The purpose of policing––to jail and kill Black folks––remains the same regardless of the officers’ race.
“Allowing Black people into inherently racist systems does not make those systems better, safer, or more equitable.”
Policing in America is facing a PR crisis. Following the May 25th murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the term “defund the police” has become a rallying cry for thousands across the country. Six months later, however, America has not defunded its police force––and in fact, has in some cases taken steps to give police departments even more money. Instead, police forces across America have taken an insidious approach: painting their departments in blackface.
After the January 6th Trump riot at the Capitol building, Yoganda Pittman, a Black woman, was named the new Chief of Capitol Police. Her appointment followed the resignation of former Chief Steven Sund and the arrest and firing of several white police officers who were found to be in attendance at the MAGA riot. Pittman’s appointment appeased many liberals who falsely believe that allowing Black folks to infiltrate or run law enforcement agencies will lead to higher levels of safety for Black Americans. The termination of several officers who took part in the riot has convinced many that we are one step closer to “reforming” the police by weeding out the racist, bad apples within the department.
“Pittman’s appointment appeased many liberals.”
This is a nice narrative, but a false one; in order to understand why, we must look at the history of policing in this country. Modern policing in America was originally created as a replacement for America’s slave patrol system wherein squadrons made up of white volunteers were empowered to use vigilante tactics to enforce laws related to slavery. These “enforcers” were in charge of locating and returning enslaved people who had escaped, crushing uprisings led by enslaved people, and punishing enslaved workers who were found or believed to have violated plantation rules. After slavery was legally abolished in 1865, America created its modern police force to do the exact thing under a different name: maintain the white supremacist hierarchy that is necessary under racial capitalism. The purpose of policing––to jail and kill Black folks––remains the same regardless of the officers’ race.
Liberal media has also contributed to the recent valorization of Black cops. In the days after the January 6th riot, many news outlets aggressively pushed a story about Eugene Goodman, a Black capitol police officer who led several rioters away from the Congress people’s hiding places while being chased by a white supremacist mob. Several news outlets published testimonials of Black police officers disclosing instances of racism within the department. A January 14th article in ProPublicanotes that over 250 Black cops have sued the department for racism since 2001: some Black cops have alleged that white officers used racial slurs or hung nooses in Black officer’s lockers, and one Black cop even claimed he heard a white officer say, “Obama monkey, go back to Africa.”
“Modern policing in America was originally created as a replacement for America’s slave patrol system.”
These white officers’ racism is unsurprising, and I am not denying any of these claims. But focusing on these singular, isolated moments of racism wherein white cops are painted as cruel and Black cops are the sympathetic victims grossly oversimplifies the narrative of structural racism that modern American policing was built upon. After hearing these slurs that they were allegedly so disgusted by, these Black cops still intentionally chose to put on their badge, don their guns, and work alongside these white police officers who insulted and demeaned them, laboring under a violent system with the sole purpose of harming and terrorizing Black and low-income communities. Similarly, while Goodman’s actions most likely saved many lives during the riot, we cannot allow one moment of decency to erase centuries of racist violence.
The great Zora Neale Hurston once said: “All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” Her words ring ever true today, and these Black police officers are an excellent example of why. It’s tempting to believe that putting Black folks on the force will solve racial violence, but this is a liberal myth we must break free of. Allowing Black people into inherently racist systems does not make those systems better, safer, or more equitable: a quick look at many Black folks in power today, such as Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Lori Lightfoot, and Keisha Lance Bottoms immediately prove this to be the case. Everyone supporting racial capitalism must be scrutinized and held accountable, regardless of their identity. We cannot on the one hand say that ‘all cops are bastards’ and then suddenly feel sympathy when those cops are not white. If we want to defund and abolish the police, we must resist the narrative that Black cops have anything to offer us.
Mary Retta is a writer, virgo, cartoon enthusiast — a queer Black writer for sites like Teen Vogue, The Nation, Bitch Media, and Vice.
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During the past two years, U.S. counterterrorism officials held meetings with their European counterparts to discuss an emerging threat: right-wing terror groups becoming increasingly global in their reach.
American neo-Nazis were traveling to train and fight with militias in the Ukraine. There were suspected links between U.S. extremists and the Russian Imperial Movement, a white supremacist group that was training foreigners in its St. Petersburg compounds. A gunman accused of killing 23 people at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 had denounced a “Hispanic invasion” and praised a white supremacist who killed 51 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and who had been inspired by violent American and Italian racists.
