As the boundaries of the unthinkable become normalized, historical consciousness is replaced by manufactured forms of historical amnesia and ignorance. As white supremacy becomes entrenched at the highest levels of power and in the public imagination, the past becomes a burden that must be shed. Disparaging, suppressing or forgetting the horrors of history has become a valued and legitimating form of political and symbolic capital, especially among the Republican Party and conservative media. Not only have history’s civic lessons been forgotten, but historical memory is also being rewritten, especially in the ideology of Trumpism, through an affirmation of the legacy of slavery, the racist history of the Confederacy, American exceptionalism, and the mainstreaming of an updated form of fascist politics.
Theodor Adorno’s insights on historical memory are more relevant than ever. He once argued that as much as repressive governments would like to break free from the past, especially the legacy of fascism, “it is still very much alive.” Moreover, there is a price to be paid with “the destruction of memory.” In this case, “the murdered are …cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance.” Adorno’s warning rings particularly true at a time when two-thirds of young American youth are so impoverished in their historical knowledge that they are unaware that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. On top of this shocking level of ignorance is the fact that “more than one in 10 believe Jews caused the Holocaust.” Historical amnesia takes a particularly dangerous turn in this case, and prompts the question of how young people and adults can you even recognize fascism if they have no recollection or knowledge of its historical legacy.
The genocide inflicted on Native Americans, slavery, the horrors of Jim Crow, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, the rise of the carceral state, the My Lai massacre, torture chambers, black sites, among other historical events now disappear into a disavowal of past events made even more unethical with the emergence of a right-wing political language and culture. The Republican Party’s attack on critical race theory in the schools which they label as “ideological or faddish” both denies the history of racism as well as the way in which it is enforced through policy, laws, and institutions. For many republicans, racial hatred takes on the ludicrous claim of protecting students from learning about the diverse ways in which racism persist in American society. For instance, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida stated that “There is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.” In this updated version of racial cleansing, the call for racial justice is equated to a form of racial hatred leaving intact the refusal to acknowledge, condemn, and confront in the public imagination the history and persistence of racism in American society
Bolstered by a former president and a slew of Vichy-type politicians, right-wing ideologues, intellectuals, and media pundits deny and erase events from a fascist past that shed light on emerging right-wing, neo-Nazi, and extremist policies, ideas, and symbols. As Coco Das points out given that 73 million people voted to re-elect Trump, it is clear that Americans “have a Nazi problem.” This was also evident in the words and actions of former president Trump who defended Confederate monuments and their noxious past, the waving of Confederate flags and the display of Nazi images during the attempted coup on the Capital on January 6th, and ongoing attempts by the Republican Party legislators to engage in expansive efforts at enabling a minority government. America’s Nazi problem is also visible in the growing acts of domestic terrorism aimed at Asians, undocumented immigrants, and people of color.
Historical amnesia also finds expression in the right-wing press and among media pundits such as Fox News commentators Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, whose addiction to lying exceeds the boundaries of reason and creates an echo chamber of misinformation that normalizes the unspeakable, if not the unthinkable. Rational responses now give way to emotional reactions fueled by lies whose power is expanded through their endless repetition. How else to explain the baseless claim made by them, along with a number of Republican lawmakers, right-wing pundits, and Trump’s supporters who baselessly lay the blame for the storming of the US Capitol on “Antifa.” These lies were circulated despite of the fact that “subsequent arrests and investigations have found no evidence that people who identify with Antifa, a loose collective of antifascist activists, were involved in the insurrection.”
In this case, I think it is fair to re-examine Theodor W. Adorno’s claim that “Propaganda actually constitutes the substance of politics” and that the right-wing embrace of and production of an endless stream of lies and denigration of the truth are not merely delusional but are endemic to a fascist cult that does not answer to reason, but only to power while legitimizing a past in which white nationalism and racial cleansing become the organizing principles of social order and governance.
In the era of post-truth, right-wing disimagination machines are not only hostile to those who assert facts and evidence, but also supportive of a mix of lethal ignorance and the scourge of civic illiteracy. The latter requires no effort to assess the truth and erases everything necessary for the life of a robust democracy. The pedagogical workstations of depoliticization have reached new and dangerous levels amid emerging right-wing populisms. It is not surprising that we live at a time when politics is largely disconnected from echoes of the past and justified on the grounds that direct comparisons are not viable, as if only direct comparisons can offer insights into the lessons to be learned from the past. We have entered an age in which thoughtful reasoning, informed judgments, and critical thought are under attack. This is a historical moment that resembles a dictatorship of ignorance, which Joshua Sperling rightly argues entails:
The blunting of the senses; the hollowing out of language; the erasure of connection with the past, the dead, place, the land, the soil; possibly, too, the erasure even of certain emotions, whether pity, compassion, consoling, mourning or hoping.
It is clear is that we live in a historical period in which the conditions that produced white supremacist politics are intensifying once again. How else to explain former President Trump’s use of the term “America First,” his labeling immigrants as vermin, his call to “Make America Great Again” — signaling his white nationalist ideology–his labeling of the press as “enemies of the people,” and his numerous incitements to violence while addressing his followers. Moreover, Trump’s bid for patriotic education and his attack on the New York Times’s 1619 Project served as both an overt expression of his racism and his alignment with right-wing white supremacists and neo-Nazi mobs. Historical amnesia has become racialized. In the rewriting of history in the age of Trump, the larger legacy of “colonial violence and the violence of slavery inflicted on Africans” are resurrected as a badge of honor.
America’s long history of fascist ideologies and the racist actions of a slave state, the racial cleansing espoused by the Ku Klux Klan, and an historical era that constitutes what Alberto Toscano calls “the long shadow of racial fascism” in America are no longer forgotten or repressed but celebrated in the Age of Trump. What is to be made of a former President who awarded the prestigious Medal of Freedom to a blubbering white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, conspiracy theorist, and virulent racist who labeled feminists as “Feminazis.” In this case, one of the nation’s highest honors went to a man who took pride in relentlessly disparaging Muslims, referred to undocumented immigrants as “an invading force” and an “invasive species,” demonized people of color, and recycled Nazi tropes about racial purity while celebrating the mob that attacked the Capitol as “Revolutionary War era rebels and patriots.” Under the banner of Trumpism, those individuals who reproduce the rhetoric of political and social death have become, celebrated symbols of a fascist politics that feeds off the destruction of the collective public and civic imagination.
William Faulkner once stated “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In its updated version, we live not only with the ghosts of genocide and slavery, but also with the ghosts of fascism—we live in the shadow of the genocidal history of indigenous inhabitants, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and systemic police violence against people of color. And while we live with the ghosts of our past, we have failed to fully confront its implications for the present and future. To do so would mean recognizing that updated forms of fascist politics in the current moment are not a rupture from the past, but an evolution. White supremacy now rules the Republican Party and one of its tools of oppression is the militarization and weaponization of history. Fascism begins with language and the suppression of dissent, while both suppressing and rewriting history in the service of power and violence.
In the age of neoliberal tyranny, historical amnesia is the foundation for manufactured ignorance, the subversion of consciousness, the depoliticization of the public, and the death of democracy. It is part of a disimagination machine that is perpetuated in schools, higher education, and the corporate controlled media. It divorces justice from politics and aligns the public imagination with a culture of hatred and bigotry. Historical amnesia destroys the grammar of ethical responsibility and the critical habits of citizenship. The ghost of fascism is with us once again as society forgets its civic lessons, destroys civic culture, and produces a populace that is increasingly infantilized politically through the ideological dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. The suppression of history opens the door to fascism. This is truly a lesson that must be learned if the horrors of the past are not to be repeated again. Fortunately, the history of racism is being exposed once again in the protests that are taking place all over the globe. What needs to be remembered is that such struggles must make education central to politics, and historical memory a living force for change. Historical memory must become a crucial element in the struggle for collective resistance, while transforming ideas into instruments of power.
 Paul Street, “The Anatomy of Fascism Denial: 26 Flavors of Anti-Antifascism, Part 1,” Counter Punch. (Feb 7, 2021).Online https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/02/07/the-anatomy-of-fascism-denial/; Sarah Churchwell, “American Fascism: It Has Happened Again,” The New York Review of Books, [May 26, 2020].Online https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/06/22/american-fascism-it-has-happened-here/; Masha Gessen, Surviving Autocracy, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2020); Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, [Random House, 2018); Henry A. Giroux, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (San Francisco: City Lights 2018); Carl Boggs, Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads (New York: Routledge, 2018); Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Crown, 2017)
 Adorno, Theodor W., “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” Guilt and Defense, trans. Henry W. Pickford, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 215.
 See, for instance, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, eds. Four Hundred Souls (New York: One World, 2021) and Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York: Crown, 2016).
 On the American origins of fascism, also see Michael Joseph Roberto, The Coming of the American Behemoth: The Origins of Fascism in the United States, 1920-1940 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018). Henry A. Giroux, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism(San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2018).
“Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama”
Dr. James Lance Taylor
To some, Black nationalism is now characterized as an outdated political strategy? Or, as Dr. James Taylor argues in his rich, sweeping analysis, a logical response to the failure of post–civil rights politics?
Taylor offers a provocative assessment of the contemporary relevance and interpretation of black nationalism as both a school of thought and a mode of mobilization. Fundamental to his analysis is the assertion that black nationalism should be understood not simply as a separatist movement—the traditional conception—but instead as a common-sense psychological orientation with long roots in US political history. Providing entirely new lines of insight and analysis, his work ranges from the religious foundations of Black political ideologies to the nationalist sentiments of today’s hip-hop generation.
