When They See Us is primarily focused on the racist logic of the policing, court, and prison systems that cost the five defendants their childhood. The series also profoundly illuminates some inherent problems in American criminal justice from a range of perspectives. Viewers get an intimate glimpse of mothers, fathers, and siblings fighting for the freedom of their loved ones; law-enforcement authorities classifying these same boys as “animals”; and protesters on both sides holding signs, declaring “it’s not open season on women” or the real rapist in court today is the New York police and the D.A.
Ultimately, the hysteria surrounding the Central Park Jogger case gave rise to new language about black-youth crime, and to new laws that caused more children to stand trial as adults than at any other time in American history.
When They See Us gets the audience closer to understanding why juvenile and adult prison populations exploded through the 1990s, and how the United States became home to the largest incarceration system in the world.
“Manning isn’t just an outrageous character, perfect fodder for a satirical late-night show and click-baity internet headlines. He also runs a K-12 private school at the church, the two units of which are called Great Tomorrow’s USA Elementary/Middle and Atlah High School. His persona there is anything but an entertaining spectacle. Around the same time Manning was gaining notoriety for his dangerous rhetoric, he locked a teenage boy named Sharif Hassan in the church’s basement, according to Hassan and several other congregants and students from that time. For three full school days in 2011, a church leader would take Hassan to the pitch-black basement in the morning, locking the door and leaving him there for eight hours. Hassan, then 17 and a junior at Atlah High School, sat on a grimy bench in total darkness. His lungs filled with dirty air from the nearby boiler. Bugs and rodents crawled around him. Each passing minute felt heavy and lingering, and each hour felt like it dragged on for days.”
Credits: Twine, Sugarcube, Fontawesome, L.A. Superior Court records
Mourners attend a candlelight vigil in memory of 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr. on October 9, 2014, in St. Louis, Missouri. Meyers was shot and killed by an off-duty St. Louis police officer.SCOTT OLSON / GETTY IMAGES
Following several nationally publicized police killings of unarmed Black Americans in the United States, Eva L., a fitness instructor who identifies as Black, started to experience what she describes as “immense paranoia.” She would often call in sick, because she feared risking an encounter with police upon leaving her house. She also started to second-guess her and her husband’s decision to have children.
“Seeing Black bodies murdered and physical/emotional violence online and on the news” was a trauma she could no longer bear, Eva says. “I was terrified of bringing a child into the world we live in and experience as Black people. I thought not having kids was a truer sign of love than risk them being harmed by this world.”
A recent study sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania — released just before the anniversaries of the deaths of Eric Garner (2014), Michael Brown (2014), John Crawford (2014), and Philando Castile (2016) — found that there could be millions like Eva, for whom these killings have been a mental health trigger.
Research included data from the Mapping Police Violence Projectdatabase for police killings between 2013 and 2016 and information from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System of over 103,000 Black Americans. The results indicate that police killings of unarmed Black Americans are having a population-level impact on the mental health of Black Americans.
According to researchers, the incidents may contribute to 1.7 additional poor mental health days per person every year, or 55 million more poor mental health days every year among Black Americans across the United States. That means the mental health burden for African Americans caused by police killings of unarmed Black victims is nearly as great as the mental health burden associated with diabetes. African Americans have some of the highest rates of the disease, which contributes annually to 75 million days of poor mental health among them.
Eva started seeing a therapist who diagnosed her as having generalized anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s been two years now, and she admits that her progress toward healing has been slow, yet steady.
Jacob Bor, co-author of the study and assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, says the responses in his social circle to police killings of unarmed Black victims is what interested him in conducting this study. Bor noticed that White people were able to comprehend “the injustice on an intellectual level but did not experience the same level of trauma.”
The study findings confirmed Bor’s personal observations. The research team did not observe spillover mental health effects in White respondents from police killings. It should also be noted that among respondents of either race, there were no spillover effects for police killings of unarmed White people or killings of armed Black people.
The research is essential in considering our own personal experiences, says Bor, adding that the findings speak to the overall “value of different people’s lives.” This society “has a long history of state-sanctioned violence” toward racially marginalized groups, he says.
