by Atiba R. Ellis, Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law. Follow him on Twitter @atibaellis.
The New York Times recently published a story entitled, “1.5 Million Missing Black Men.” The graphic portrayed how the war on drugs, American policies of mass incarceration and other structural forces, have left these African American men and their communities oppressed in the United States because these men are incarcerated, disabled from full citizenry or deceased.
A purely academic discussion of this data and its meaning was what this blog post was supposed to be about. But over the past weekend, we saw the city of Baltimore, Md. react to the fact that Freddie Gray is now missing forever. Gray’s fatal injuries, inflicted during his custody of the Baltimore Police Department, provide us a specific case of an African American man going missing. Mr. Gray’s death puts into relief how one person loses his life due to the policies and structures of inequality, and the Baltimore police officers involved have now been charged in Mr. Gray’s death.
Yet it isn’t simply Gray’s death that teaches us something about structural racism. The uprising that occurred in reaction to Gray’s funeral, the reaction to opinion leaders and the Internet opinion-sphere all teach us something about how our language regarding racism falls prey to a gap of misunderstanding and misperception. This is a multilayered problem reflective of the complicated tableau of race in America.
On one level, Gray’s death is one more tragedy that we can add to the long list of tragedies that seem to target African American men. Gray is forever missing, along with Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and many more. And, as Professor Elwood Watson points out, black women like Dr. Ersula Ore or Kathryn Johnston similarly suffer violence, abuse and death due to this same system of oppression.
Though the factual circumstances vary, it appears that all these people I’ve named are the casualties of either the war on drugs, the effects of declaring poor minority neighborhoods “high crime neighborhoods,” police bias against people of color or all of the above. This results in their individual and communal struggles against siege policing and its short and long-term effects. Because of these factors, these men and women lose their lives or their livelihoods in a manner not subject to due process.