But the efforts to improve transatlantic cooperation against the threat ran into a recurring obstacle. During talks and communications, senior Trump administration officials steadfastly refused to use the term “right-wing terrorism,” causing disputes and confusion with the Europeans, who routinely use the phrase, current and former European and U.S. officials told ProPublica. Instead, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security referred to “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism,” while the State Department chose “racially or ethnically motivated terrorism.”
“We did have problems with the Europeans,” one national security official said. “They call it right-wing terrorism and they were angry that we didn’t. There was a real aversion to using that term on the U.S. side. The aversion came from political appointees in the Trump administration. We very quickly realized that if people talked about right-wing terrorism, it was a nonstarter with them.”
The U.S. response to the globalization of the far-right threat has been slow, scattered and politicized, U.S. and European counterterrorism veterans and experts say. Whistleblowers and other critics have accused DHS leaders of downplaying the threat of white supremacy and slashing a unit dedicated to fighting domestic extremism. DHS has denied those accusations.
In 2019, a top FBI official told Congress the agency devoted only about 20% of its counterterrorism resources to the domestic threat. Nonetheless, some FBI field offices focus primarily on domestic terrorism.
Former counterterrorism officials said the president’s politics made their job harder. The disagreement over what to call the extremists was part of a larger concern about whether the administration was committed to fighting the threat.
“The rhetoric at the White House, anybody watching the rhetoric of the president, this was discouraging people in government from speaking out,” said Jason Blazakis, who ran a State Department counterterrorism unit from 2008 to 2018. “The president and his minions were focused on other threats.”
Other former officials disagreed. Federal agencies avoided the term “right-wing terrorism” because they didn’t want to give extremists legitimacy by placing them on the political spectrum, or to fuel the United States’ intense polarization, said Christopher K. Harnisch, the former deputy coordinator for countering violent extremism in the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau. Some causes espoused by white supremacists, such as using violence to protect the environment, are not regarded as traditionally right-wing ideology, said Harnisch, who stepped down this week.
“The most important point is that the Europeans and the U.S. were talking about the same people,” he said. “It hasn’t hindered our cooperation at all.”
As for the wider criticism of the Trump administration, Harnisch said: “In our work at the State Department, we never faced one scintilla of opposition from the White House about taking on white supremacy. I can tell you that the White House was entirely supportive.”
The State Department focused mostly on foreign extremist movements, but it examined some of their links to U.S. groups as well.
There was clearly progress on some fronts. The State Department took a historic step in April by designating the Russian Imperial Movement and three of its leaders as terrorists, saying that the group’s trainees included Swedish extremists who carried out bombing attacks on refugees. It was the first such U.S. designation of a far-right terrorist group.
With Trump now out of office, Europeans and Americans expect improved cooperation against right-wing terrorists. Like the Islamist threat, it is becoming clear that the far-right threat is international. In December, a French computer programmer committed suicide after giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to U.S. extremist causes. The recipients included a neo-Nazi news website. Federal agencies are investigating, but it is not yet clear whether anything about the transaction was illegal, officials said.
“It’s like a transatlantic thing now,” said a European counterterror chief, describing American conspiracy theories that surface in the chatter he tracks. “Europe is taking ideology from U.S. groups and vice versa.”
International alliances make extremist groups more dangerous, but also create vulnerabilities that law enforcement could exploit.
Laws in Europe and Canada allow authorities to outlaw domestic extremist groups and conduct aggressive surveillance of suspected members. America’s civil liberties laws, which trace to the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech spelled out in the First Amendment, are far less expansive. The FBI and other agencies have considerably more authority to investigate U.S. individuals and groups if they develop ties with foreign terror organizations. So far, those legal tools have gone largely unused in relation to right-wing extremism, experts say.
To catch up to the fast-spreading threat at home and abroad, Blazakis said, the U.S. should designate more foreign organizations as terrorist entities, especially ones that allied nations have already outlawed.
A recent case reflects the kind of strategy Blazakis and others have in mind. During the riots in May after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, FBI agents got a tip that two members of the anti-government movement known as the Boogaloo Bois had armed themselves, according to court papers. The suspects were talking about killing police officers and attacking a National Guard armory to steal heavy weapons, the court papers allege. The FBI deployed an undercover informant who posed as a member of Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, and offered to help the suspects obtain explosives and training. After the suspects started talking about a plot to attack a courthouse, agents arrested them, according to the court papers. In September, prosecutors filed charges of conspiring and attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, which can bring a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. One of the defendants pleaded guilty last month. The other still faces charges.