Chair, Department of Politics, former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientists in the United States, 2009-2011.
Professor James Lance Taylor is from Glen Cove, Long Island. He is the author of the book ck Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama, which earned 2012 “Outstanding Academic Title” – Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. (Ranked top 2 percent of 25,000 books submitted and top 8 percent of 7,300 actually accepted for review by the American Library Association). Rated “Best of the Best.” The hardback version sold out in the U.S. and the paperback version was published in 2014.
He is a former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientists in the United States, 2009-2011. Taylor also served as Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco from 2012-2015, and Faculty Coordinator of the African American Studies Program for 2015-2017. He served as the Chair for the “Committee on the Status of Blacks” in Political Science for the American Political Science Association (APSA), 2016-2017.
Professor Taylor is currently writing and researching a book with the working title, Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and California Black Politics. He expects the book to be completed with a 2018-2019 publication range. The book is a study of the Peoples Temple movement and African American political history in the state of California.
He co-edited and published in Something’s in the Air: Race and the Legalization of Marijuana, with Katherine Tate (UC Irvine) and Mark Sawyer (UCLA), focusing on controversies concerning race, social justice, and marijuana legalization in the state of California.
Prof. Taylor has published articles on subjects such as Father Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement, Dr. Betty Shabazz (wife of Malcolm X), Dr. Benjamin Chavis (then, Muhammad), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Black Nationalism,” The post-9/11 relationship of Muslims in Northern California and the United States to Black Social and Political History, San Francisco Sun Reporter publisher Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, and on the Peoples Temple Movement in Northern and Southern California.
These works have been published by Harvard University Press and Oxford University Press, Baylor University Press, the State University of New York University Press (SUNY), San Diego State University (Jonestown Institute), and The University Press of Mississippi, and leading independent academic publishers.
Prof. Taylor’s scholarship internationally was acknowledged through his Keynote invitation at the 2014 National Indigenous Studies Conference (AIATSIS) in Canberra, Australia, where he presented the lecture, “Taking Intercommunalism Seriously: Black Power, Indigeneity, and Peoples’ Struggles for Recognition and Anti-Racist Democracy.”
He has taught previously as a Visiting Associate Professor of political science at Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain and political science and African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
His most recent published article is “King the Sellout or Sellin’ Out King?”: Hip Hop’s Martin Luther King,” in Dream and Legacy: Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Post-Civil Rights era (2017).
Demand for Prof. Taylor’s political analysis, expertise, and opinion has been sought internationally by leading media organizations in Dublin, Ireland, Canberra, Australia, Toronto, Canada, and London, England. He serves as a political commentator on San Francisco, U.S national, California, and U.S. Black politics on behalf of the University of San Francisco’s Media Relations Office and appears regularly on San Francisco News TV with KRON 4, FOX KTVU local, and ABC 7. He is a frequent guest on NPR/KQED with Michael Krasny and other programs and has appeared counting so far eight times at the California Commonwealth Club in San Francisco alongside leading figures in law, media, and politics.
In 2015, Prof. Taylor addressed hundreds of California Law Enforcement Officers at the International Institute of Criminal Justice Leadership in San Francisco (USF) on the topic of “The Black Lives Matter Movement” and Law Enforcement and currently serves as a committee member for two Executive Level committees (Bias and Community Engagement) (SFPD Command Staff level) for the Mayor’s Office of San Francisco and the San Francisco Police Commission’s mandates to implement the Obama Department of Justice Findings and Recommendations on the operations of the San Francisco Police Department.
Prof. Taylor also served as moderator for two public comment and town hall events on behalf of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, San Francisco Police Department, and the San Francisco Police Commission on the policy consideration of implementing Conducted Energy Devices (CEDs), also known as tasers in 2017. He has also served as a policy consultant for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
The San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) and California Historical Society, the Hayward Black Historical Society, and many local community groups and organizations call on Taylor’s expertise in his fields. He has given public lectures at Northwestern University, The Ohio State University, Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley, and DePauw University (Indiana).
Prof. Taylor is Vice President of the San Francisco Achievers Scholarship non-profit on behalf of African American males graduating from the San Francisco Unified School District.
His teaching and research scholarly interests are in religion and politics in the United States, race and ethnic politics, African American political history, social movements, political ideology, law and public policy, Black political leadership, and the U.S. Presidency. He lives with his family in Oakland, California.
Sometimes the artist Winfred Rembert can’t sleep at night. His wife, Patsy, says that it has to do with his work. “Whenever he do one of those pictures, he gets sick,” she explains. “He has to double up on that medicine in order to get some rest.” Rembert first draws his scenes, full of faces and patterns, on paper, then carves the images onto a sheet of tanned leather by hand, texturing the surface with tools that look almost surgical, before filling in the etchings with vivid dyes. His paintings depict scenes of Black life in the Jim Crow South, and making them means dredging up painful memories from his youth, when he worked in cotton fields and on a prison-labor chain gang. Some artworks are healing or serve as sources of hope, Rembert says, in the documentary “Ashes to Ashes”—but not his.
When he was nineteen years old, living in Georgia and participating in the civil-rights movement, Rembert, now seventy-five, was lynched by a mob of white men. They shoved him into the trunk of a car, stripped him, hung him upside down, stabbed him, and made it clear that they intended to castrate him. The attack was brutal and dehumanizing—“There I am, bleeding like a pig, hanging up in a tree, ready to be slaughtered,” Rembert recalls. The attackers were moments from hanging him. They stopped, Rembert says, only because one man said they had “better things” to do. Rembert survived, but the scars have stayed with him.
Whitaker has a physician’s reverence for history. She says that, when patients come to see her, they may need to have difficult conversations about what has happened in that patient’s life. Those conversations can’t be ignored or elided, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. “Sometimes, patients come and they tell you horror stories. But I can’t discard it, because I need it in order to help that patient live,” she says. Without that information, she says, the patient will never get toward a cure. It’s a striking parallel to the words she delivered at the homegoing ceremony: “Some bad things happened in this country, where Americans tortured other Americans. . . . So we’re looking back in history,” she says, to a church full of mourners. “This patient”—and, here, the patient is something more collective than an individual in her exam room—“can only live and get stronger if we’re willing to look back.”
Taylor Rees, who directed the film, told me that working with Rembert and Whitaker has expanded her thinking about what it means to heal from racial and political violence. “That healing process might never look like a complete recovery from an injury, but it’s the courage to face an injury,” she told me. “Looking at that thing that has caused harm is sometimes the hardest part.” The attack that Rembert describes is so vicious, his attackers so lacking in human decency, that the temptation is, if not to look away, then to dissociate, to ascribe the actions to a distant place and time. But neither Rembert nor the brutality he lived through are relics of history. “The person who endured this is alive. This isn’t generations ago,” Rees said. The truth of that statement could hardly be clearer. We spoke just days after a mob had breached the Capitol building, many of its members wearing white-supremacist insignias and at least one waving a Confederate flag. On the National Mall, some of the group erected a scaffold and noose.
The Rev. Dr. Kejuane Artez Bates was a big man with big responsibilities. The arrival of the novel coronavirus in Vidalia, Louisiana, was another burden on a body already breaking under the load. Bates was in his 10th year with the Vidalia Police Department, assigned as a resource officer to the upper elementary school. But with classrooms indefinitely closed, he was back on patrol duty and, like most people in those early days of the pandemic, unprotected by a mask. On Friday, March 20, he was coughing and his nose was bleeding. The next day, he couldn’t get out of bed.
Bates was only 36, too young to be at risk for COVID-19, or so the conventional wisdom went. He attributed his malaise to allergies and pushed forward with his second full-time job, as head pastor of Forest Aid Baptist Church, working on his Sunday sermon between naps. Online church was a new concept to his parishioners, and during the next morning’s service, he had to keep reminding them to mute their phones. As he preached about Daniel in the lion’s den — we will be tested, but if we continue to have faith, we will come through — he grimaced from the effort. That night he was burning up with fever. Five days later he was on a ventilator; five days after that, he died.
While COVID-19 has killed 1 out of every 800 African Americans, a toll that overwhelms the imagination, even more stunning is the deadly efficiency with which it has targeted young Black men like Bates. One study using data through July found that Black people ages 35 to 44 were dying at nine times the rate of white people the same age, though the gap slightly narrowed later in the year. And in an analysis for ProPublica this summer using the only reliable data at the time accounting for age, race and gender, from Michigan and Georgia, Harvard researcher Tamara Rushovich found that the disparity was greatest in Black men. It was a phenomenon Enrique Neblett Jr. noticed when he kept seeing online memorials for men his age. “I’ll be 45 this year,” said the University of Michigan professor, who studies racism and health. “I wasn’t seeing 60- and 70-year-old men. We absolutely need to be asking what is going on here?”
To help illuminate this gap in knowledge and gain a deeper understanding of why America has lost so many young Black men to COVID-19, ProPublica spent months gathering their stories, starting with hundreds of news articles, obituaries and medical examiners’ reports, then interviewing the relatives and friends of nearly two dozen men, along with researchers who specialize in Black men’s health. Our efforts led us to a little-known body of research that takes its name from one of the most enduring symbols of Black American resilience.
