrested and punished. The latter serves to remind us that killing blacks is unacceptable unless one is wearing a badge.

Let’s take a look at the numbers. In 2014, the police killed at least 238 black Americans. This number is likely much higher, but due to the problems in how government agencies collect data on victims of police violence, we have to rely on compilations of mainstream media reports. Even so, this conservative estimate means that essentially the police commit a little more than 2 Charlestons every month.

The on-going support for policies that lead to mass incarceration disproportionately effect African-Americans. According to the NAACP criminal justice fact sheet, black Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million of those incarcerated. This is a rate of incarceration six times higher than whites, even though blacks do not commit crimes at higher rates than their white citizens.

Mass incarceration economically and socially destroys black communities. Labeled felons for minor drug offenses, over 1 million African-Americans will not be able to vote. They will now have two strikes against their employment prospects: one for being a felon and another for the color of their skin.

The economic consequences of mass incarceration itself are devastating. Anthropologist David Brahman remarks, “The social deprivation and draining of capital from these communities may well be the greatest contribution our state makes to income inequality. There is no social institution I can think of that comes close to matching it.” This economic drain does not just count the nearly $70 billion spent annually on corrections. 61 percent of those incarcerated are at the prime of their working life (18-39 years old). Removing them from the labor force severely damages not only their own economic standing, but that of their families’ as well. Julia Bowling of the Brennan Center for Justice correctly states:

The diminished employment prospects of formerly incarcerated individuals also have an   enormous effect on their parents and children. Currently, 1 in 28 children has a parent in prison. Having an incarcerated parent doubles a child’s chances of experiencing homelessness, and increases the likelihood that they’ll exhibit social problems, academic problems, and be incarcerated themselves. …The economic impact of incarceration pushes families through the revolving doors of the criminal justice system, and fuels a multi-generational cycle of poverty.

On July 10, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State Capitol. Tearing down the racist emblems of the slaveholders’ rebellion is surely the right thing to do. But we must not be satisfied with merely symbolic change. As Rev William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said:

The perpetrator has been arrested, but the killer is still at large. …And if we want harmony, we have to talk about racism, not just in terms of symbol, but in the substance of policies. The flag went up to fight policies. If we’re going to bring it down, we’re also going to have to change policies, and particularly policies that create disparate impact on black, brown and poor white people.

Here are some ideas for substantive policy changes that would improve the lives of not just African-Americans, but all Americans. The legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. Pardoning all those who have been convicted of minor drug offenses. Granting both past felons and future ones the right to vote. Disarming the police. Retraining the police in tactics of de-escalation and nonviolence. Establishment of an independent review board of police misconduct.

Take the funding that was previously spent on locking up drug users, providing the police with fancy military-grade equipment, and the money wasted on private prisons, and use it towards drug rehabilitation programs, and providing job training, opportunities, and reintegration programs for released prisoners. Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Tax the nearly $90 billion that Fortune 500 companies keep in off-shore tax havens and use money to fund necessary educational, health, and employment services in poor communities.

If the above policies seem utopian, think again. Most Western nations have some combination of the above reforms. The implementation of these policies will remain out of reach only if we do not organize to demand their enactment. Americans cannot be satisfied with either passive electoral politics or merely symbolic gestures. Social change comes only when masses of people organize in opposition to institutional injustices.

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