If the U.S. intelligence community starts using its vast resources to gather information on right-wing movements in other countries, it will find more linkages to groups in the United States, Blazakis and other experts predicted. Rather than resorting to a sting, authorities could charge American extremists for engaging in propaganda activity, financing, training or participating in other actions with foreign counterparts.
A crackdown would bring risks, however. After the assault on the Capitol, calls for bringing tougher laws and tactics to bear against suspected domestic extremists revived fears about civil liberties similar to those raised by Muslim and human rights organizations during the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” An excessive response could give the impression that authorities are criminalizing political views, which could worsen radicalization among right-wing groups and individuals for whom suspicion of government is a core tenet.
“You will hit a brick wall of privacy and civil liberties concerns very quickly,” said Seamus Hughes, a former counterterrorism official who is now deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. He said the federal response should avoid feeding into “the already existing grievance of government overreach. The goal should be marginalization.”
In recent years, civil liberties groups have warned against responding to the rise in domestic extremism with harsh new laws.
“Some lawmakers are rushing to give law enforcement agencies harmful additional powers and creating new crimes,” wrote Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s national security project, in a statement by the organization about congressional hearings on the issue in 2019. “That approach ignores the way power, racism, and national security laws work in America. It will harm the communities of color that white supremacist violence targets — and undermine the constitutional rights that protect all of us.”
The Pivot Problem
There is also an understandable structural problem. Since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have dedicated themselves to the relentless pursuit of al-Qaida, the Islamic State, Iran and other Islamist foes.
Now the counterterrorism apparatus has to shift its aim to a new menace, one that is more opaque and diffuse than Islamist networks, experts said.
It will be like turning around an aircraft carrier, said Blazakis, the former State Department counterterrorism official, who is now a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“The U.S. government is super slow to pivot to new threats,” Blazakis said. “There is a reluctance to shift resources to new targets. And there was a politicization of intelligence during the Trump administration. There was a fear to speak out.”
Despite periodic resistance and generalized disorder in the Trump administration, some agencies advanced on their own, officials said. European counterterror officials say the FBI has become increasingly active in sharing and requesting intelligence about right-wing extremists overseas.
A European counterterror chief described recent conversations with U.S. agents about Americans attending neo-Nazi rallies and concerts in Europe and traveling to join the Azov Battalion, an ultranationalist Ukrainian militia fighting Russian-backed separatists. About 17,000 fighters from 50 countries, including at least 35 Americans, have traveled to the Ukrainian conflict zone, where they join units on both sides, according to one study. The fighting in the Donbass region offers them training, combat experience, international contacts and a sense of themselves as warriors, a theater reminiscent of Syria or Afghanistan for jihadis.
“The far right was not a priority for a long time,” the European counterterror chief said. “Now they are saying it’s a real threat for all our societies. Now they are seeing we have to handle it like Islamic terrorism. Now that we are sharing and we have a bigger picture, we see it’s really international, not domestic.”
The assault on Congress signaled the start of a new era, experts said. The convergence of a mix of extremist groups and activists solidified the idea that the far-right threat has overtaken the Islamist threat in the United States, and that the government has to change policies and shift resources accordingly. Experts predict that the Biden administration will make global right-wing extremism a top counterterrorism priority.
“This is on the rise and has gotten from nowhere on the radar to very intense in a couple of years,” a U.S. national security official said. “It is hard to see how it doesn’t continue. It will be a lot easier for U.S. officials to get concerned where there is a strong U.S. angle.”
A previous spike in domestic terrorism took place in the 1990s, an era of violent clashes between U.S. law enforcement agencies and extremists. In 1992, an FBI sniper gunned down the wife of a white supremacist during an armed standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The next year, four federal agents died in a raid on heavily armed members of a cult in Waco, Texas; the ensuing standoff at the compound ended in a fire that killed 76 people.Both sieges played a role in the radicalization of the anti-government terrorists who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people, including children in a day care center for federal employees. Oklahoma City remains the deadliest terrorist act on U.S. soil aside from the Sept. 11 attacks.
The rise of al-Qaida in 2001 transformed the counterterrorism landscape, spawning new laws and government agencies and a worldwide campaign by intelligence agencies, law enforcement and the military. Despite subsequent plots and occasionally successful attacks involving one or two militants, stronger U.S. defenses and limited radicalization among American Muslims prevented Islamist networks from hitting the United States with the kind of well-trained, remotely directed teams that carried out mass casualty strikes in London in 2005, Mumbai in 2008 and Paris in 2015.