In interviews about the young men who died from the virus, a portrait emerged of a modern John Henry: hard-working, ambitious, optimistic and persistent, trying to lift others along with themselves. They were the very people communities would have turned to first to help recover from the pandemic: entrepreneurs who were also employers; confidants like coaches, pastors and barbers; family men forced into a sandwich generation younger than their white counterparts, because their parents got sick earlier and they had to care for them while raising kids of their own.
They were ordinary men. Time and again, it was their fight that was remarkable.
Bates, the only child of a single mother who supported him as a teacher’s aide, made it to Alcorn State University on football and choir scholarships. When his mother got sick with breast cancer, he had to drop out; after she died, he was almost destitute. Over the years, he built himself into multiple men at once, each a pillar to many others: the pastor whose flock depended on his counsel; the mentor known to school kids as Uncle Officer Bates; the assistant football coach and band director; the adoring father to 5-year-old Madison — his “heartbeat,” he called her. Recently he and his wife, Chelsea, a second grade teacher, had launched One Love Travel, organizing excursion packages and cruises as part of their long-term plan to build generational wealth.
He carried the stress of his efforts in his blood vessels, in his kidneys, in the extra pounds that accumulated with each passing year; he had diabetes and hypertension and at 6-foot-6, he was more than 100 pounds overweight. His official cause of death, on April 1, was COVID-19-related pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
But Chelsea knows that the virus, no matter how powerful, didn’t kill her husband on its own. It was the years of working nonstop, taking care of other people more than himself, that wore his body down. And when the virus attacked, he couldn’t fight back.
In the summer of 1978, the social epidemiologist Sherman James, then a 34-year-old researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, met the man who would shape his life’s work. At 70, John Martin was a retired farmer who suffered from debilitating osteoarthritis and hypertension. He had peptic ulcers so severe that doctors had to remove 40% of his stomach. Recounting his story in his backyard rocking chair, his cane resting on his lap, the old man had no doubt why his health was so bad: “I worked too hard.”
Born in 1907, Martin grew up in a family of sharecroppers who were only paid half of what their labor in the tobacco fields earned. Throughout the South at the time, most Black farmers lived at the economic mercy of landowners who were employers, landlords and vendors all at once. Martin watched as the system ruthlessly exploited his father; after one particularly harsh winter spent hungry, Martin vowed he would be different. Borrowing $3,725 in 1941, he purchased 75 acres. He had 40 years to settle the mortgage but accomplished the near-impossible: He paid it off in five. “That’s the reason my legs [are] all out of whack today,” he told James.
James listened, spellbound, until Martin’s wife called out, “John Henry, it’s time for lunch.” At that moment, something clicked. Holy cow, James remembers thinking. “It was just like the ancestors were speaking to me.” The power of Martin’s story wasn’t simply that it echoed the legend of John Henry; it also echoed the life experiences of most of the working-class African American men James knew.
Five years out of graduate school, James was among a small group of researchers focusing on one of the most enduring public health problems in the United States: why health outcomes for Black men are so poor. Black men live shorter lives than all other Americans — 71.5 years versus 76.1 years for white men — and have for generations. Black men’s life expectancy didn’t reach 65, the eligibility age for Medicare, until 1995, 30 years after the federal health program for the elderly became law; white men were living into their mid-60s by 1950. The shorter lifespans reflect a broader disparity: Black people have much higher rates of hypertension, obesity, diabetes and strokes than white people do, and they develop those chronic conditions up to 10 years earlier. The gap persisted this year when the Brookings Institution examined COVID-19 deaths by race; in each age category, Black people were dying at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older.
For generations, public health experts mostly ignored the disparities. When they did pay attention, they invariably blamed the victims — their “unhealthy” behaviors and diets, their genes, the under-resourced neighborhoods they “chose” to live in and the low-paying jobs they “chose” to work. Their chronic illnesses were seen as failures of personal responsibility. Their shorter life expectancy was written off to addiction and the myth of “black-on-black” violence. Many of those arguments were legacies of the slave and Jim Crow eras, when the white medical and science establishment promoted the idea of innate Black inferiority and criminality to rationalize systems built on servitude and segregation.
Pondering the lessons of John Henry Martin, James began to see what many of his colleagues had been missing. It wasn’t just living in poverty that wore down Black men’s bodies, he hypothesized, but the struggle to break out of poverty. It wasn’t just inequality that made them sick, but the effort to be equal in a system that was fundamentally unjust. “It’s this striving to make something of themselves … to live their lives with dignity and purpose and to be successful against extraordinary circumstances,” James said. “They’re trying to make a way out of no way. It’s the Black American story.”
America has changed profoundly since Martin’s day. Yet the machinery of racial inequality continues to be omnipresent. It’s in the hospitals where Black newborns have significantly lower mortality if they’re cared for by Black doctors rather than white ones. In the redlined neighborhoods where poverty and pollution are concentrated — but not affordable housing or grocery stores or reliable internet. It’s in the crumbling, exploitative economies that force parents to risk their lives working long hours for low pay without sick leave. In mass incarceration and voter suppression. In the innumerable hurdles, one piled upon another, that make Black Americans’ climb up the socioeconomic ladder more daunting than ever, their successes more fragile and their setbacks more consequential.
“Everyone thinks about racism as something that is personally mediated, like someone insulting me,” said Linda Sprague Martinez, a professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work who conducts community health research with adolescents and young adults. “But the way in which it’s really pervasive is how it disrupts life chances and opportunity. … These are systems that are designed for you to fail, essentially, and for you to be erased and to be maintained in a certain position in our society.”
Challenging such a relentless machine, through “high-effort coping,” James concluded, requires three categories of personal traits that are major themes of the John Henry legend: tenacity, mental and physical vigor and a commitment to hard work. To measure them, he developed the John Henryism scale, with scores determined by how strongly people identify with 12 statements, including: “Once I make up my mind to do something, I stay with it until the job is completely done,” and, “It’s not always easy, but I usually find a way to do what really needs to be done.”
To score high in John Henryism, you don’t have to be Black or male or economically disadvantaged. But over the years, James and other researchers have found that Black people, especially those who are poor and working-class, do score high and tend to suffer greater cardiovascular risks, perhaps because the innumerable hurdles in their paths require greater effort to overcome. “The stress,” James said, “is going to be far more overwhelming than it has a human right to be.”
Stress is a physiological reaction, hard-wired in the body, that helps protect it against external threats. At the first sign of danger, the brain sounds an alarm, setting off a torrent of neurological and hormonal signals that whoosh into the blood, stimulating the body to fight or give flight. The heart beats faster and breathing quickens; blood vessels dilate, so more oxygen reaches the brain and muscles. The immune system’s inflammatory response is activated to promote quick healing. When the threat passes, hormone levels return to normal, blood glucose ebbs and heart rate and blood pressure go back to baseline. At least, that’s how the human body is designed to work.
But overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can cause the gears to malfunction. “Your body’s over-producing, always working hard to bring itself back down to the normal level,” said Roland J. Thorpe Jr., a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and founding director of the Program for Research on Men’s Health at the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions. The constant strain “resets the normal,” he said. As blood pressure remains high and inflammation becomes chronic, the inner linings of blood vessels start to thicken and stiffen, which forces the heart to work harder, which dysregulates other organs until they, too, begin to fail. “Your body starts to wear down,” Thorpe said — a phenomenon known as weathering.
The cumulative effects of stress begin in the womb, when cortisol released into a pregnant woman’s bloodstream crosses the placenta; it is one of the reasons a disproportionate number of Black babies are born too early and too small. Then, exposure to adverse childhood experiences — anything from abuse and neglect to poverty and hunger — continues the toxic stream; too much exposure to cortisol at a critical stage in development can rewire the neurological system’s fight-or-flight response, essentially causing the brain’s stress switch to break. The more stress a youngster endures, the more likely he or she is to have academic, behavioral and health problems from depression to obesity.
Weathering isn’t specific to race, but it is believed to take a particular toll on Black people because of the unique, unrelenting stress caused by racism that wears away the body and the spirit, “just like you have siding on the house, and the rain or the sun beats on it, and eventually it starts to fade,” said Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. surgeon general under the Trump administration. Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, a social epidemiologist at Ohio State University, says the human body isn’t designed to withstand such biological and emotional assaults: “It’s the same thing as if you revved the engine of your car all day, every day. Sooner or later, the car is going to break down.”
The effects of stress can be seen at the cellular level. Researchers have found that in Black people, telomeres — repeated sequences of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes by forming a cap, much like the plastic tip on a shoelace — become shortened at a faster rate, a sign of premature aging. In a 2018 study examining changes in seven biomarkers in cardiac patients over a 30-year period, researchers found that Black patients weathered at an average of about six years faster than whites. And it was the extraordinarily high rates of hypertension in the Black community that prompted scientists to look at the impact of stress in the first place. By age 55, about 76% of Black men and women develop high blood pressure, versus 54% of white men and 40% of white women, which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Sustained stress has strong links to obesity, which Black children and adults have at much higher rates than whites. Some of this is physiological: The interplay between cortisol and glucose is complex and insidious, triggering metabolic changes that can lead to diabetes and other chronic diseases. Some of it is psychological and behavioral: Stress is strongly associated with depression and other mental health disorders. “The way that people deal with stress is by strategies that make us feel better,” such as comfort eating, said Thomas LaVeist, dean of Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Stress and anxiety cause sleeplessness, which itself is correlated with weight gain. The result is often a cascade of health problems — hypertension, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome — that strike early and feed off of each other.
