As an English teacher in Prague, the topic of Black Lives Matter protests are a popular one these days.
Naturally, as my students’ lone representative from the United States, I must try to explain what it means. As a white person, I feel rather ill-equipped to do so.
My explanation usually goes something like this; society in general tends to care a lot less about the lives of black people and other minorities. But don’t all lives matter? My favorite response to this was stated eloquently by Nick Cannon… when white people say save the whales, that doesn’t mean fuck all the other fish in the ocean.
This conversation of race tends to steer towards something relatable to my Czech students; Roma people, known colloquially (and offensively) as gypsies. Roma have a reputation for being lazy, sneaky, noisy, messy, for exploiting government loopholes to qualify for assistance, and causing trouble.
These labels are hastily velcroed to all who share the same skin color. People who have never personally met a single Roma person seem to know an awful lot about all of them. We all know people like this… those people in our Facebook feeds who continue to stupefy us with their propagation of blatant racism and hatred of people of color.
Opponents of Black Lives Matter say things like look at them, looting stores, destroying property, being violent. If you judge an entire group based on their most violent people, we would all be in trouble. There are more peaceful BLM members than violent ones, despite what is shown in the media. Opponents say things like racism doesn’t exist and they’re blowing it out of proportion. Just because it doesn’t hurt you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just because you perceive the situation as being blown out of proportion does not mean it is.
People hand out labels like hotcakes, especially to groups of people they have never gotten to know. A student told me that George Floyd was a bad guy because of his criminal past. They didn’t mention anything about the work he did mentoring young men at Resurrection Houston upon his release from prison in 2013. They didn’t mention anything about him losing both of his jobs due to COVID-19, contracting COVID-19, and trying to support his five children. They don’t say anything about how in the place he grew up, it looks like a bomb went off. That people who visit there often say they’ve never seen poverty like that before. About how he was known in his community as a person of peace.
Knowing this information may alleviate some harsh judgment on him. Knowing a bit more about the history of America’s treatment of people of color may help to explain the situation he grew up in.
The 1960’s brought a sharp rise in violent crime in the United States. The reasons for this, even among experts, is still unclear. The economy was booming, unemployment was low, racial progress was being made, and government social programs were being implemented. President Nixon (a conservative President) was even on the cusp of implementing a basic income for poor families, before changing his mind at the last minute.
Elliott Currie, lecturer in the Legal Studies Program at UC Berkeley suggests that increased violent crime in the 60’s was due in part to people migrating to cities as a result of agricultural mechanization, who then found a declining number of unskilled jobs, due to de-industrialization of cities.
Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker suggests the rise in violent crime may be due to a “de-civilization process”, which includes an informalization of society and attacks on civility, self-control (think: rolling stone), and family life, which I highly recommend you read about here.
Yet another fascinating possibility exists with a scientifically-proven correspondence between the level of childhood lead exposure and violent crime. I also highly recommend reading this article.
For whatever reason, violent crime was on its way up.
At the time, drugs seemed to run parallel to violent crime. In 1969, Psychiatrist Robert DuPont conducted a urinalysis of everyone entering the DC jail system; 44% tested positive for heroin. In 1971, Congressmen Robert Steele and Morgan Murphy released a report detailing the epidemic proportions of heroin usage among US Vietnam veterans.
As a result, President Nixon, who was elected on the platform of cutting crime, coined the phrase War on Drugs in 1971.
At first, Nixon focused on rehabilitation as opposed to criminalization. We must rehabilitate the drug user if we are to eliminate drug abuse and all the antisocial activities that flow from drug abuse he said to Congress in 1971. However, the motivations for this war seemed to shift political by the 1972 election. His Southern Strategy took a harder stance on drug enforcement. According to John Ehrlichmann, Watergate co-conspirator and domestic policy advisor to Nixon, the War on Drugs was a battle not against marijuana and heroin, but hippies and black people. He is quoted as saying Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
And thus began the era of mass incarceration.
