The police response to protests in Ferguson has been brutal. The Federal Aviation Administration declared the area a no-fly zone “to provide a safe environment for law-enforcement activities.” In all of this, a majority-Black population is being policed by a white force in a city described as “a racial powder keg.” This story is about racism, from the devaluing of Black lives to the disproportionate, military-style response.
So why in this NPR interview this morning was not one word spoken about race? The reporter being interviewed, Wesley Lowery, has been covering Ferguson for days, and his Twitter feed clearly shows an awareness of the race factor. Yet Steve Inskeep, while asking tactfully if the police might be “a little tense,” doesn’t mention race, and if Lowery said anything, it was edited out. Lowery quotes a resident as saying, “When I go somewhere and see a cop in riot gear, the first thing I think is ‘Riot!’ When I see someone who’s ready to fight and looks like they’re ready to fight me, I’m going to put up my fists.” Leaving out the context that this citizen was most likely a person of color who has spent his whole life dealing with the toxic racism in America is leaving out the major part of this news story. And don’t tell me that NPR is covering Ferguson in lots of ways and has probably discussed race in other stories. When I’m sick of hearing the mainstream media talk about racism, I’ll let you know.
I was similiarly dumbfounded by Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker piece on “thugs” (his word, not mine). The gist of the article is that whereas Italian immigrants once made their way in society by forming Mafia clans, eventually leaving crime behind for legitimate wealth, African-Americans in the drug trade today are not able to “climb the crooked ladder.” Gladwell observes:
When read alongside Ianni [a sociologist who wrote about the Mob], what is striking about Goffman’s book [about Black teens] is not the cultural difference between being an Italian thug in the early part of the twentieth century and being an African-American thug today. It’s the role of law enforcement in each era. Chuck’s high-school education ended prematurely after he was conficted of aggravated assault in a schoolyard fight. Another boy called Chuck’s mother a crack whore, and he pushed his antagonist’s face into the snow. In a previous generation, this dispute would not have ended up in the legal system. Until the nineteen-seventies, outstanding warrants in the city of Philadelphia were handled by a two-man team, who would sit in an office during evening hours and make telephone calls . . . Today, there are computers and sometimes even fingerprint machines in squad cars. Between 1960 and 2000, the ratio of police officers to Philadelphia residents rose by almost seventy per cent.
But Gladwell isn’t giving his readers the whole story. Why did policing grow so drastically in forty years? Because of the racialized system of control known as the War on Drugs. According to Michelle Alexander in her definitive book, The New Jim Crow, the technology Gladwell mentions is part of “a massive bribe offered to state and local law enforcement by the federal government” from the Reagan Administration onward. Alexander writes:
In order for the war to actually work—that is, for it to succeed in achieving its political goals—it was necessary to build a consensus among state and local law enforcement agencies that the drug war should be a top priority in their hometowns. The solution: cash. Huge cash grants were made available to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority. . . . By the late 1990s, the overwhelming majority of state and local police forces in the country had availed themselves of the newly available resources and added a significant military component to buttress their drug-war operations.
So when Gladwell observes that “A generation ago, we permitted that evolution [from crime to legitimacy]. We don’t anymore,” he’s leaving out a key factor in his analysis of social mores. The difference is not primarily generational, but racial. “Old Guiseppe Lupollo was given that opportunity; Mike and Chuck were not,” he writes. Mike and Chuck were denied that opportunity, as they were denied so many others, because they were Black. And either I’m going crazy, or this is the biggest zone of silence in America.