The mental health sector is only now researching the impact of police brutality, a concern that has affected African Americans for decades. “Clinicians can go through medical school without [gaining] any experience in treating the effects of racism,” Bor says. Studies like his, he adds, can help to create long overdue critical mainstream discussions about the effects of racism on mental health, such as, “How do we in public health, society, and among the clinical and mental health services support people when these incidents occur?” and “Can a profession dominated by White providers effectively treat the emotional struggles of ‘living while Black’ in this country?”
According to Bor, these discussions are needed to implement change. “Among many White Americans, there is an empathy gap … and a failure to believe when people of color say ‘this hurts me,’” he says.
Adding to the deficiency of culturally competent therapists, poverty and other formidable socio-economic challenges — also stemming from structural racism — remain steadfast barriers to African Americans accessing mental health care, according to the American Psychological Association.
New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, has also become a passionate advocate for what she describes as a movement for “culturally competent mental health care.”
“When you talk about people of color, who are obviously facing discrimination and legacy of racism and poverty in huge numbers, you are talking about something that is really tough to overcome,” McCray says.
Inadequate care undermines benefits from policies and resources designed to mitigate the burdens of systemic oppression. “Mental illness along with substance abuse disorders are hardship multipliers,” she says. Struggling unsupported with “mental illness can make everything that much harder.”
For example, holding on to affordable housing, staying enrolled in college, and even surviving encounters with law enforcement can be extremely more difficult for those suffering from mental illness or trauma, McCray says. In fact, the most recent annual numbers from the Washington Post’s database of fatal police-shooting victims indicate that “nearly 1 in 4 of those shot was described as experiencing some form of mental distress at the time of the encounter with police.”
“Mental health is the ultimate intersectional concern,” McCray says. “It is reflected in all of our policies … education, housing, school, relationships.”
In 2015, she and her spouse, Mayor Bill de Blasio, launched Thrive NYC, a $850 million mental health program that incorporates 54 initiatives. Among the program’s several core objectives is the aim to address the stigma around mental illness and increase access to treatment across the city. McCray believes that ThriveNYC’s community focused approach is one of several necessary steps toward reaching historically under served groups.
“Culturally competent care to me is all about trust,” McCray says. “It improves early identification, accessibility, and outcomes.” Also, she says, “People have to be seen.” From her advocacy experience she has observed that “people have to feel that they can turn to someone that they trust.”
Connecting people with the appropriate resources, however, means surmounting many challenges. “There is great deal of work to be done to eliminate the stigma,” McCray says. There is also the matter of affordability and infrastructure. “We’ve never had a well-coordinated mental health system in our country — ever. People who have the money find ways to manage.” She says she wants to fight for everyone to get the resources they need to cope.
Eva recognizes that her path to healing has taken a significant amount of work and support beyond the means of many African Americans. “Access to therapy is a privilege,” she says. “I know that most people can’t afford weekly sessions at $150-plus.” Yet, she adds, “[going through therapy] is the only reason why I’m OK planning for kids at 32.”
Protestors participate in a vigil for Freddie Gray down the street from the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District police station, April 21, 2015, in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, died from spinal injuries on April 19, one week after being taken into police custody. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Where have all the brothers gone?
The numbers are staggering.
To put it another way, for every 100 black women, there are 83 black men. This is not the case in white America, where for every 100 women, there are 99 men, almost complete parity.
What that means, effectively, is that black men have disappeared. This reality lends credence to the idea that black men are an endangered species — not just symbolically or rhetorically, but based on the hard numbers.
Let’s explore this a little more. The Times estimated that more than a third of that 1.5 million gap — or 580,000 — is missing due to prison. With about 625,000 black men of prime age incarcerated and 45,000 black women also in prison, you get a discrepancy of 580,000. This is due, of course, to the staggeringly high incarceration rate of black men, which is higher than any other group, in the nation a quarter of the world’s prisoners, and the most prisoners in the world.
Putting this in perspective, in the 25-54 age range, 1 in 12 black men is in prison. However, only 1 in 60 nonblack men is in prison. Meanwhile, 1 in 200 black women and 1 in 500 nonblack women is behind bars.
Of the remaining 900,000, it was estimated that somewhere between 300,000 and 700,000 are due to mortality, early death. After all, homicide is the leading cause of death for young black men, who also die from heart disease, respiratory disease and accidents more than the rest of the nation.
The place in America with the lowest rate of black men is, believe it or not, Ferguson, Missouri, with 37.5 percent. New York is the city with the most missing black men (118,000), followed by Chicago (45,000), Philly (36,000) Detroit (21,000) and Memphis (19,000).
