May 1, 2015

Private: Missing Black Men, the Baltimore Uprising, and the Language of Oppression

African Americans, Baltimore riots, Baltimore uprising, Freddie Gray, police brutality, police reform

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. 

And for every Freddie Gray, Eric Garner or Kathryn Johnston, there are thousands of men and women who are targeted by aggressive war-on-drugs policies and the resulting effects of mass incarceration. These structures target the men who survive police custody and receive due process.  Even with due process, these 1.5 million voices are lost to us, and our democratic discourse is poorer as a result. And their loss also impacts the communities in which they would have otherwise served as parents, spouses, providers and citizens. 

On another level the Baltimore uprising narrative makes clear to us how respectability politics have been deployed to unduly over-criticize the African American community. It is enough to look at the destruction of property, assault and battery to name it illegal, and to punish those who broke the law. But the Baltimore commentary all too often invoked the image of the “thug” – an image that invokes the white supremacist legacy of presuming that all black people are criminals solely because they are black – as a blanket criticism of not only the bad actors but also the communities from which they come. For too long in the Baltimore narrative, one side of the story attempted to portray the released pent-up anger as pathology of lawlessness that marks an entire group.  Or, as my colleague and co-blogger, Khaled Beydoun, said, “It is far easier to criminalize an entire people than to cure the structures designed to fail them.”

In the course of the week that has passed, the narrative switched from one of pathological lawlessness to a community that has worked to promote uplifting and resilience in the face of the immediate tragedy.  Indeed, a fuller picture has developed via social media and ardent protest of not only the lawlessness of the unrest but of the protest against siege policing and sanctioned abuse of African Americans and the poor.  But the fact that the narrative evolved in and of itself shows a real failure to understand and instead trade on stereotypes.

This forces us to return to confronting the “Missing Men” data in The Times article in a different way. These numbers force us to confront the deaths and incarcerations that make these men (and women) missing (and with it goes missing the educational, economic and social support that those people could provide their communities). These numbers also force us to confront the lack of voice that otherwise deserves to be heard concerning the governance and ownership of American society.  These people are removed from having a say in the status of their communities and disenfranchised in relation to our collective governance of the United States. It appears that their voices are only heard in their absence by the mass media and the American populace when (and maybe only when) our consciences are shocked to anger, protest or “riot,” which Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the language of the unheard.” 

It isn’t just language of the unheard; it is the language of the oppressed at the extreme.  But even when life is not at the extremes, this language is nonetheless poorly understood by American society as a whole.  Its meaning is lost in the chasm of how we understand ourselves in relation to the long history and present effects of white supremacy.  As I’ve pointed out before on this blog, there is a gap between how blacks perceive the effects of racism and how whites perceive racism. This gap affects how we see events like the Baltimore uprising and how we perceive (or fail to perceive) the effects of structural racism. The previous discussion of the narrative of the events in Baltimore only serves to underscore this point.

If we are truly reflective, we can see how this violence and oppression affect all of our communities, no matter what our racial position. The Times article reminds us that there are over 1.5 million voices that are unavailable, disenfranchised or simply ignored, and therefore there is insufficient diversity in decision making in American society. Thus, discussions among the American collective go ill informed due to this absence, and our stereotypes go unchallenged. This continues to perpetuate our misunderstanding of the voices of the oppressed and allows the explicit and implicit racism that exists in our society to go unchallenged.  And even though there are those who argue that the post-racial aims of American equality have been achieved, our lack of understanding of the language of the subordinated only serves to aid this larger misunderstanding.

The challenge then is to find a language to discuss this effect in a way that is realistic and authentic and can lead to true social change. As a law professor, I devote my professional energies to finding this language based on constitutional law and civil rights doctrine.  And yet, as I discussed in a recently published article, our current doctrine fails to create revised discourse.

As I argue there, one only needs to compare the trajectory of race-conscious remedies under modern Supreme Court precedent with the (hopefully and finally just) trajectory for same-sex couples to see this disfavor of discussing race generally. Moreover, one can notice the utter absence of a dialogue regarding the constitutional vulnerability of those who live in poverty. These facts about constitutional law reveal the failures in the long struggles for civil rights, whether measured from 2015, 1968, 1954, 1896 or even 1868. The irony is that as other civil rights projects come to fruition, the classic civil rights project—racial equity in both a formal and a substantive sense—has been dealt reverse after reverse and, frankly, teeters on the brink of failure. As my colleague Ruthann Robson put it in describing the Court’s approach to race-conscious remedies:

The Supreme Court has created a culture that ignores racism unless it is the product of a particular individual with a bad motive. It then equated erosions of white privilege with racial injustice. Its rhetoric proclaimed that affirmative action is un-American and relegated racism to "an unfortunate past."

Ultimately, the Court’s mistake – and America’s continuing mistake – is in failing to recognize that this unfortunate past is actually our troubled present. The only way to overcome this reality is to recognize how we, as individuals and as a collective, replicate that past in the present. It is the only way to make the missing visible and to make real the promise that we presume American democracy is about.

[image via a katz /]

Criminal Justice, Equality and Liberty, Racial Equality