Because Black Americans experience many forms of stress, often at once, researchers have more questions than answers about the specific role John Henryism plays in these outcomes. The study of Black men’s health remains an under-examined frontier, with little in the way of funding or will because “Black men are not viewed as sympathetic,” said LaVeist, and because so few go into the health research professions. He and Thorpe, the Johns Hopkins professor, co-founded the Black Men’s Health Project, the first large-scale national study focused solely on Black men’s needs, with a goal sample size of 5,000. They hope to learn how stressors like segregation and adverse early life experiences impact health outcomes.
If this segregated body of emerging knowledge were to grow and infiltrate the mainstream medical and research communities, James can only imagine how beneficial that would be. Health professionals could build deeper relationships with their patients by better understanding the sources of stress that wreak havoc on their cardiovascular systems. They could test for high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol levels more frequently and at younger ages. “Until we can have a society that is more just racially,” James said, “we do need to find these intermediate steps.”
As ProPublica examined the lives lost to COVID-19, themes emerged in the pressure points faced by many young Black men. The wearing down typically begins when they are boys and must become little John Henrys to navigate white spaces or push through the adverse experiences endemic to Black communities. It continues when they grow into men, as most need to navigate the public’s projections of danger with unwavering vigilance. The more they succeed, the more responsibility they feel to lift their families and communities with them, and with that, comes more stress.
As James listened to the stories ProPublica was gathering, he instantly recognized the cycle of striving and succumbing that he has been writing about for 40 years. “They could have done so much more had the struggle not been so intense,” James said. “They were cut down too soon.”
Thomas Fields Jr. was barely a year old when his father first went to prison. The loss altered the trajectory of his life in ways that many children wouldn’t have been able to overcome. His mother, just 17 when he was born, moved with him from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to Detroit, where her own mother had recently relocated. The city was in freefall: manufacturing jobs were disappearing; crime was surging; middle-class and white flight was stripping away the city’s tax base, eroding vital services and causing schools to fail. Just waiting at the wrong bus stop could get you robbed or shot.
“When you’re a young male living in Detroit, if you live past 18, it’s like you’re 50 years old,” Fields, then 31, said on a Facebook Live chat last year. “I swear that’s how it feels.”
Mitigating childhood adversity requires deep wells of resilience; researchers say one of the best ways to build those reserves is having a nurturing caregiver. In this, young Thomas was exceptionally lucky. His mother worked two jobs and still managed to watch him like a hawk; she told him constantly that she loved him. His grandmothers looked after him after school and during summer breaks. His father, Thomas Sr., did his best to be involved from behind bars, urging him to not make the same mistakes. “I wanted this Thomas Fields to break the mold,” he said.
To do that, Thomas became a little John Henry. He got decent grades, stayed out of trouble and taught himself to cook — healthy food, not the junk so many of his peers ate. After high school, he attended Grambling State University in Louisiana for a couple of years, then joined the U.S. Navy, where he went from being a talented amateur chef to a trained professional. He also became a father. When there were setbacks, he was already planning his next move. It’s a strategy that Black adolescents absorb like the air they breathe and the water they drink, Sprague Martinez said. “The mentality is: ‘Even if this system is not designed to work for me … I’m going to win this game. I haven’t gotten the prize yet? I must not be working hard enough.’”
High-effort coping can confer mental health benefits even for children raised in the direst of circumstances. Dosha DJay Joi endured the kind of trauma that dooms many children — beatings, neglect, sexual abuse. Born in Chicago, he spent much of his adolescence in group homes in the Wisconsin system. For years he was afraid to talk about the abuse and scared to tell his birth mother he was queer. He learned to channel himself into education and advocacy, helping other LGBTQ and foster kids; he especially wanted to make sure children remained connected with their siblings. He was inspired to study social work because of what he’d been through, said his mother, Kecha Kitchens. “Then a family member got sick, and he didn’t like how the nurses were treating the other patients in the nursing home, so he wanted to become a nurse.”
By the age of 28, Joi had a bachelor’s degree in human services, he had trained as a substance abuse counselor and he was working toward his nursing degree. He served as a court-appointed special advocate for kids aging out of foster care and lobbied lawmakers in the Wisconsin capitol and Washington D.C., forming a special bond with Rep. Gwen Moore, who represents Milwaukee in Congress. But the years of hardship took an enormous physical toll; Joi suffered from hypertension, heart and lung problems and at his heaviest, he weighed more than 500 pounds. When COVID-19 arrived in the Midwest, he was particularly vulnerable. He died on May 14.
For young John Henrys, the psychological benefits of high-effort coping seem to be complicated by what’s happening inside the body. “Typically when you study resilience in any group, and [subjects are] doing well by our typical metrics” — going to college, getting a good job, not taking drugs — “we say, ‘Woo-hoo,’” University of Georgia researcher Gene Brody said. “Logically, we thought this would transfer to have health benefits.” But for Black young adults trying to climb the economic ladder, they found just the opposite. “When you look under the skin, doing blood draws and using other kinds of measures, they look like their health is starting to suffer.”
In more than 25 years spent tracking the health of Black families in rural Georgia, Brody and his colleagues found that adolescents identified by their teachers as being success-oriented already had higher “allostatic loads” — science jargon for wear-and-tear on the body — at age 19 than their peers. By age 25, those from more disadvantaged backgrounds who scored high on the John Henryism scale were more likely to have metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that are precursors to diabetes and heart disease, than people from less disadvantaged backgrounds. Brody and his colleagues have dubbed this phenomenon“skin-deep resilience.” The same effects are not found for young white strivers.
In his late 20s, Fields was diagnosed with such a severe case of diabetes that his military career came to a screeching halt. When he returned to Detroit last year, he was a little brawnier, with more tattoos. “Diabetes was something that he was going to beat, because he wasn’t going to lose to anything,” said the Rev. Torion Bridges, one of his best friends for 20 years. He became a personal chef and motivational speaker, started a podcast and wrote a cookbook. He helped out his mom, who had multiple sclerosis. And he took a job as a “school culture facilitator,” working with kids who had discipline problems, at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, the pioneering Afrocentric public school he had attended. He was especially good with troubled boys who didn’t have a father at home, said principal Jeffrey Robinson, his onetime homeroom teacher, later his boss. “He could identify with the feeling of the loss.”
In March, Fields and his mother caught the coronavirus at the same time.
She recovered. He did not.
To navigate life as a Black man is to be constantly vigilant. The ubiquity of racism means that everyday interactions, while driving or shopping or birdwatching, can have potentially dangerous outcomes. So John Henrys live in a heightened state of awareness, continually adjusting. It might mean placing family photos near the front door to quickly prove your son belongs should police ever respond. It often means being able to “strategically assimilate” — to assume a public identity aimed at neutralizing stereotypes of blackness and defusing irrational white fears. This, W.E.B. DuBois explained more than a century ago, is “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
New York Times columnist Brent Staples would whistle Vivaldi in graduate school to signal that he was too cultured to be threatening. Darrell Hudson, who researches health disparities at Washington University in St. Louis, scans the closet each day before teaching class to select what he calls his “Non- Threatening Black Guy Uniform.”
“What’s not appreciated fully, I think, is how much energy it takes,” said Derek M. Griffith, professor and director of the Center for Research on Men’s Health at Vanderbilt University. “All of these different things that you have to do to modulate your body and so forth, all that additional attention that you have to pay to that, is a burden that most people don’t have to bear. It is a cause of weathering that we don’t fully appreciate.”
A 2014 study found that vigilance was positively associated with the prevalence of hypertension for Blacks but not whites. The more vigilant Black people were, the more the disparity grew. And researchers have found that Black people who are on guard against anticipated discrimination have higher blood pressures while they sleep. “When you experience racism or discrimination and it could cost your life, it’s good to be vigilant; but a prolonged and heightened state of vigilance is not good,” the University of Michigan’s Neblett said. “It can kill you in the end.”
Leslie Lamar Parker grew up in the Minneapolis suburbs, in a state that was 84% white. Like many John Henrys in this story, he was large — tall and wide — in a way that made him stand out to cruel classmates and clueless teachers. Bigness can be perilous for Black boys, who are often seen as older, stronger and less innocent than their white counterparts, stereotypes that underlie higher rates of school discipline and police violence. Parker learned to play the class clown and questioned authority. “School couldn’t hold his attention, not because he wasn’t smart. He wouldn’t go,” his mother, Tyuon Brazell, said. Because he wasn’t on track to graduate, she did what other parents might not and suggested he drop out his junior year. That’s when he started to thrive, earning his GED, graduating from college and becoming an IT specialist in his old school district, where he mentored students of color, ordering them lunch from DoorDash and supervising the tech club. “That was really important to him,” said his wife, Whitney, “making sure they didn’t fail any other brown kids like they failed him.”
One key to his coping was overcorrecting for how he might be perceived. Strangers would approach him to say how lovely it was to see him with his son and daughter, a microaggression masquerading as a compliment. He was so sensitive to stereotypes about absent Black fathers, his wife said, he was “a present parent on steroids.” To walk through the world as a Black man is to be simultaneously hypervisible and invisible, under surveillance yet never really seen. So he turned his wardrobe into a “conversation starter,” an expression of his irreverent personality but also armor against snap judgments about his imposingness. He carried a Spongebob SquarePants backpack to work and often wore a pro-wrestling or superhero T-shirt during off hours.