So what does this all mean? What struck me is that this is not a fluke, nor accidental, nor by chance. But rather, we can point to specific policies that have made black men disappear. First, I decided to look up the definition of the word genocide. The United Nations Genocide Convention defines genocide as the following:
ARTICLE II: IN THE PRESENT CONVENTION, GENOCIDE MEANS ANY OF THE FOLLOWING ACTS COMMITTED WITH INTENT TO DESTROY, IN WHOLE OR IN PART, A NATIONAL, ETHNICAL, RACIAL OR RELIGIOUS GROUP, AS SUCH:
(A) KILLING MEMBERS OF THE GROUP;
(B) CAUSING SERIOUS BODILY OR MENTAL HARM TO MEMBERS OF THE GROUP;
(C) DELIBERATELY INFLICTING ON THE GROUP CONDITIONS OF LIFE CALCULATED TO BRING ABOUT ITS PHYSICAL DESTRUCTION IN WHOLE OR IN PART;
(D) IMPOSING MEASURES INTENDED TO PREVENT BIRTHS WITHIN THE GROUP;
(E) FORCIBLY TRANSFERRING CHILDREN OF THE GROUP TO ANOTHER GROUP.
When society reinforces the notion that black men are a threat, then sets in motion laws and policies to address and ultimately eliminate that threat, is it any wonder that the brothers are missing? If the disappearing of black men is not genocide, then what should we call it?
Assessing the conditions in which black men are placed, and our historical role in society as the official national scapegoat, perennial boogeyman and monster, should we really be surprised we have disappeared? Society always believed that black men were to be fearedand loathed, devalued and disregarded. This mindset has been reinforced in the culture, in the media, and in the laws. During slavery, black men were perceived as a threat to the master’s house, criminalized based on the fear they would stage an uprising, burn down the plantation and, of course, rape the white women.
The war on drugs has been a war on black America, in which the justice system targets black men, locks them up and throws away the key. Although whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates, young men of color are racially profiled, harassed and brutalized through stop-and-frisk policies and arrested at much higher rates for drug possession. And the black incarceration rate is ten times that of whites, according to Human Rights Watch. Families and communities have been decimated by this war, and a generation lost.
From an early age, black children, and particularly black and brown boys, are dehumanized and criminalized and perceived as much older than their actual age. Funneled through a school-to-prison pipeline, many are provided an inferior education and unequal job opportunities — on purpose. And yet, in the land of 300 million guns, while the most vulnerable young black men and boys may not have access to a nourishing meal, education or job — or the ballot, for that matter — there never is a shortage of bullets for black bodies, it seems, and the black community is not a weapons manufacturer.
Further, we must not ignore the toll that racism plays on the black psyche, and on black health. As Billi Gordon, PhD wrote in Psychology Today, racism is causing a silent black genocide: “Stress acts first, and foremost, on the cardiovascular system. Hence, it is reasonable to suspect the pathophysiology of race-based stress as an antecedent to elevated heart disease in Black America.” Gordon also touched on the inherent sources of stress in the black community, including the numbers of black men in prison versus college, disintegrating support structures for black families, and the fact that the life expectancy of black men is seven years lower than anyone else.
In a land that advocates throwing away black men — in the streets, behind bars, and in the execution chamber — we now know the policy is a success, as the numbers show. The question is: how will society address this? This is not the past; this is happening now. Perhaps the idea of reparations does not sound so far-fetched.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove
OCG note: Black when speaking of a group of people who share cultural and historical background and lineage is a Proper noun and should be spelled with a capital “B”. black is a noun which describes a color. Things journalist should know. Example:
- A regular noun or generic noun might be that of a category of animal such as dog, cat, or horse. …
- Individual species within the categories such as German Shepherd, Abyssinian, or Lipizzaner would be capitalized because they are proper nouns.
White Supremacy Has Always Been Mainstream
White supremacy is a language of unease. It does not describe racial domination so much as worry about it.
White supremacy connotes many grim and terrifying things, including inequality, exclusion, injustice, and state and vigilante violence. Like whiteness itself, white supremacy arose from the world of Atlantic slavery but survived its demise. Yet while the structures are old, the term “white supremacy” is not. Although it first appeared in British abolitionist critiques and U.S. proslavery defenses in the first half of the nineteenth century, it only became commonplace—and notably not as a pejorative—in U.S. whites’ post-emancipation calls for a racial order that would reinstitute slavery’s political and economic guarantees.