During the past decade, domestic terrorism surged in the United States. Some of the activity was on the political left, such as the gunman who opened fire at a baseball field in Virginia in 2017. The attack critically wounded Rep. Steve Scalise, a Republican legislator from Louisiana who was the House Majority whip, as well as a Capitol Police officer guarding him and four others.
But many indicators show that far-right extremism is deadlier. Right-wing attacks and plots accounted for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the country between 1994 and 2020, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Anti-Defamation League reported in 2018 that right-wing terrorists were responsible for more than three times as many deaths as Islamists during the previous decade.
“There have been more arrests and deaths in the United States caused by domestic terrorists than international terrorists in recent years,” said Michael McGarrity, then the counterterrorism chief of the FBI, in congressional testimony in 2019. “Individuals affiliated with racially-motivated violent extremism are responsible for the most lethal and violent activity.”
During the same testimony, McGarrity said the FBI dedicated only about 20% of its counterterrorism resources to the domestic threat. The imbalance, experts say, was partly a lingering result of the global offensive by the Islamic State, whose power peaked in the middle of the decade. Another reason: Laws and rules instituted in the 1970s after FBI spying scandals make it much harder to monitor, investigate and prosecute Americans suspected of domestic extremism.
The Trump Administration and the Europeans
Critics say the Trump administration was reluctant to take on right-wing extremism. The former president set the tone with his public statements about the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, they say, and with his call last year telling the far-right Proud Boys group to “stand back and stand by.”
Still, various agencies increased their focus on the issue because of a drumbeat of attacks at home — notably the murders of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 — and overseas. The Christchurch massacre of worshippers at mosques in New Zealand in March 2019 caught the attention of American officials. It was a portrait of the globalization of right-wing terrorism.
Brenton Tarrant, the 29-year-old Australian who livestreamed his attack, had traveled extensively in Europe, visiting sites he saw as part of a struggle between Christianity and Islam. In his manifesto, he cited the writings of a French ideologue and of Dylann Roof, an American who killed nine people at a predominantly Black church in South Carolina in 2015. While driving to the mosques, Tarrant played an ode to Serbian nationalist fighters of the Balkan wars on his car radio. And he carried an assault rifle on which he had scrawled the name of an Italian gunman who had shot African immigrants in a rampage the year before.
Christchurch was “part of a wave of violent incidents worldwide, the perpetrators of which were part of similar transnational online communities and took inspiration from one another,” said a report last year by Europol, an agency that coordinates law enforcement across Europe. The report described English as “the lingua franca of a transnational right-wing extremist community.”
With its long tradition of political terrorism on both extremes, Europe has also suffered a spike in right-wing violence. Much of it is a backlash to immigration in general and Muslim communities in particular. Responding to assassinations of politicians and other attacks, Germany and the United Kingdom have outlawed several organizations.
Closer to home, Canada has banned two neo-Nazi groups, Blood and Honour and Combat 18, making it possible to charge people for even possessing their paraphernalia or attending their events. Concerts and sales of video games, T-shirts and other items have become a prime source of international financing for right-wing movements, the European counterterror chief said.
During the past two years, officials at the FBI, DHS, State Department and other agencies tried to capitalize on the deeper expertise of European governments and improve transatlantic cooperation against right-wing extremism. Legal and cultural differences complicated the process, American and European officials said. A lack of order and cohesion in the U.S. national security community was another factor, they said.
“There was so little organization to the U.S. counterterrorism community that everybody decided for themselves what they would do,” a U.S. national security official said. “It was not the type of centrally controlled effort that would happen in other administrations.”
As a result, the U.S. government has sometimes been slow to respond to European requests for legal assistance and information-sharing about far-right extremism, said Eric Rosand, who served as a State Department counterterrorism official during the Obama administration.
“U.S.-European cooperation on addressing white supremacist and other far-right terrorism has been ad hoc and hobbled by a disjointed and inconsistent U.S. government approach,” Rosand said.
The semantic differences about what to call the threat didn’t help, according to Rosand and other critics. They say the Trump administration was averse to using the phrase “right-wing terrorism” because some groups on that part of the ideological spectrum supported the president.
“It highlights the disconnect,” Rosand said. “They were saying they didn’t want to suggest the terrorism is linked to politics. They didn’t want to politicize it. But if you don’t call it what it is because of concerns of how it might play with certain political consistencies, that politicizes it.”
Harnisch, the former deputy coordinator at the State Department counterterrorism bureau, rejected the criticism. He said cooperation with Europeans on the issue was “relatively nascent,” but that there had been concrete achievements.
“I think we laid a strong foundation, and I think the Biden administration will build on it,” Harnisch said. “From my perspective, we made significant progress on this threat within the Trump administration.”
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We all witnessed how whiteness protects white criminals at the nation’s Capitol Building and in DC. Law enforcement and the judiciary operate from principles that are formed from the public perspective of who should be arrested, charged, and prosecuted. For this reason, 100s of criminals were able to break the law and breach the building, and will not face the consequences. We all know what Black people would have faced under the same circumstances. Whiteness is a protection.
In a controversial 1975 article, titled “White Racism, Black Crime, and American Justice,” criminologist Robert Staples argued that discrimination pervades the justice system. He said the legal system was made by white men to protect white interests and keep Blacks down. (At the time this was received as “outlandish and untrue”). Staples charged that the system was characterized by second-rate legal help for Black defendants, biased jurors, and judges who discriminate in sentencing. No matter, study after study demonstrates how extreme racial disparities address for Blacks in the judicial system, no matter the income strata or available resources.
Unwarranted disparity is defined as different treatment of individual offenders who are similar in relevant ways, or similar treatment of individual offenders who differ in characteristics that are relevant to the purposes of charging and sentencing. Whiteness is honored, it is protected and it blinds much of the judicial process. We can no longer deny, racial disparities exist because the system protects whiteness for the most part. It is clear that in sentencing especially, “departure” from the guidelines is reserved for mostly whites, and rarely extended to Blacks. Fair sentencing is individualized sentencing and it is mostly decided by people who value whiteness, having a value system of what crimes are punishable with distinct stereotyping of criminals.
Our guest, Professor Jennifer Taub, in her book, “Big Dirty Money” suggests we first attempt to measure white-collar crime as a whole. Then we need to measure the harm to victims in terms that go beyond the economic costs. She points out that “The wealthy have the resources either to exert political influence or become lawmakers themselves”. But Taub explicitly and persuasively places the breakdown of enforcement and accountability in the context of money and class.
What happens when a group of wealthy bankers fraudulently bring foreclosures on an entire class of people, as they did after the crash of 2008? Unlike a loss of, say, $210, the loss of a person’s home affects their life and well-being in ways that cannot be assigned a dollar amount. Thousands of people have spent the years since the recession uprooted from their communities. Taub posits that “the elite class had the power to define what was criminal.”
What happens when the President of the United States pardons criminals who have violated security, foreign interference, sedition, and treason laws? Trump is a stark illustration of why so few wealthy malefactors are held accountable. Like other members of the .01 percent, he can act with seeming impunity, able to buy or influence his way out of trouble. He empathizes with rich people who run afoul of the law. He minimizes their guilt, suggesting white-collar crimes aren’t really crimes, especially when the accused are white men, as the vast majority of all rich white-collar criminals are. Yet Trump is a symptom, not the cause. What happens when white politicians create laws to intentionally suppress and violate voters? How can we measure the social and political costs of mass dispossession because the defendant and violator are protected by a cloud of whiteness?
We will talk with Professor Taub who clearly articulates in her book, the cause and effect of white-collar crime “blinded by the whiteness” that plagues the judicial system. Leaving white-crime bosses to their devices operated by their money and “white card”.
ABOUT Jennifer Taub, Esq.
Her newest book is, Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime (Viking). Taub was a co-founder and organizer of the April 15, 2017 Tax March where more than 120,000 people gathered in cities nationwide to demand President Donald Trump release his tax returns. She is a professor of law at the Western New England University School of Law where she teaches Civil Procedure, White Collar Crime, and other business and commercial law courses, and was the Bruce W. Nichols Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School during the fall 2019 semester. She formerly was a professor at Vermont Law School.
An authority on the 2008 mortgage meltdown and related financial crisis, Taub is also an emerging expert in white collar crime. In addition to Big Dirty Money, she is co-author with the late Kathleen Brickey of Corporate and White Collar Crime: Cases and Materials, 6th edition (Wolters Kluwer 2017). Relatedly, she has appeared on cable news programs including MSNBC’s Morning Joe and CNN Newsroom to discuss the Special Counsel investigation into links between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign.