Parker was constantly scanning the horizon for threats against his family and his kids at school, wondering whether there was something more that he could do for them. He projected a cool demeanor, his argumentative wit camouflaging worries that his mother knew kept his head in overdrive. “I kept telling him: ‘Son, you need to rest. You don’t have to do everything in a day.’” He was diagnosed with high blood pressure at just 27 and worried it, and the extra pounds, would keep him from seeing his two children grow up. He died in May from COVID-19 at the age of 31.
Joshua Bush, who died in April of COVID-19, slammed up against racial stereotypes in his work as a nurse in South Carolina. There were funny looks from people who didn’t expect to see a Black man when he arrived at job interviews and white patients who refused to let him touch them. He told them, “That is your choice, but you’re missing out on great help,” his mother, Linda, recalled. He and his wife, LaKita, saw the health care industry as their route to upward mobility. She worked in hospital administration; at 30, he was studying to become a registered nurse, working as an LPN.
Bush also suffered from a rare enzyme abnormality that caused severe muscle cramps from overexertion, and because of it, trips to the emergency room weren’t uncommon. He’d come to accept that the first image doctors and nurses saw — someone Black and overweight — influenced their bedside manner. They treated him like he had no medical knowledge and lectured him about diabetes, though it had nothing to do with why he was seeking care. His experience informed the way he cared for his own patients, part of his “fight against the system,” his wife said. At the same time, she could see her husband’s stress “all over his body.”
Lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go. Words that started as a call-to-action at the rise of the Jim Crow South have become an enduring part of the African American experience — and can serve as a unique form of stress. The proverb was born of Black suffragist Mary Eliza Church Terrell’s belief that it was incumbent upon the growing Black middle and upper class to use their position to fight racial discrimination and help others rise through education, work and community activism. It is why Thomas Fields was told as a boy that he was “duty-bound” to give back to the community once he got an education. Why Dosha Joi advocated for young people in the system “because someone helped bring out the sunshine in me.”
“You’re socialized to say it’s not just about you. It’s really about what you’re going to do for your broader community and for your family,” Washington University’s Hudson explained. “People take it very seriously, trying to light a path for those behind them — even when they’re not necessarily in the most stable situation themselves. … But they’re lifting as they climb. That’s taxing. That’s a visceral stress.”
In the Brookhaven, Mississippi, of Eugene Thompson’s youth, Black business owners understood that Brookway Boulevard — at least the stretch that ran through downtown — was for white businesses. The election of Barack Obama was a turning point; Thompson figured if a Black man could become president of the United States, surely he could rent a modest space on “the Boulevard.” Publicly, his goal was to grow his client base by cutting white people’s hair, too. His family knew his aspirations were grander. “He wanted to do something in Brookhaven to help Black people to get off their knees,” his mother, Odell Edwards, said. “We are on our knees.”
It’s not easy earning a living in Mississippi, where the single most common job is working as a cashier and the $7.25 minimum wage hasn’t budged in a decade. Cutting hair came naturally for Thompson, who started on himself at 12. He attended a local beauty academy before he could afford to go to barber school and over the years took the same methodical approach to growing his business — buying secondhand equipment, doing the construction himself, all without bank loans, mentoring or government support.
But Thompson’s real ambition was to start his own school. “He always tried to encourage the boys in the community, or people who had been in prison and couldn’t find a job — ’I can teach you how to cut hair and you can have your own business,’” his younger sister, Dedra Edwards, said. After three years spent earning his teaching credential, Thompson opened his TaperNation Barber Academy for students last fall. Then he realized graduates needed places to work, so he launched his next project: renovating a second shop nearby where other barbers and hair stylists could rent chairs.
“It was running him ragged,” Odell said.
At 46, Thompson was severely overweight and suffered from lifelong respiratory problems as well as anxiety and sleeplessness. High blood pressure and diabetes ran in his family, but Thompson’s true health status was unclear — like more than 15% of Black people in Mississippi, he wasn’t insured and avoided going to the doctor except in an emergency. When he started feeling symptoms of COVID-19 in late March, he shrugged them off at first; he’d been having heart palpitations and panic attacks, which his family attributed to stress from work.
After he died in early April, leaving behind six children, TaperNation had to shut down. “You have to have a barber’s instructor license to keep it going, and no one else in the family has one,” his sister said. “We had to sell almost everything.”
Recent disasters — Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession — have shown that Black communities aren’t just more vulnerable than white populations to economic and social dislocations; they recover more slowly. The impacts of the pandemic are likely to be magnified because so many deaths have occurred among Black people under age 60, the peak earning years when people raise families, start businesses, amass social capital and create lasting legacies. In addition to the lives it took, COVID-19 has robbed wealth that John Henrys were only beginning to accrue and toppled what they had begun to build for themselves and those around them.
In many cases, they were the structural beams, holding everything up. “These are people who help pay bills for people who aren’t their biological family members,” said Sealy-Jefferson, the Ohio State social epidemiologist. “They bring food when somebody dies. They watch kids when a single mother has to work.” Some of the biggest losses are intangible, she said: “social support, emotional support, resource sharing, encouragement, storytelling, role modeling— all of these things that are vital for African Americans in particular, given our history in this country.”
Fields couldn’t comfort students reeling from a crisis that has killed more than 1,600 of their loved ones and neighbors. “It’s a tremendous loss,” said Robinson, his principal. Bates’ wife, Chelsea, was too bereaved to go back to work when school resumed, which meant living off of her husband’s death benefits and savings; she focused on trying to help Madison process a grief she’s too young to understand. “Sometimes she lays on the floor and kicks and screams that she wants her daddy, that she misses daddy and why did he have to leave?” she said. “I tell her, I’m sorry, I wish that mama could do something to bring him back. I really do.”
Weekday mornings have been quiet without Kendall Pierre Sr. puttering around the house before sunrise so he could open his barbershop by 5 a.m. That’s when workers from nearby chemical plants would stop in for a cut or shave after their graveyard shifts. Sundays are different without his sermons at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, in the little town of Ama, Louisiana, followed by a family breakfast his son always looked forward to. “My grandmother would come. Some of my aunties and cousins. He would put Aunt Jemima batter in the waffle iron and say: ‘See? This is better than Waffle House!’”
Since his dad died in May of COVID-19, Kendall Pierre Jr., a 20-year-old student at Louisiana State University, has felt an overwhelming absence and, at the same time, his father’s equally consuming presence. “I can still hear him,” he said.
Don’t drive with your hoodie on.
Work twice as hard.
Real men don’t wear slippers in public; put on some shoes.
The only child of a single mother, 45-year-old Pierre Sr. took his role as father figure seriously. To nieces and nephews, he was Uncle Dad. To his sons’ basketball teams, he was Coach Kendall with the pep talks.
If a task has begun, never leave it until it’s done.
Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.
When players couldn’t afford uniforms or travel for tournaments, he would pay. “Their parents would send them with all they could, which was sometimes only $5,” Pierre Jr. said. They could count on him for food, deodorant, even a haircut. “He would bring his clippers to make sure all the players looked nice.”
When the killing of George Floyd roiled the country, Pierre Jr. had no doubt about how his father would have reacted. He would have talked to officials at the sheriff’s office, school board administrators, government leaders. He would have organized community meetings at the church.
We’re living in troubled times.
His son thought about that when his friend texted him about organizing a Black Lives Matter protest. “Since my dad passed, I’ve had this newfound courage, and this urge to act on things … to just do things outside of my comfort zone,” he said.
On a Saturday morning in June, 400 people joined in the 2.6-mile march from Westbank Bridge Park to St. Charles Parish Courthouse. A local reporter covered it and interviewed Pierre Jr. for a story. “If we don’t speak about systemic racism and police brutality, no change will ever happen,” he said. “I feel like it’s something that I have to do and be a part of something bigger than just me.”
He knows his father would have been proud. His mother was. But she worries, too. Her husband didn’t make enough time for doctor’s appointments to monitor his Type 2 diabetes, nor did he get much sleep. “I would tell him, ‘Kendall, you need to rest,’” recalled Sabrina, his wife of 24 years and a registered nurse. “He would say he could rest when he’s dead and gone.”
She knows how much goes into taking care of yourself as a Black man and thinks about that every time her sons walk out the door; her daughter, too. “Lord, I pray for them. … I tell them: ‘Put the seat belt on, drive the speed limit. Make sure you don’t get any tickets.’ I don’t want them to get stopped by a cop.” Her husband’s stature in the community conferred a kind of protection. “Because of my husband and who he was, people would be looking out for my sons. We don’t have that anymore.”
Zipporah Osei and Mollie Simon contributed reporting.
Art Direction by Lisa Larson-Walker.
About the Art
Elliott Jamal Robbins, 32, is an artist who works in a variety of media, including drawing, printmaking, sculpture and video/animation. He has exhibited artworks in group and solo exhibitions in New York, Chicago, Miami, Berlin and the Netherlands. This is how he described his thinking behind the art in this story:
For me, the story of John Henry presents problems. Namely, its focus on the physical attributes of the man and celebrating the labor that killed him. In the original tale, John Henry is almost Christlike in his willingness, if not gleeful, in sacrificing his own body. In my own work, I’m always more drawn to the mundane scene. Rather than consider the figure of John Henry as a type or didactic prop to expound the ills of systemic racism, I decided to focus a narrative as though from the point of view of the subject, and we witness his day-to-day experiences as he does.