White supremacy has always been hard work. Because of this, it is possible to imagine that someday there will be no one willing to perform the labor.
White supremacy’s opponents evoke it to condemn. Its proponents use it to summon up a vision of a racially ordered society, to rally political forces behind that vision, to establish laws and institutions that affirm it, and finally to render it natural and normal. But the very fact that the phrase requires speaking means that something has gone awry. If the hierarchy of races were real, it would easily have survived slave emancipation. Instead, that hierarchy must be constantly asserted and enforced, lest the white race be overwhelmed, overcome, and extinguished. White supremacy is organized around a dread of its own demise, and with it the white race.
This inherent instability has produced a welter of fears, fantasies, and imperatives, from racial purity to race war. It has also made “white supremacy” a call to action. Indeed, the effort to transform the phrase from a slogan into a fact has been a massive social and political project, involving the witting and unwitting labor of many millions of people. White supremacy has always been hard work.
But because it is work, it is possible to imagine that someday there will be no one willing to perform the labor. And sometime between the march from Selma to Montgomery and the election of Barack Obama, many Americans allowed themselves to believe something of the kind: that white supremacy’s advocates, having lost their long war, were giving up.
The violent manifestations of white supremacy over the past several years—from Dylann Roof’s murders in Charleston, through Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency—unwound that hope. No better illustration exists for white supremacy’s return to the cultural center than Charlottesville’s 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, in which emblems of the Klan, the Third Reich, and the Confederacy jostled with more esoteric banners and names, together representing a century’s worth of white supremacist politicking. By the time the sirens died out, it should have been clear that Dylann Roof was no “lone wolf,” but the legitimate offspring of a reemergent social movement.
Yet even as white supremacy appeared suddenly to be everywhere in U.S. life, many—and not just on the right—denied its existence. Trump’s refusal to criticize even neo-Nazis was treated as a uniquely craven act of “norm-breaking,” not as a predictable extension of decades of coded and not-so-coded racist appeals. In the rush to catch Trump out, what has been omitted from media reporting is the long history of indulging white supremacist ideology and expression. Consider how long Pat “Blood and Soil” Buchanan served as a respectable voice of the political and journalistic right, winning four states in the 1996 Republican primaries and later playing Rachel Maddow’s curmudgeonly uncle on MSNBC—all in spite of his longstanding support for white ethnonationalism. Or remember the PBS NewsHour profile of Trump supporter Grace Tilly that failed to note her neo-Nazi tattoos. The network’s post-backlash editor’s note treated Tilly’s claim that her tattoos were religious, not racist, as worthy of debate, as though an enormous “88”—code for “Heil Hitler”—paired with a bullseye cross, another white supremacy symbol, left room for uncertainty. The myth that white supremacy is a marginal political phenomenon has proved so durable that many people find it easier to deny its overt expression than confront a more troubling reality: “very fine people”—and not just fathers, husbands, and sons, but mothers, wives, and daughters as well—have always been central to the work of advancing white supremacist causes.
“Very fine people”—and not just fathers, husbands, and sons, but mothers, wives, and daughters as well—have always been central to the work of white supremacy.
Three recent books explore the twentieth-century history of this political project. In Linda Gordon’s thoughtful reconsideration of the 1920s Klan, we watch shameless grifters deploy racial hierarchy and exclusion to forge the largest social movement of the early twentieth century. In Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s revelatory exploration of mid-century white women’s segregationist work, we see how the inheritors of that vision learned to speak in new languages, muted enough to pass in a society increasingly hostile to white supremacy but unmistakable to partisans as a continuation of the long struggle against racial equality. In Kathleen Belew’s groundbreaking account of the White Power movement from the mid-1970s to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, it becomes clear how a post–civil rights generation of white supremacist organizers positioned themselves as victims of an overbearing state, even as they nurtured Timothy McVeigh, Dylann Roof, and the dream of race war.
These works do not claim to provide a comprehensive account of twentieth-century white supremacy; such a project would also have to probe (as other scholars have) the forces of labor and capital, and—as only Belew does here—the relationship of domestic ideologies and practices to their imperial histories. But read together and through one another, these works provide a sobering crash course in the power, diversity, and persistence of white supremacist ideas and politics.
Across the long twentieth century, white supremacist activists nurtured an exclusionary racial nationalism. They envisioned a nation safely in the hands of its “rightful” owners, redeemed from misrule by “unfit” peoples, and made great again. Although their work relied extensively on white women’s organizational and ideological labors, they posited a world of white patriarchal families in which men spoke and fought while women sustained and reproduced. Responding to successive challenges, these activists developed new languages and new coalitions, but they remained consistently suspicious (at a minimum) of political authority that they could not directly control. Partly for this reason, they usually saw electoral politics as a critical arena of struggle, and they rarely abandoned it. Across the century, this ideological and organizational landscape has been home to hustlers, activists, and insurgents playing distinct but often complementary roles. White supremacy has always been at once a political movement, an armed struggle, and a long con.
Gordon’s Second Coming of the KKK shows how a white supremacist and nativist movement reset the boundaries of political discourse, clarified that the nation existed in the image and service of a particular kind of American, and took control of governments from school boards to Congress to give those imperatives life. Klansmen nurtured a politics of resentment against both “elites” who looked down on them and the immigrants, blacks, and radicals who seemed to challenge their world.
To many of its white contemporaries, the KKK of the 1920s was a respectable organization that promised to restore white Protestants to their proper place of authority.
The first Ku Klux Klan was founded in the 1860s by former Confederate soldiers and for a few years became the spear and symbol of the war against Reconstruction. This first Klan was actively suppressed by legal and military action in the early 1870s, and the campaigns of racial terror and political intimidation that finally overthrew Reconstruction were largely conducted under other names. The second Klan was founded in 1915 by William Joseph Simmons in response to that year’s blockbuster film, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which reworked memories of the Reconstruction-era KKK into a mythos of white male chivalry combatting black sexual barbarism. Beginning in 1919, the Klan exploded in size and power as organizers channeled the era’s powerful currents of nativism and violent white supremacy through the heroic image and visual style of the film’s Klansmen. They coupled the anti-black rhetoric of the Reconstruction-era Klan with a pervasive hostility toward non-Protestant immigrants and what Simmons derided as their anti-American propensities for “Bolshevism, Socialism, Syndicalism, I.W.W.ism.” Gordon encourages us to understand that, to many of its white American contemporaries, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was an “ordinary and respectable” organization that promised to restore white Protestants, mainly of the lower middle and skilled working classes, to their proper place of authority in U.S. cultural and political life. She reminds us that many of the Klan’s hobbyhorses—anti-black racism, antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, and nativism; censoriousness about sex and alcohol; support for eugenics; and narrow-minded nationalism—reflected broad and sometimes hegemonic aspects of 1920s U.S. culture.
Gordon also asks us to understand the movement as producing, not just reflecting, social concerns. The Klan channeled preexisting hatred of racial inferiors and haughty elites, but it also ginned up those expressions and provided new outlets for them. Conspiracy thinking was central to Klan rhetoric and ideology. Everywhere lurked sinister forces that sought to take over the U.S. government and subvert the country’s way of life. Indeed, those forces might already have taken power. Jews, Catholics, Bolsheviks, and African Americans were always about to swamp “true Americans” with rising birthrates; take control of U.S. police forces and public schools; undermine cherished values with sex, alcohol, or pornography; and oppress real Americans from the safety of powerful, distant institutions.
Such conspiracy talk effectively transformed grievances and insecurities into well-defined targets that local Klans could then organize against. In Madison, Wisconsin, for example, the Klan took up the cause of fighting illegal liquor trafficking in a neighborhood populated by Italians, blacks, and Jews. There and elsewhere, the Klan infiltrated or worked alongside police departments. Beatings, whippings, cross-burning, death threats, and fatal shootings marked the outer edge of the Klan’s activities, but in some locales—Dayton, Ohio; Williamson County, Illinois; large swaths of Oklahoma—assaults were common and condoned.
One of the most famous instances of a threatened white woman leading to a black person’s death is Carolyn Bryant. Bryant lived in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 when she accused a 14-year-old boy of following her behind the counter of the store she co-owned, grabbing her waist and bragging that he had been with white women before. Later that evening, her husband and brother-in-law found this boy, forcefully took him from his relative’s home, lynched him and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. The men were never convicted and later confessed to the murder a year later. The boy’s name, of course, was Emmett Till, and his death galvanized the civil rights movement.