Pamela J. Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona
How would you as president “dismantle structural racism in the United States”?
When they disrupted the Netroots Nation (NN15) Presidential Town Hall, Black Lives Matter protesters had one primary question for the candidates. If you watch the videos, you can see that neither Martin O’Malley nor Bernie Sanders answered that question. (None of the other 15+ presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, attended the event.)
Three weeks later, Black Lives Matter protesters are still waiting for an answer. In Seattle, they disrupted another Sanders’ rally, prompting him to walk out.
Clinton said Black Lives Matter in a Facebook chat a few days after the fracas at NN15 and in an April 29 speech she covered many of the Black Lives Matter issues such as body camera on all law enforcement officers, systemic discrimination, the murder of innocent, unarmed black people at the hands of police, ending mass incarceration, and much more. She’s also denounced voter suppression laws as reviving “the old demons of discrimination.” Since his public display of frustration with Black Lives Matter protesters at NN15, Sanders has mentioned the names of a few wrongfully murdered blacks in his stump speeches and has condemned the arrest and death of Sandra Bland. (Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley have also reacted to Bland’s death here.)
OK… it’s been three weeks since the NN15 protest and a year since Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson. And I’m still waiting for an answer to the original question: How would you as president “dismantle structural racism in the United States”? The protesters made it clear that they wanted an answer– not a history lesson or a stump speech– from every presidential candidate. It’s clear from social media that I’m not the only person waiting for an answer.
In the meantime, I have been pondering that question and how I would answer…
Before I provide my suggestions for ending structural racism, I’m offering a big disclaimer: I’m an old white progressive.
I have experienced sexism in my life many times but not racism. I’ve compiled my list based upon reading, watching, and listening to the news stories, the personal videos, the blogs, the protests, and social media.
The Black Lives Matter protest at NN15 opened my eyes. Reciting the names of the dead during the protest was at the same time powerful and tragic because the list was sooooooooo long, and it’s growing every day. The root problem isn’t just out-of-control police or cells of white supremacy extremists at the ready with guns and street justice. The problem is structural.
Racism is systemic in the US. Just like sexism– many people — including elected officials– acknowledge that racism as “unfair” but shrug their shoulders and do nothing about it. In fact, nationwide, we have representatives in state legislatures and in the Congress who not only do nothing to solve these problems, they pass laws that cement structural racism and sexism in place.
Some Ideas for Dismantling Structural Racism…
[Please add to the list in the comment section if I have overlooked anything. These are not in any particular order– except the first three are easy, and I wonder why we haven’t done these already. How many people have to die?]
1- Put body cameras on all law enforcement officers and border patrol agents. Why haven’t we done this already? There are data to show thatcomplaints of police brutality and inappropriate behavior are reduced when cops wear cameras. In fact, in the recent shooting death of Samuel DuBose by a white policeman in Cincinnati, the cop has been indited for murder because he was wearing a body camera; the body camera + the squad car dash camera give a clear picture of what happened. Body cameras seem like such a simple step to me.
2- Put cameras in jail cells. What happened in Sandra Bland’s jail cell? If there had been a camera in the cell and cameras on the guards, this young woman would still be alive.
3- End the militarization of local police forces. Congress needs to stop buying military toys that the military doesn’t want or need. When the world saw the Ferguson, Missouri police decked out in military gear, we found out that surplus gear and vehicles had been distributed the artillery to local police forces because Congress bought more than the armed forces needed. The photos from Ferguson were shocking– cops in riot gear with assault rifles confronting unarmed black people with their hands up. Bring back community policing, buy some bicycles, and ditch the assault rifles. And Congress– don’t waste our money!
4- Repeal discriminatory laws and end over-policing. In Ferguson, Missouri and other towns across the country, local governments are balancing the books on the backs of the people by creating oppressive fine/fee structures. It goes like this: 1) you get stopped for a minor traffic violation; 2) you “act up” somehow and the cop decides you’re being disrespectful; 3) you’re put into jail and can’t pay the bond or your up-keep in jail (yes, some jails charge prisoners to be there); 4) you lose your driver’s license because you can’t pay your traffic fines; 5) you lose your job because you’re in jail for being poor and black (or brown) and you missed work; 6) you can’t get another job because you don’t have a driver’s license, you have an arrest record, and the mass transit system has been cut back. If you’re really unlucky– like Sandra Bland, Sgt. James Brown, Raynette Turner, Rexdale W. Henry, Circle Bear and many more who didn’t get past step 3 or poor Samuel DuBose who didn’t get passed step 2– you die in jail or on the street. (Note that both Bland and Brown died in Texas jails, Turner in New York, Henry in Mississippi, and Bear in SD. DuBose was in Ohio. Texas is also where the now-infamous pool party went wrong.)
5- End mass incarceration, end the War on Drugs, and end mass deportation. The US spends $68 billion per year to keep 7 millions Americans in jail. Although immigration arrests account for a large percentage of our country’s super-sized prison population, the failed War on Drugs, mandatory sentencing, and disproportionate application of sentencing laws all contribute to a disproportionate number of people of color being jailed in the US. In the above six-step process on how to end up in jail and ruin your life over traffic tickets, the scenario is much worse if you happen to have a joint in your pocket, and you’re not white. Although black and white Americans smoke marijuana at about the same rate, black Americans are far more likely to be incarcerated for simple possession or other minor marijuana charges. Conveniently, former prisoners can’t vote and often can’t find work after they are released– so they end up back in prison, where corporations can use their slave prison labor. How handy and cost-effective for corporate people and the 1%; state governments foot the bill to warehouse prisoner/slaves so businesses can profit from their cheap labor. President Obama recently started talking about reforming the criminal justicesystem. That’s a step in the right direction.
6- End race-based voter suppression and guarantee every American the right to vote. Republicans know that white men are their base; they also know that the US is becoming increasingly multi-cultural and multi-racial. As a result, many Republican-controlled state legislatures– like Arizona’s– have enacted laws to suppress voting by young people and minorities (groups that are more liberal and tend to vote Democratic). In addition, a 2013 Supreme Court case dismantled key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which was passed in the 1960s to eliminate “literacy” tests and other barriers to voting. Unfortunately, Congress shows no signs of fixing our broken voting system. Voter registration should be automatic when people turn 18 years old, voting regulations should be standardized nationwide, and there should be a procedure to re-instate voting rights for former prisoners.
7- Enact common sense gun control. This is another suggestion that falls under the “How many people have to die before we stand up to the lobbyists?” category. Since guns and cars are about equally as deadly, why isn’t gun ownership treated like car ownership? Owners must be at least 16 years old (still a little young for guns); have training; pass a proficiency test; pass a background test; be photographed, purchase a license, and have said license entered into a searchable database; buy insurance to cover gun-related accidents and deaths. Gun owners should lose their rights to own a gun if they violate the law while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs (including mood-altering prescription drugs) or are diagnosed with a mental illness. Nationwide, we should eliminate all of the open carry laws. Who needs to take an assault rifle to the grocery store or to a restaurant? If someone walked into a store carrying that type of weapon, I would walk out. Military style, non-hunting weapons should be banned for personal use. Guns don’t make us safer. (If you want to carry a machine gun, join the military.)
8- End white supremacy. Until I recently watched a Cornel West YouTube interview about the Black Lives Matter movement and structure of white supremacy, I considered white supremacy to be a cultural aberration. Skinheads, neo-Nazis, and KKK members– I didn’t take them seriously until the killing started, but even then I had never considered the “structural” nature of white supremacy in our country. Our country is based upon web of laws and traditions designed to keep white people– particularly rich white men– in power. White supremacy and racism go hand in hand.
9- Encourage people of color to run for office. Voter suppression laws, discriminatory practices, and disproportionate disenfranchisement of former prisoners are attempts to silence voters. Despite having a black president, white men still control the Congress and the state governments. To repeal the laws that create and maintain the structures of racism and white supremacy (and stop new ones), more people of color must be elected to office.
10- End economic inequality. President Lyndon Johnson used his 1964 State of the Union address to declare the War on Poverty. Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Job Corps, Head Start, VISTA, public education funding, and many more programs were created to fight poverty in the US. With the War on Poverty programs in place, poverty in the US decreased from 20% in 1964 to 11% in 1973. After 30 years of trickle down economics and budget cuts, the poverty rate and economic inequality began to rise. The current poverty rate is14.5% nationwide, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. There are geographic pockets of poverty around the country, and people of color are more likely to live below the poverty line. When the War on Poverty’s social safety net programs are cut, it disproportionately hurts people of color and others living in poverty. The wealth gap between the richest 1% and the rest of us has never been greater. Major corporations say they can’t afford to pay their workers $15 per hour, when they happily pay CEOs an average of $12 million per year.
Sanders is right: We do need an economic revolution. To lift up Americans economically, we need $15 minimum wage; the right to unionize; fully funded public education and free community college; reinstatement for the War on Poverty programs (Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Medicaid, Head Start, Job Corps, unemployment benefits, etc.).
11- End the War on Women. Poor women of color are disproportionately hurt by the hundreds of anti-woman bills that have been passed by state legislatures each year since the 2010 Tea Party Revolution. We need to eliminate laws that keep women in poverty– like pay inequity, denial of low-cost women’s health services, barriers to contraception, and denial of Medicaid expansion in Republican-controlled states. Overall, women make 77 cents for every dollarearned by a man; black women make 64 cents and Latinas make 55 cents for every dollar earned by a man. This not only hurts women; it hurts their families. In 53.3 percent of black households and 40.1 percent of Latino households, women are the breadwinners. Add an unintended pregnancy to the low-wage scenario, and society is stacking the desk against the success of these young women. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg recently said that “choice” is an empty concept for poor women because without money, you don’t have reproductive choice in the US.
12- End corporate control of government. To make any of the major changes on this list, we must take back out government. Citizens United must be repealed– through a Constitutional amendment or by law. The custom of billionaires betting on empty suit politicians who will do their bidding in the White House or Congress must end. Money in politics is destroying our democracy.
I am ending with the “Sandy Speaks” video that is going viral today on Facebook. Here Sandra Bland talks about Black Lives Matter and racism in America. This woman didn’t kill herself.