In the area of banking and financial market regulation, Taub’s book Other People’s Houses: How Decades of Bailouts, Captive Regulators, and Toxic Bankers Made Home Mortgages a Thrilling Business was published in May 2014 by Yale University Press. Recognized as accessible and informative, OPH was honored by the Massachusetts Center for the Book as one of the 2015 finalists in the nonfiction category. Other People’s Houses was favorably mentioned by Nobel Laureate, Robert Shiller in his 2015 edition of Irrational Exuberance. Taub testified as an expert before the United States Senate Banking Committee and a United States House Financial Services Subcommittee. She also co-organized a conference and co-lead a panel discussion at the Financial Stability Law Workshop at the U.S. Treasury Department, hosted by the Office of Financial Research.
In addition to Other People’s Houses, Taub has written extensively on the financial crisis. Her publications include “The Sophisticated Investor and the Global Financial Crisis” in the peer-reviewed Corporate Governance Failures (UPenn Press, 2011) and a case study on AIG in Robert A. G. Monks and Nell Minow’s fifth edition of Corporate Governance (Wiley, 2011). In response to Roberta Romano, she presented and wrote “Regulating in the Light: Harnessing Political Entrepreneurs’ Energy for Post-Crisis Sunlight Hearings” (St. Thomas L. Rev. 2015). Additional works include the chapter “Delay, Dilutions, and Delusions: Implementing the Dodd-Frank Act” in Restoring Shared Prosperity (2013) and “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Banking,” in the Handbook on the Political Economy of the Financial Crisis (Oxford, 2012). She wrote entries on “Shadow Banking” and “Financial Deregulation” for the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor and Economic History (Oxford, 2013) and the chapter “Great Expectations for the Office of Financial Research,” in Will it Work? How Will We Know? The Future of Financial Reform (2010). In addition, she has published Reforming the Banks for Good in Dissent (2014). Her article, “The Subprime Specter Returns: High Finance and the Growth of High-Risk Consumer Debt,” was published in the New Labor Forum (2015). And, she recently wrote a book chapter on “New Hopes and Hazards for Social Investment Crowdfunding” in Law and Policy for a New Economy (Edward Elgar, 2017).
Taub’s corporate governance work often focuses on the role of institutional investors, including mutual funds. Her article “Able but Not Willing: The Failure of Mutual Fund Advisers to Advocate for Shareholders’ Rights,” published in the Journal of Corporation Law (2009) was presented at a conference jointly sponsored by the Millstein Center for Corporate Governance and the Oxford Said Business School. Her article “Managers in the Middle: Seeing and Sanctioning Corporate Political Spending after Citizens United” was presented at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and later published in the NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy (2012). Taub’s article, “Is Hobby Lobby a Tool for Limiting Corporate Constitutional Rights,” was presented at Harvard Law School and later published in a symposium issue of Constitutional Commentary in 2015 on Money, Politics, Corporations, and the Constitution (2015).
Taub has also ventured into the area of legal education and pedagogy. This includes her article “Unpopular Contracts and Why They Matter: Burying Langdell and Enlivening Students,” published in the Washington Law Review (2013). She is a co-author with Martha McCluskey and Frank Pasquale of “Law and Economics: Contemporary Approaches,” published in Yale Law & Policy Review (2016). With McCluskey and Pasquale, Taub is a co-founder of APPEAL (the Association for the Promotion of Political Economy and the Law), a research network linking economists, legal scholars, and policy makers concerned with inequality and instability who view markets and the government as mutually constituted. She has also developed a model syllabus for a course on Financial Stability.
In 2017, Taub received the Vermont Law School, Women’s Law Association Phenomenal Woman Award in the faculty category. She also served as chair of the Section on Financial Institutions and Consumer Financial Services for the 2017 AALS annual meeting. Prior to joining academia, Taub was an associate general counsel with Fidelity Investments. She received her BA degree, cum laude, from Yale University, with distinction in the English major, and her JD, cum laude, from Harvard Law School where she was the Recent Developments Editor at the Harvard Women’s Law Journal. She was a visiting professor at the University of Illinois College of Law for a short course in 2015 and a visiting fellow at the Yale School of Management during the 2016 spring semester. She was a visiting professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law during the 2019 spring semester.
Taub has written pieces for a variety of platforms including The Washington Post, CNN opinion page, Slate, the New York Times Dealbook, Dame Magazine, The Baseline Scenario, Race to the Bottom, Pareto Commons, The Conglomerate, and Concurring Opinions.
It’s tempting to think of the storming of the US Capitol on Wednesday as toxic masculinity run amok: a mob of mostly white men, carrying guns and wearing animal skins, trying to overthrow democracy on behalf of a president who once bragged about his ability to grab women “by the pussy.”