Beginning on the bus, we are reminded of this as the site where African Americans fought for the basic human right to sit where they chose. From one mode of transportation to another, the horseback rider recalls the notion of the American west, which most often represents a connection to the land, and freedom. In contrasting the horse from the rider, we see that while one figure experiences a kind of liberation, another body is at work which propels this motion. This relationship between horse and rider is a corollary for the relationship between John Henry and the train, a mechanical achievement that would bring with it the promises of cross country travel, commerce and economic prosperity.
The story of John Henry is a means of making visible the unseen labor, exploitation and oppression of nation building. In this way I want to consider the real impact of systemic racism on those experiencing it daily, as well as decentralize the notion of racial violence from images of murdered black men and women. Instead, I want to consider how violence is enacted everyday, and its key actors are those who participate in systems which are propped up by the degradation of others.
Clarification, Dec. 24, 2020: This story was updated to clarify a figure on Black infant mortality.
Long before the internet caught wind of him, Henry Earl was already a local legend. By the time the Charleston Gazette dubbed him a “cult-status hero” and Newsweek called him the “town drunk,” Earl was already known around Lexington, Kentucky, as James Brown. He liked to dance, and he’d do a few moves in exchange for a couple bucks, money which he’d usually promptly spend on alcohol.
Earl was born in the Jim Crow South and adopted at age seven. Drinking was a habit he picked up as a teenager after his mother died, one he never could quite shake. By age 19 he was homeless, and by 20 he’d been arrested for the first time. That was back in 1970. Over the next several decades, Earl was arrested more than 1,500 times, almost always for alcohol intoxication. This is how he became known as the World’s Most Arrested Man. Over the years, he spent a total of more than 16 years in jail, usually in couple-day spurts. He was never once charged with violence or theft. “I like to drink,” he said once. “Alcoholic, that’s what I am. Every police knows me on the force. They see me drunk; they pick me up; I get five days.”
For almost 50 years, this was Earl’s life. No home, no family, just alcohol and jail. He was a regular at the local bar scene, known for sometimes overstaying his welcome. The locals would see him at house parties sometimes; he’d go for the free beer. He tried court-mandated rehab a few times, but it didn’t stick. “It’s a weekly, if not every-two-or-three-days thing,” said a police spokesperson in 2013. “He’s never doing bad or illegal things purposely…. He’s just so highly intoxicated that he’s posing a danger to himself.”
Interest in Earl peaked a few years back, with websites dedicated to his mug shots that amusedly tracked his arrests. Late-night TV cracked jokes at his expense. National outlets ran stories on him. Around town, people called him harmless and happy, a “lovable loser.” But there were times Earl saw it differently. “It’s a sad life, it ain’t worth a dog,” he said in 2003, tearing up. “I got more sense than some people think I do. I’ve seen what it’s doing. It is ruining my life.”
Over the past 10 years, the American public has been subjected to countless videos of civilians being killed, beaten, or tortured by law enforcement. Each new story is more documentation in the growing mountain of evidence, detailing how the state casually inflicts violence against its citizens. Henry Earl is not in any of those videos. He hasn’t been tortured on the street. He hasn’t been shot in the back. He has not been injected with a lethal dose of ketamine. But year after year he has been the victim of state violence—subject to arrest and the dangers of jail. But what Henry Earl shares with Walter Scott, George Floyd, and Elijah McClain is the problem of American policing—the consistent application of violent solutions to nonviolent, and often nonexistent, problems. The solution has been tried over a thousand times on Henry Earl, to no effect. Perhaps it’s time for something new.
Last year Attorney General William Barr addressed the Fraternal Order of Police’s biennial conference. “[W]hat stands between chaos and carnage on the one hand, and the civilized and tranquil society we all yearn for,” Barr told his audience “is the thin blue line of law enforcement.” Barr is a right-wing Republican who has for years advocated for a harsher and more robust police state. But his proclamation reflected a deeply held idea in American politics—that police are essential to an ordered and just country. Barr’s worldview is time-honored and bipartisan. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden might not be the same politician he was when he championed the 1994 crime bill, but his belief in the necessity of American policing—Biden proposes to pump $300 million in federal dollars to the police—has not changed. And it’s not just politicians who proselytize the necessity of policing. Boilerplate TV procedurals, true-crime podcasts, and the evening news sell us a world where the police, beleaguered and badgered, are ultimately all that stands between those of us who wish to live in society and the others who would choose savagery.
This is a myth. Despite much reporting of a spike in murder this year, the long-term trend still shows the murder rate hovering roughly in the same place it was in the 1960s, half of what it was in 1980. And while procedurals may paint a picture of cops chasing serial killers weekly, the actual face of police is more mundane. In June, the New York Times culled available data and estimated that police spend roughly 4 percent of their time addressing “violent crime.” Most of their time is spent dealing with noncriminal matters. And yet no matter the call—the loud party next door, the permit for a parade, the expired car tags, the escort for a funeral procession, the elderly welfare check, the frolickers barbecuing in the park, the schoolyard fight, the opioid overdose, the homeless person outside in the cold, the stray dog—the state’s answer is to respond with armed agents blessed with the near unimpeachable right to kill. The impact is not theoretical. After James Smith noticed the door of his neighbor’s home was open and the lights were on, Smith called the police, hoping an officer would conduct “a wellness check” on his neighbor. Instead, Officer Aaron Dean shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in her own home as she played video games with her young nephew. Smith was left to draw a grim conclusion. “We don’t have a relationship with the police because we don’t trust the police,” Smith recently told the BBC.
Even the impact of policing on violent crime is debatable. “We are fighting an unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society,” Barr claimed at the FOP conference in New Orleans. But the “never-ending fight” in the very city in which Barr was speaking is not going well. New Orleans has the fourth highest murder rate in the nation but clears only 35 percent of homicide cases. In 2018, the city’s police cleared only 2 percent of all rapes. The country at large isn’t much better. Last year, the Washington Post launched an investigation into murder clearance rates in 50 cities over the course of 10 years. The results were bracing. “Despite a nationwide drop in violence to historic lows,” the Post reported, “34 of the 50 cities have a lower homicide arrest rate than a decade ago.” In St. Louis, during the period the Post studied, it calculated that 54 percent of all homicides resulted in no arrest. In Baltimore, during the period it studied, the Post calculated that only 35 percent of all homicides resulted in an arrest. In Chicago the rate was 26 percent. The “line” isn’t just thin and blue—it’s porous and arbitrary.
One argument for policing holds that while police may not solve much violent crime, their very presence helps ensure safety. In a survey of research, the National Institute of Justice concludes that “hot spot policing” was “associated with reductions in violent crime relative to control areas.” What is “hot spot policing”? According to the survey, it includes “order maintenance and drug enforcement crackdowns, increased gun searches and seizures and zero tolerance policing.” This isn’t just a list of policing tactics; it’s a list of prerequisites for the present moment. For “order maintenance,” Eric Garner was suffocated on a New York sidewalk. For “drug enforcement crackdowns,” Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home. For “gun search and seizure,” the Black neighborhoods of New York endured Stop and Frisk. For “zero tolerance policing,” George Floyd was choked on a Minneapolis street.
It would be at least honest if we said that enduring arbitrary harassing, beating, tasing, and strangulation by the state was the price of being “associated with reduction in violent crime relative to control areas.” That we don’t say this, and that we only imply it for certain classes of people, exposes the assumptions built into American policing. It’s those assumptions that, on the one hand, allow Henry Earl to be arrested more than a thousand times, and on the other offer a sporting chance for anyone who’d like to try their hand at murder or rape. Policing accomplishes this dubious feat by imposing costs on innocent people who happen to live in proximity to crime, and others who simply happen to resemble in skin color those we think of as criminal. This is a system begging for reform, and the best way to reform an institution as compromised as American policing is by abolishing it.
It is impossible to imagine American policing without the institution foundational to America itself—enslavement. Indeed, from colonial times up through the Civil War, the largest police force in the country wasn’t primarily found in the early towns or the bustling metropolises, but in the slave societies of the South, where to be a white man was to be deputized. Enslavement, where the enslaver is both the maker and enforcer of law, was the first experience of policing for Black people. But through the invention of slave patrols, militias charged with enforcing the law against the enslaved, the policing powers were expanded. “All white persons were permitted and in some regards required to exercise a police power over slaves,” the white supremacist historian U.B. Phillips noted. In many states, white people were not only allowed but required to whip, capture, and jail enslaved people they encountered. They had a mandate to “prevent all caballings amongst negros [sic], by dispersing of them when drumming or playing,” meaning they could punish any enslaved people for simply interacting with each other. The patrollers operated, as one of their number put it, “without warrant and at my own discretion.” The shadows of American policing are here—in the prisons, we find the absolute mastery once enjoyed by the planter class; in the wide discrepancy granted the slave patrol, one sees the echoes of broken windows policing; and the bodies of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery reflect the extension of police powers far beyond official police.