Ronald Reagan also declared a war on drugs in 1982. 1986 brought us the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which mandated a minimum 5 year-sentence for possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine, while the same sentence was mandated for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. This disparity in sentencing disproportionately affected the black community. In 1994, Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act enacted harsh punishments such as mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders and the three strikes rule; a violent felony conviction after two prior convictions constituted a life sentence.
It almost feels like after Nixon’s initial appeal to rehabilitation, none of these administrations gave any thought to dealing with the causes, as opposed to the consequences of drugs. As if pushing harder on criminals would solve this problem.
And here we are today… 2.3 million incarcerated. 698 per 100,000 residents are locked up, a rate higher than any other nation. A few years ago in 2014, the US made up 25% of the world’s prison population, despite consisting of only 5% of the world’s population. Do we really have more bad guys than anywhere else?
This is the system in which we live. Almost 50 years after the beginning of the War on Drugs, we now live with the deeply embedded system that dug itself in as a result of criminalizing drugs, as opposed to treating it as a public health issue. Even white people directly affected by this issue have garnered more media attention than black people; White Boy Rick, a Detroit gangster who as a 17-year-old was convicted of intent to deliver more than 650 grams of cocaine in 1987 (33 years ago), is finally due to be released from prison now in 2020. White Boy Rick has attracted media attention and had multiple movies made about him, one of which stars Matthew McConaughey. This is why we have to say that Black Lives Matter.
The system has destabilized family life in countless communities and this does nothing but perpetuate the cycle of poverty. For more on this, let’s turn to Namond Brice and his mother De’Londa.
Namond is a character in The Wire, often cited by critics as the best TV show ever made. Written by two former officers of the Baltimore Police Department, one of whom also worked in the school system, the series has been lauded as brutally honest and on point from both law enforcement and gangsters alike.
Namond is a 13 year old boy living in Baltimore. His father, Wee-Bey, is serving consecutive life sentences for multiple homicides he committed during his time working for the Barksdale Organization, a Baltimore drug gang. His mother, De’Londa, sets him off selling drugs on the street to support them, only to kick him out of the house later on for failing to meet her expectations. She shows disdain for him for being afraid of going to jail.
Namond is a challenge at school. He acts out, curses out teachers and authority figures and is placed in an alternative classroom with some other difficult students. He has no interest in school… looking only at a future on the streets, why should he? Why would you care about school if you have no father figure, your friends are on the street, and your mother is pushing you to sell drugs?
In the end, Namond is adopted by one of the supervisors of his classroom, Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin (who was pushed out of the police force as a result of his consolidation of “legalized” drugs to areas away from neighborhoods), and he escapes the streets; one of the few happy endings of the show. His friends, including Michael and Duquan, don’t fare so well, and are swallowed up by the streets.
Namond hit the jackpot when Major Colvin adopted him. Unfortunately, this is not the reality that many young people living in poverty face. What should we do about them? Just leave them be, give them some thoughts and prayers and hope for the best?
If Wee-Bey had had an income floor under him, as Nixon suggested in his 1971 State of the Union Address, he could have provided for his family in a different way. If his friends had income floors under them, there would be no social pressure to get in the game.
The idea that poor people taking no-strings attached money from the government will encourage them to work less has been proven false. They very likely won’t spend money on alcohol and tobacco. They won’t have to deal with the bureaucracy of the current welfare system, and an unemployment system that, in light of the recent coronavirus crisis, pays out more than minimum wage jobs.
And one more fun fact, for those skeptics who think they could escape Namond’s situation… poverty is taxing on your brain and is proven to lower your IQ. By around 14 points, according to a study done by Professors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Sharfir, which you can read about here.
One phrase I’ve had to teach my students regarding this topic is the idea of a head start. All of society can benefit when the starting line is closer together for everyone. In a time when the recent crisis has set up millions to lose their homes, it is time to really consider the foundation of the American Dream; a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
Nathan Adlam is the author of the upcoming book Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights