How Could We Not Have Known? White Baby Boomers and Race

There is simply no excuse for White Baby Boomers’ collective ignorance about race in America.

We had all the information we needed to fully grasp the depths of structural racism in the US and its continuing and devastating impact upon people of color.

The Long History of Racism in America

Did anyone among us not know that for 250 years (from 1619, when the first slaves arrived here, until after the Civil War) those profitting from the global system of slavery kidnapped millions of Black Africans, forced them to this country against their will, and enslaved them to White masters to labor here for free? By the time of the Civil War, the slave economy was more valuable than all the manufacturing industries and railroads in the country combined, and yet their White Masters paid slaves nothing in return?

Didn’t we all realize that, after the legal demise of slavery with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, and after the end of a short period of Recontruction in the South, White southerners reimposed deep and widespread discrimination against Blacks?  

Didn’t we all know of the rise of the KKK and of the 5,000 lynchings of Blacks and more than 1,000 White sympathizers? Surely all of us knew that by the 20th century, a comprehensive network of Jim Crow Laws in 36 states (not just the Southern states) enforced near total segregation and degrading discrimination against Blacks until most of us boomers were born.

And, despite patting ourselves on the back for not being White southerners, where racial discrimination was public and widespread, didn’t we Northern White boomers really know that de facto discrimination against Blacks permeated in our neighborhoods as well in voting, housing, education, jobs, public transportation and more?

The Civil Rights Era

Unfortunately, we also came to “know” (or allowed ourselves to be misled into believing) something else as we grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s.   As a national Civil Rights Movement swept much of the country to seek redress of the more than three centuries of race discrimination, we White Baby Boomers watched as the Jim Crow System of legal, race-based discrimination started to be dismantled by national actions such as:

–President Truman integrating the US armed forces in 1948

–The US Supreme Court outlawing school segration in 1954

–President Johnson accomplishing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1967.

–Over subsequent decades, federal actions widening legal voting rights, and introducing affirmative action policies to integrate colleges, universities, government and some private sector jobs.   

Many of us chose to believe that by the early 21st century we were now living in a color blind, post-racial society.  Weren’t we? Didn’t we even elect a Black President in 2008?

It is simply inmpossible to avoid the evidence of the inanity of our collective sigh of relief about the “end of racism” thesis. The stark data on income disparity by race, educational attainmnent by race, home ownership by race, net household worth by race, police brutality by race is simply overwhelming. The data to prove the existence of structural racism is widespread.  But let me focus on just one feature of our society that should be sufficient to fracture the myth of racial equality that many of us have chosen to believe.

 The War on Drugs.

The civil rights laws of the 1960’s no doubt had some positive affects on facilitating Black entrance into politics and advancements in society.  But real and continued progress was severely hindered when Richard Nixon unleashed his “Law and Order” narrative during his first term (1968-72). Civil unrest in dozens of cities and demonstrably high urban crime rates induced Nixon to embark on the politically successful Southern Strategy, capitalizing on widespread White antipathy to racial equality. Now that Jim Crow was dead and explicitly race-based laws had been declared unconstitutional, he used the code words like “Law and Order” to avoid violating the new, if shaky, national consensus on the need for racial equality.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared the  infamous “War on Drugs.” Now nearly 40 years old, supported and extended by all four baby boomer Presidents (Bill  Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump), this war is clearly not on drugs, but largely on one class of people who use and sell them.  Cities and states were offered billions in federal aid in exchange for massive increases in apprehensions of users and sellers of illegal drugs.  It was Black Men in America who have paid the lion’s share of the costs of this “war,” a war that has left behind an under-caste of felons of the US criminal justice system. 

Mass Incarceration

Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, painstakingly describes how the old Jim Crow of legal, explicitly race-based laws, was replaced at the end of the 20th century by this new system of mass incarceration that engaged in prejudiced practices we supposedly left behind.  In the name of fighting violent crime, the new Jim Crow created a huge class of Black felons with scarcely more rights than a Black man living in Alabama under the old Jim Crow.

Instituted supossedly to rein in rising rates of violent crime, the war on drugs has increased the US prison population nearly 8-fold, from about 300,000 nationwide to nearly 2.3 million today.  During this period, while crime rates have fluctuated, they are near historic lows today.

Furthermore, while illegal  drug use does not show significant differences among races, Blacks are 2.5 times as likely as Whites to be arrested; 6.5 times as likely to be incarcerated in state prisons; and nearly 10 times as likely to be sentenced to federal jail time.

But the story of the horrendous catastrophe that mass incarceration has unfairly imposed on Black Americans doesn’t end with the terrible racial imbalance in prison populations.  It just begins there. Once released, ex- offenders on probation or parole or even, in some states, long after they have left the control of the judicial system,  are systemmatically stripped of voting rights–thirteen percent of African American men are barred from voting, largely because of conviction for minor drug offenses.  There are more than 6 million disenfranchised felons in the US (up from just over one million in 1976).  There are 1.7 million in Florida alone (10% of eligible voters); 10 % of eligible voters in Misssissippi; 9% in Kentucky; nearly 8 % in Virginia.  

Employers, landlords and state licensing boards, can legally bar ex-felons.  States can make ex-drug offenders ineligible for food stamps and public housing.  

Is it any wonder that millions of young Black men, incarcerated in far greater proportion than Whites for simple drug crimes,  find themselves unable to gain employment to take care of themselves and their families upon release from prison?  Is it any wonder that they are drawn back into the sale of illegal drugs to get by? Should it surprise anyone that some ex-felons, stopped by police for falling asleep in their car at a fast food store, or for driving with a broken tail-light, flee the scene and are shot in the back by police for resisting arrest when a “third strike” could lead to a life-sentence?

Ms. Alexander describes an interview with a possible plaintiff in a class action suit alleging racial profiling by police.  Describing his situation to her, he “becomes enraged, and he says, ‘What’s to become of me? What’s to become of me?’ And he starts explaining that he’d just taken the plea because he was afraid of doing the time. They told him that if he just took the plea, you just walk out with just felony probation. And he said, ‘But what’s to become of me? I can’t get a job anywhere because of my felony record. Do you understand? I have to sleep in my grandma’s basement at night. I can’t even get into public housing with a drug felony. It’s, like, how am I supposed to take care of myself? How am I supposed to take care of myself as a man?’ He’s, like, ‘I can’t even feed myself. . . . Do you know I can’t even get food stamps because of my drug felony? Good luck finding one young black man in my neighborhood they haven’t gotten to yet. They’ve gotten to us all already.”

Ten Years After the New Jim Crow, by David Remmick, The New Yorker



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