Slave patrols were born of the propertied interests of white people seeking to maximally exploit Black labor, an endeavor that did not fade with emancipation. In many ways, it was reinforced. Planters may no longer have owned their labor force, but that didn’t stop them from seeking out means of preventing the formerly enslaved from freely selling their labor. Policing was key to this effort, which saw control lost through slavery regained through a panoply of laws that threatened arrest for everything from not having an annual work contract to “malicious mischief” and criminalized “persons who led idle or disorderly lives.” Depending on the state, the arresting officers could consist of urban police, militias drawn from former Confederate soldiers, or merely any white man. While there was a brief reprieve during Reconstruction, after federal troops departed the South in 1877, white Southerners employed policing to ensure a permanent and pliable source of labor. When Blacks tried to go north for jobs during the Great Migration, “the South resorted to coercion and interception worthy of the Soviet Union,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns. “In Brookhaven, Mississippi, authorities stopped a train with 50 colored migrants on it and sidetracked it for three days. In Albany, Georgia, the police tore up tickets of colored passengers as they stood, waiting to board, dashing their hopes of escape. A minister in South Carolina, having seen his parishioners off, was arrested at the station on the charge of helping colored people get out.”
It is tempting to think the Northern police departments unsullied by white supremacy. The assumption would be wrong. Throughout the entirety of Jim Crow, Northern police often parroted their Southern counterparts. “From the moment the emigrants set foot in the North and West,” writes Wilkerson, “they were blamed for the troubles of the cities they fled to.” Indeed, police departments took the cue and regarded Blacks much as the broader society had—as outcasts and threats. In 1917, in East St. Louis, Illinois, white workers angered by Blacks brought in to replace them during a strike rioted and “fired shots into colored homes,” writes Wilkerson. “The police, charged with quelling the riot, in some cases joined in, as did some in the state militia.” In 1943, during the Detroit race riot, “Police openly sympathized with the white rioters,” writes historian Thomas J. Sugrue; “17 blacks were shot to death by the police, no whites were.” Ten years later, as Black families tried to integrate Chicago’s Trumbull Park Homes, they were granted minimal protection from the police who sympathized with the whites who terrorized the families. Still, the greatest indicator of the role law enforcement in the North played in suppressing their Black populations lay in the prison population. Even in an era of relatively low incarceration, the rate in the Northern cities stood at seven to one—exactly the same as today.
That the police were not concerned with neutrality nor “law enforcement” was always clear to Black people. In 1967, after a series of riots, President Lyndon Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to report on the riot’s origins and recommend a series of reforms. Read today, the report is bracing for a haunting quality—its timelessness. Just like the countless commissions that have followed it, the Kerner Commission found a police department with too many responsibilities, filling in for the defunding and decline of societal institutions. Just as today, the Kerner Commission found Black communities complaining of “stop and frisk” tactics. And then, as now, voices of authority blamed police violence on the inherent pathologies of the Black population instead of the learned brutality of the police. Among the commission’s recommendations: an intolerance for police brutality, “a clear and enforced policy…of law enforcement in ghetto areas as is the same as in other communities,” and eliminating a focus on smaller crimes such as “gambling or loitering” in favor of crimes that threaten “life and property.” After the report was published, it became a best seller, but Johnson quickly scuttled it, and the era of “law and order” commenced.
It is common to note, as the Kerner report does, that Black communities frequently complain of crime right alongside police brutality. This is not surprising. Black communities are on every level less safe than white communities. And yet it is curious the ease with which police, who never fail to note this safety gap, abandon these vulnerable neighborhoods. Calls for accountability are often met with indignance and threats to desert those most affected by crime. The practice of officers, at the slightest sign of public critique, calling in sick en masse and refusing to do their jobs has long been called “blue flu.”
At times, retaliation is even uglier. After becoming the New York City’s first Black mayor in 1990, David Dinkins angered the union by calling for police reform. The response was open defiance of the law. Police officers derided Dinkins as a “janitor” and a crack addict, drank openly, blocked traffic, and assaulted journalists. A photographer seeking the protection of a lieutenant after being assaulted by an officer was essentially told to flee. “I can’t protect you up here,” the lieutenant said. In 2011, after the NYPD was investigated for corruption, officers again rallied at the courthouse, blocking the cameras of journalists, mocking poor people by chanting “EBT” at people attempting to collect their benefits. In 2014, in the midst of a conflict with Mayor Bill de Blasio, the NYPD largely stopped policing, at the behest of the union.
This is all very strange behavior for a group which takes an oath “to serve and protect.” But policing is often revealed to be about something muddier. In June, the Times asked Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot her opinion on the effort to “defund the police.” Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, didn’t even bother to defend her department—probably because a department with a history of torture, black sites, framing innocent people, and child killing is not easily defensible. Instead Lightfoot seemingly deflected to the lack of opportunity for Black and brown people in Chicago. Defunding “means you are eliminating one of the few tools that the city has to create middle class incomes for Black and brown folks.” That America’s second largest police department can only be defended as a kind of violent jobs program is a clear indictment of policing as an act of public safety. Furthermore, the fact that policing is one of the few tools available to bolster a racially diverse middle class is yet another indicator that police have far too much responsibility.
But America has never truly had a system of “public safety,” if only because Black “safety” has historically been imagined as being secured by more policing, whereas white “safety” is ensured by altogether different means. America does not flood the dorms of Harvard with cops because they are areas of “known drug activity.” It does not station armed officers in the cubicles of Wells Fargo. The white parents of Westchester do not generally have to subject their teenagers to The Talk. White safety, itself built on a foundation of enslavement and segregation, is ensured through familial wealth, home ownership, well-funded public schools, stable employment, and health care. Black safety is ensured by “zero tolerance policing” and “stop and frisk.” White safety is cancer prevention. Black safety is all-day chemotherapy.
Abolition seeks to eradicate this Jim Crow system of public safety—not merely a two-tiered system, but a system where one tier benefits by extracting from the other. To “reform” policing, to subject it to bias training of dubious import, to push for the return to an illusory past where Officer Friendly provided sanctuary, is to attempt to patch up the more nefarious features of a system that should be obsolete. Without the history of policies and practices that make up white supremacy, without enslavement and slave patrols, without black codes and miscegenation laws, without poll taxes and courthouse lynchings, without redlining and housing segregation, without mass incarceration, policing as we know it would not exist.
The outlines of the possible are already upon us. Defunding the police—divesting money from the back-end solution of policing and investing it on the front end—is a first step along the path. To meet the very real concerns about neighborhood violence, we could look to preventative programs like Cure Violence and Save Our Streets in cities like New York. These organizations view gun violence as a public health question rather than evidence of community moral rot. Both have been able to successfully reduce and prevent gun violence without inflicting more violence on communities they claim to protect.
Nowhere is the extra layer of unnecessary violence more reflected than in our insistence on sending men with guns to resolve mental health crises. In Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTS, a crisis intervention program, was able to respond to 20 percent of the area’s 911 calls last year. Through the program, teams of medics and experienced mental health professionals are dispatched to handle certain emergencies instead of the police. For people suffering from mental health crises, addiction, and homelessness, introducing law enforcement in moments of desperation is an invitation for disaster. CAHOOTS reduces the risk of unnecessary violence and criminalization.
And removing police from our long and futile war against drug abuse is essential to abolition. This requires us to consider the role of harm reduction, rather than abstinence, as a possible avenue toward reducing the associated drug use. This solution is not theoretical. In countries such as Norway, Germany, and Canada, drug users can go to a safe injection site and use in regulated, medically supervised, and sanitary conditions. These facilities avoid relying on the stigma and shame that trails many of those suffering from addiction. And it works. When people have access to a safe environment for drug use, they are more likely to seek treatment on their own.
Abolition looks like justice for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. According to RAINN, for every 1,000 sexual assaults, only about 230 are reported to law enforcement. Of those, less than five result in incarceration. In other words, 75 percent of sexual assaults go unreported and 99 percent go unpunished. Policing does not protect women from sexual assault, it facilitates it. Prison sexual violence, not only at the hands of other incarcerated people but also from correctional officers, is a persistent problem across the gender spectrum, including the thousands of juveniles housed in adult prisons. In place of our current system, abolition envisions providing domestic abuse survivors with crisis counselors and violence intervention teams trained to specifically navigate intimate relationships, available at a moment’s notice. What would a future look like for rape survivors if there were professionals or organizations that could provide not just physical safety but mental, emotional, and financial resources as well?
But more than an array of solutions to discrete, isolated issues, abolition envisions something more fundamental—entirely different values. A world where the resources put into not just policing but our robust system of prisons and jails is invested in the people to eventually render the present justice system obsolete. This is a world focused on the reduction of violence and harm. Certainly you would still need professionals responsible with holding accountable those who violate the social contract in the extreme—rape or murder—and an improved investigative system to catch the perpetrators. But even in that case, ensuring society’s protection should look very different. Even in the most extreme circumstances, it would demand an end to the conflation of public safety with public vengeance. Removing someone from society to stop them from enacting violence does not require subjecting someone to the current prison system, where solitary confinement, assault, sickness, torture, and rape are par for the course.
This is the world I imagine when I picture what I want for my children—a world where social consequences are weighted along with criminal consequences, where incapacitation is not conflated with torture, and murder and rape are taken so seriously that we do all we can to prevent either from happening in the first place. But ultimately abolition is not about a suite of options imposed by someone else—even me. The promise of abolition is the promise of democracy itself—one long denied Black people: the promise inherent in constructing an order of public safety originating in the needs and desires of a community, and not those who have, for so long, exploited them.
For America’s Black mothers, the fear of loss and trauma is constantWhen photographer Jon Henry poses families as if in mourning, he’s calling out police violence that too often kills young Black men and terrifies their mothers.