It’s even more tempting to embrace this narrative when, in a bizarre statement, that president’s campaign press secretary describes him as “the most masculine person, I think, to ever hold the White House.”
But focusing too much on masculinity obscures a crucial truth: Many women were either present at the riot or cheering on the insurrectionists from back home. There was Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Air Force veteran and apparent devotee of QAnon ideology who was killed during the riot. There was the woman photographed with “zip-tie guy” Eric Munchel, now believed to be his mother. There was Martha Chansley, the mother of the widely photographed “QAnon shaman” who wore a horned hat and carried a spear to Congress. She wasn’t present at the riot but later defended her son in an interview, calling him “a great patriot, a veteran, a person who loves this country.”
And, of course, there were the women lawmakers who boosted conspiracy theories and false claims about the election being stolen, including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon adherent who railed against Democrats and Black Lives Matter protesters in a speech on the House floor this week while wearing a mask reading “censored.” Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, meanwhile, described January 6 as “1776” before the riot began, live-tweeted from the House during the attack (including a mention that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been removed from the chambers), and this week, refused to allow police to search her bag after it set off metal detectors outside Congress. During her campaign, Boebert promised to bring her gun with her to the House.
White women have been part of white supremacy in America since the very beginning, experts point out, dating back to their role in slavery. “They were at the table when the system was designed,” Stephanie Jones-Rogers, a history professor at UC Berkeley and author of the book They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, told Vox. “They were co-architects of the system.”
That remained true after the Civil War, through the birth and evolution of the Ku Klux Klan, and during the civil rights movement when white women were some of the most vocal opponents of school integration. And it remains true today, when women hold a key role in spreading QAnon ideology and sustaining white nationalist groups and movements. “Like other parts of our economy and society, these movements would collapse without their labor,” Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, told Vox.
And if we ignore the importance of women in the Capitol riot and the groups that backed and enabled it, we can’t understand white supremacy in America — let alone dismantle it. Trying to fight racism in America without looking at white women, Jones-Rogers said, is like “addressing only the right side of the body when the left side is still sick.”
White women have been part of white supremacy from the beginning
White women’s investment in white supremacy is older than the United States itself and goes back to their role in the economy of slavery. Though white women have been seen by some historians as passive bystanders to the brutalities of slavery, they were in fact active participants, as Jones-Rogers explains in They Were Her Property. Before the Civil War, white women had little economic or political power, with one big exception: They could buy and sell enslaved people. And they did so, using enslaved people as a way of building up wealth that would not simply be transferred to a husband in marriage.
Slavery gave white women “freedom, autonomy, and agency that they could not exercise in their lives without it, so they deeply invested in it,” Jones-Rogers said.
And after the Civil War, white women didn’t simply give up on white supremacy. Instead, as Jones-Rogers puts it, they doubled down.
For many, that meant becoming active participants in the KKK, which at one point had 1.5 million female members. Some women took leadership roles, like Elizabeth Tyler, who helped revive the Klan in the late 1910s and became its “most important propagandist,” according to Darby.
Women became especially important in the Klan once they gained the right to vote. After that, white men began to see their wives, daughters, sisters, and other women in their lives “as potential allies in the effort to politicize white supremacy,” Jones-Rogers said. “They began to see them as a voting bloc.”
And it wasn’t just because of organizations like the Klan that white women invested in institutional racism. They also played a core role in lynching by making false allegations of sexual harassment or assault, which wereused as a pretext to murder Black men. And they were key players in the fight against the integration of schools, with white women using their role as mothers to legitimize their victimization of Black children, Jones-Rogers said.
Indeed, throughout the 20th century, though white women could no longer profit from slavery, they were still deriving real benefits from white supremacy — namely, a sense of social and political power in a world still dominated by white men. “Through lynching, your words have the power of life and death over an African-descended man,” Jones-Rogers explained. “Your vote can secure a place in the state, in the government, for white supremacy.”
In essence, through white supremacy, white women came to “understand themselves as individuals who wield a certain kind of power that men have to respect,” Jones-Rogers said.
Understanding white women’s role is key to fighting racism today
And that dynamic has continued into the 21st century. The landscape of white supremacy has changed, with the Klan no longer a major player (though it still exists). Today, white nationalism is less about specific groups and more about “an ideology that people subscribe to from the comfort of their own desks,” Darby said.
Because of that, it’s hard to measure exactly how many women are involved in white nationalism. It’s easier to measure attitudes. Overall, about 20 percent of white Americans of all genders “feel a sense of discontent” over the status of white people in society, Darby writes in Sisters in Hate, drawing on the work of political scientist Ashley Jardina. And white women are actually more likely than white men to hold “exclusionary views about what it means to be American, preferring boundaries around the nation’s identity that maintain it in their image.”
