It has been over a month since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The horror, brutality, and relentless cruelty of George Floyd’s death moves everyone who thinks about it. But George Floyd is, of course, not alone. Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and Eric Garner was choked to death by New York City police in the same year. The Washington Post has created a database of police shootings since 2015 (link), which includes shootings but not other causes of death. According to the data reported there for more than 5,000 deaths recorded in 2015-2020, black individuals are 2.38 times as likely to be shot and killed by police as white individuals, and Hispanic individuals are 1.77 times as likely to be shot and killed by police as white individuals. During the past five years, persons shot and killed by police included 2,479 white individuals (13 per million), 1,298 black individuals (31 per million), 904 Hispanic individuals (23 per million), and 219 “other” individuals (4 per million). Plainly there are severe racial disparities in these data. Black and brown people are much more likely to be shot by police than white people. Plainly these data demonstrate beyond argument the very clear arithmetic that black men and women are treated very differently from their white counterparts when it comes to police behavior.
Thanks to the availability of video evidence, a small number of these deaths at the hands of police have provoked widespread public outrage and protest. The Black Lives Matter movement has demanded that policing must change, and that police officers and superiors must be held accountable for unjustified use of force. But it is evident from the Washington Post data that most cases do not gain much public recognition or concern; and even worse, nothing much has changed in the five years since Michael Brown’s death and Eric Garner’s death in terms of the frequency of police killings. There has not been a sea change in the use of deadly force against young men of color by police across the country. According to the WP data, there were an average of more than 250 shooting deaths per year of black individuals, and only a few of these received national attention.
What change can we observe since Michael Brown’s death and Eric Garner’s death? The Black Lives Matter movement has been a persistent and courageous effort to demand we put racism and racist oppression aside. The public reaction to George Floyd’s murder in the past month has been massive, sustained, and powerful. The persistent demonstrations that have occurred across the country — with broad support across all racial groups — seem to give some hope that American society is finally waking up to the deadly, crushing realities of racism in our country — and is coming to realize that we must change. We must change our thinking, our acceptance of racial disparities, our toleration of hateful rhetoric and white supremacy, and our social and legal institutions. Is it possible that much of white America has at last emerged from centuries of psychosis and blindness on the subject of race, and is ready to demand change? Can we finally make a different America? In the words of Langston Hughes, “O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath—America will be!”
Michael Brown was killed at about the time of the 2014 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. A small group of sociologists undertook to write a letter — a manifesto, really — concerning the pervasiveness and impact of racism and racial disparities in America. Sociologist Neda Maghbouleh organized a small group of sociologists in attendance to draft the letter during the ASA conference in San Francisco, and over 1800 sociologists signed the letter. Nicki Lisa Cole contributed to writing the letter and summarizes its main points and recommendations here, and the text of the document can be found here. It is a powerful statement, both fact-based and normatively insistent. The whole document demands our attention, but here are two paragraphs that are especially important in today’s climate of outrage about violent and unjustified use of force by police:
The relationship between African Americans and law enforcement is fraught with a long history of injustice, state violence and abuse of power. This history is compounded by a string of recent police actions that resulted in the deaths of Michael Brown (Ferguson, Mo.), Ezell Ford (Los Angeles, Calif.), Eric Garner (Staten Island, N.Y.), John Crawford (Beavercreek, Ohio), Oscar Grant (Oakland, Calif.), and the beating of Marlene Pinnock (Los Angeles, Calif.) by a California Highway Patrol officer. These events reflect a pattern of racialized policing, and will continue to occur in the absence of a national, long-term strategy that considers the role of historic social processes that have institutionalized racism within police departments and the criminal justice system more broadly.
Law enforcement’s hyper-surveillance of black and brown youth has created a climate of suspicion of people of color among police departments and within communities. The disrespect and targeting of black men and women by police departments across the nation creates an antagonistic relationship that undermines community trust and inhibits effective policing. Instead of feeling protected by police, many African Americans are intimidated and live in daily fear that their children will face abuse, arrest and death at the hands of police officers who may be acting on implicit biases or institutional policies based on stereotypes and assumptions of black criminality. Similarly, the police tactics used to intimidate protesters exercising their rights to peaceful assembly in Ferguson are rooted in the history of repression of African American protest movements and attitudes about blacks that often drive contemporary police practices.
These descriptions are not ideological, and they are not statements of political opinion. Rather, they are fact-based observations about racial disparities in our society that any honest observer would agree with. Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City is an ethnographic documentation of many of the insights about surveillance, disrespect, and antagonism in Philadelphia (link).
Sociologists, public health experts, historians, and other social scientists have honestly and passionately about the nature of the race regime in America. Michelle Alexander captures the thrust of much of this analysis in her outstanding book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and the phrase “the New Jim Crow” is brilliant as a description of life today for tens of millions of African-Americans. But the current moment demands more than simply analysis and policy recommendations — it demands an ability to listen and a better ability of all of America to understand and feel the life experience that racism has created in our country. It seems that we need to listen to a poetic voice as well as a sociological or political analysis.
One of those voices is Langston Hughes. Here are two of Langston Hughes’ incredibly powerful poems from the 1930s that speak to our times, “The Kids Who Die” and “Let America Be America Again”.
The Kids Who Die
This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.
Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
Kids will die in the orange groves of California
Telling others to get together
Whites and Filipinos,
Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace.
Of course, the wise and the learned
Who pen editorials in the papers,
And the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names
White and black,
Who make surveys and write books
Will live on weaving words to smother the kids who die,
And the sleazy courts,
And the bribe-reaching police,
And the blood-loving generals,
And the money-loving preachers
Will all raise their hands against the kids who die,
Beating them with laws and clubs and bayonets and bullets
To frighten the people—
For the kids who die are like iron in the blood of the people—
And the old and rich don’t want the people
To taste the iron of the kids who die,
Don’t want the people to get wise to their own power,
To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together
Listen, kids who die—
Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you
Except in our hearts
Maybe your bodies’ll be lost in a swamp
Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field,
Or the rivers where you’re drowned like Leibknecht
But the day will come—
You are sure yourselves that it is coming—
When the marching feet of the masses
Will raise for you a living monument of love,
And joy, and laughter,
And black hands and white hands clasped as one,
And a song that reaches the sky—
The song of the life triumphant
Through the kids who die.
Let America be America again
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!