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Outrage is justified. And anyone who is not outraged in today’s America should be.
“Everybody knows, no matter what they do not know, that they wouldn’t like to be a Black man in this country,” Baldwin said in 1968. The ills he spoke of remain; some have even worsened. Stark income and wealth gaps persist along racial lines, failing schools and paltry social services put a giant foot on the scale against Black youth, biased judges and juries disproportionately imprison Black men, and the severe health disparities suffered by Black Americans now include a higher death rate from COVID-19. But the most poignant picture of racial injustice in America is repainted in blood whenever a police officer, armed and sanctioned by the state and wearing the uniform of the law, kills a Black citizen with impunity. With the video of the death of George Floyd under the knee of white Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, Black Americans once again relive a brutal nightmare that dates back to the country’s founding. Their lives are deemed dispensable, even and sometimes especially by those whose job it is to enforce the law.
And on Tuesday, the day after the incident, it took civil unrest in the streets to spur his arrest and murder charges on Friday. The three officers who helped him during the arrest, who either held George Floyd down or stood by as he said he could not breathe and cried out for his mother, have not faced charges. The camera footage shows a group of officers who acted as if they knew they would not be punished.
It is a form of Baldwin’s “willful ignorance” that the country’s politicians, policy makers, prosecutors, and police departments have not done more to prevent and punish acts of violence against Black people on the part of police and it is a form of willful ignorance that more citizens are not outraged. Piecemeal reforms to diversify police forces, train officers to de-escalate conflict, and require body cameras have fallen abysmally short in protecting Black people from errant law enforcement officers. Derek Chauvin had nearly 20 complaints and two letters of reprimand filed against him and had opened fire on two people before he knelt on the neck of George Floyd. Across the country, there is still too little accountability for police, including here in Boston, where the city has stopped releasing stop-and-frisk data.
That more and more Americans are refusing to accept the violence against Black Americans presents political leaders and law enforcement agencies around the nation with an imperative to act. State and federal lawmakers must use this moment to enact bolder policy reforms than those to date to reduce sentencing disparities, raise juvenile justice ages to keep young people out of the prison system, reform civil service laws that make it hard to hold cops accountable for wrongdoing, and strengthen civilian police-oversight boards. Police departments across the nation should press for the authority to remove officers who have any history of racial violence or aggression toward citizens; police chiefs should show that they have zero tolerance for such acts. They must send a loud and clear message that the era of sanctioned police violence against Black citizens is over.
With so many Americans moved by the death of Floyd and the callousness of Chauvin, this could be the country’s watershed moment for finally addressing police violence and racial injustice. But even after the fires stop burning, Americans of all races must be unwilling to accept the loss of Black lives.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.
federal lawsuit alleging that the California city of Rancho Cordova “fostered a culture of violence” among local police was filed just weeks before videos showing a white Rancho Cordova police officer pummeling a Black teenager sparked national outrage on Monday. Local law enforcement officials are investigating the latest incident, which reportedly began when the officer stopped a 14-year-old boy for buying a cigar. The encounter escalated, and now-infamous videos circulating widely online show the officer pinning the boy to the ground and punching him several times.
For many, the videos are just the latest example of how people of color, particularly Black and Native people, must turn to social media to seek accountability for acts of racist police violence. Moreover, a lawsuit filed by two brothers arrested in March claims Rancho Cordova has “fostered a culture of violence” that allows its police officers to use excessive force against the public. Together the two cases raise important questions about race and police accountability in the diverse, working-class suburb of Sacramento — and around the country.
Last month, twin brothers Thomas and Carlos Williams filed separate lawsuits in a California federal court alleging that they were wrongfully arrested and violently beaten by three Rancho Cordova police officers on March 23. The two brothers were doing yard work outside Carlos Williams’s new home in Rancho Cordova when a white neighbor mistook them for burglars and called 911, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Thomas Williams. Without warning, the officers busted into the yard yelling expletives with their guns drawn.
The Williams brothers, who are Black, tried to tell the officers that they were residents, but the officers “did not care,” the lawsuit claims. Thomas Williams, an education professor who founded a school for children with disabilities, told local reporters that he was “kneed in the head and elbowed on the side of my face.” The officers later accused the brothers of resisting their orders, but the brothers say their hands were in the air. One officer held Thomas Williams in a chokehold for over a minute until he became unconscious, according to the complaint.
“I said, ‘Man he’s not going to make it.’ I saw the veins and the officer just squeezing him tight,” Carlos Williams told CBS Sacramento.
While Thomas Williams was collapsed on the ground in handcuffs, the officers searched the two brothers and found Carlos Williams’s driver’s license, which made it “plainly obvious to the arresting officers that Carlos was not burglarizing his own home,” the lawsuit claims. Still, the officers searched the home and property before arresting the two brothers and holding them in custody for 20 hours. Neither has been charged with a crime, and the lawsuit alleges the officers have since made numerous false statements to justify the excessive use of force.
Now, five weeks later, a controversy over police violence unfolding in Rancho Cordova has ignited social media across the country. On Monday, 14-year-old Elijah Tufono was stopped and aggressively detained by a Rancho Cordova police deputy identified as Officer Brian Fowell in local reports. On the evening news, Tufono said he had just bought a cigar off a stranger when a cop pulled up and asked him what was in his hand. Tufono said he handed the cigar over to the officer right away, but the officer continued to ask him questions. Frightened, Tufono tried to talk his way out of it and the situation escalated into a scuffle as Fowell tried to put him in handcuffs.
In the video, Fowell is seen wrestling Tufono on the ground and throwing punches into the boy’s abdomen. Tufono was arrested and cited before being released to his family. Videos of the arrest posted by friends and family quickly went viral, drawing condemnation from thousands of viewers as well as former Democratic presidential candidates Julian Castro and Kamala Harris.
While law enforcement officials in Rancho Cordova say they are investigating the use of force against Tufono, it remains unclear if the use of force against the Williams brothers is also being investigated. The Rancho Cordova Sheriff’s Department, which contracts with the city’s police department, did not respond to an email from Truthout. Unlike the arrest of Tufono, it appears that no clear video footage has emerged of the Williams brothers’ arrest, and the plaintiffs are not certain of the officers’ identities. A dashboard camera in one of the police cars was turned off shortly before the incident, and at least one officer repeatedly turned on and off a microphone attached to his body, according to the lawsuit.
For years, male officers at the women’s work camp at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex sexually harassed and assaulted inmates in what amounted to a “sanctuary” for systemic abuse, a space where they were shielded from any consequences.
If the women complained about being groped, fondled or forced to perform sex acts on officers, the inmates were the ones who were punished.
Fourteen women, ranging in age from 30 to 56 and nearly all first-time offenders, have banded together to sue the United States, not under pseudonyms but under their real names, over the abuse they say they’ve endured at the Bureau of Prisons-operated camp. Seven of the women are still incarcerated.
The lawsuit seeks compensation and an overhaul of the prison. It was filed this week.
The United States contains less than five percent of the world’s population but incarcerates one-quarter of all prisoners across the globe. Statistics have long shown that persons of color make up a disproportionate share of the U.S. inmate population. African Americans are five times more likely than whites to serve time in prison. For drug offenses alone, they are imprisoned at rates ten times higher.
Recent scholarship has explored the roots of modern mass incarceration. Launched in the 1980s, the war on drugs and the emergence of private, for-profit prison systems led to the imprisonment of many minorities. Other scholarship has shown that the modern mass incarceration of black Americans was preceded by a 19th century surge in black imprisonment during the Reconstruction era. With the abolition of slavery in 1865, southern whites used the legal system and the carceral state to impose racial, social and economic control over the newly liberated black population. The consequences were stark. In Louisiana, for example, two-thirds of the inmates in the state penitentiary in 1860 were white; just eight years later, two-thirds were black.
The incarceration of African Americans did not begin suddenly with the end of the Civil War, however. Confinement functioned as a punishment during bondage as well. Masters were the law on their own plantations and routinely administered their own brand of justice. Although they usually relied on the whip, countless enslavers also chained their human property in plantation dungeons below the main dwelling house or in a barn. Some locked enslaved persons in a hot box under the scorching southern sun. The more formal legal system, too, sometimes deposited enslaved individuals in state or local incarceration facilities.
Charlotte, an enslaved woman from northern Virginia, experienced several of these institutions firsthand over a 17-year period. Using court records to trace her life illustrates the many official, lawful forms of imprisonment that the enslaved might encounter in the antebellum era.
In 1840, Charlotte was held in bondage in Clarke County, Virginia, west of Washington, D.C. She was only 16 or 18 years old, a dark-skinned, diminutive young woman, standing just four feet 11 inches tall. Legally, she was the property of Eliza Pine, a white woman whom Charlotte despised. Reportedly thinking that committing a crime would prompt Pine to sell her, on March 10, Charlotte set fire to a house in the town of Berryville. She was arrested for starting the blaze and placed in the local jail as she awaited trial.
Enslaved people were imprisoned briefly in local public jails or workhouses under a variety of circumstances. Masters sometimes made use of such facilities to punish bond people deemed troublesome or, if needed, to store them securely. Enslaved individuals apprehended as runaways or awaiting trial or sale at auction also saw the inside of city or county jail cells. In all of these instances, the enslaved usually measured their terms of incarceration in just days or weeks.