And while they may not always be in front at rallies or riots, women remain important “recruiters and propagandists” for white nationalism, Darby said. Erica Alduino, for example, had a key role in organizing the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. She was the one directing traffic on messaging apps and answering mundane but important questions like whether there would be shuttle buses to the rally. She didn’t speak at the event, “but that’s not the point,” Darby said. “Whether women are seen or not seen, they are such important actors in this space.”
Women have also been central to organizing pro-Trump events that spread the false claim that the election was stolen. The group Women for America First organized a “Stop the Steal” rally of thousands in November and also received a permit for a rally at the Capitol on January 6, according to the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, women have taken an even more visible role with the rise of QAnon. An ideology that began with conspiracy theories about Trump battling a “cabal” of liberals involved in child sex trafficking, QAnon has grown to include a wider array of theories and misinformation. Last year, QAnon adherents began amplifying the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, which became a vehicle for false claims about the prevalence of child sex trafficking as well as a gateway for more extreme QAnon ideas. And many of the people posting with #SaveTheChildren — including celebrities and prominent influencers — were women.
In general, QAnon has been a way to co-opt messages long targeted at women — messages about the importance of natural living or even healthy food, for example — and turn them into an indoctrination in white nationalism and xenophobia. QAnon plays into “this idea that you can cleanse yourself and your life and your family’s life of pollutants,” Darby said. Messages about avoiding genetically modified foods, for example, can slide into messages about keeping non-white children out of schools.
In the last few months, QAnon has played a key role in boosting conspiracy theories about Covid-19 restrictions and masking, and backing attempts to overturn the election. And some of the most visible proponents of QAnon have been women. Greene, for example, has been called the first QAnon member of Congress and has tweeted support for the idea of the “deep state,” a core QAnon tenet.
Meanwhile, Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was killed by police at the Capitol riot, had been posting QAnon-related content on social media for nearly a year prior to the insurrection, according to the Guardian. The day before the riot, she tweeted a defiant message full of QAnon slogans: “Nothing will stop us….they can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours….dark to light!”
Despite the participation of Babbitt and others, there’s been a tendency to view the riot as largely male-dominated — and, indeed, to erase the presence of women in white supremacy throughout history. “There has been a tendency, from the colonial period to the present, to frame and to position white women as perpetual victims, in spite of the evidence to the contrary,” Jones-Rogers said.
But ignoring the fact that women have long been perpetrators of white supremacy — up to and including violence — will hamper any effort to truly fight it. “When we discount these women and the often violent and brutal roles that these women play,” Jones-Rogers said, “we neglect and we negate the impact that their activities have on their victims.”
If, by contrast, we as a society can reckon with the way that white women have been not just beneficiaries but designers of the system of white supremacy, she said, we will be better able “to dismantle the system and to address the ways in which the system has really pervaded all of our lives.”
What is racial fraud and how is it possible? The answer would be clear enough, perhaps, if race were a biological reality. But the consensus seems to be that race is a social construction, a product of human ingenuity. So why can’t you choose to be any race you want?
Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane NAACP who identifies as Black despite being born to white parents, clearly believes we are free to choose our racial identity. Her case would seem to expose the limits of thinking of race as a social construction. If races are social rather than biological, some commentators on Dolezal suggest, we are free to make of them what we will; there are no rules. Yet responses to Dolezal tell a different tale. A 2015 Rasmussen survey of 1,000 likely U.S. voters found that 63 percent believed Dolezal was being deceitful in claiming to be Black: she was engaged in a kind of racial fraud.
The subtlest version of racial fraud—the fraud of whiteness itself—is the one we should be most concerned about, for it is by far the most destructive to our polity.
Is it incoherent to believe both that race is a social construct and that racial fraud is possible? In other words, does endorsing the notion of racial fraud require believing races are biological, after all? Literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels makes this sort of argument in his 1994 essay “The No-Drop Rule,” and versions of that idea endure. Michaels’s claim basically amounts to this: in order for a charge of racial fraud to have any normative power—that is, the kind of authority we generally grant to statements about what we should and should not do—it must rely on the claim that race is an essential, biological part of who we are.
But Michaels is wrong: normative significance does not ride on racial essences. In his 2008 essay “Race, Multiculturalism and Democracy,” philosopher Robert Gooding-Williams explains the error. Following Adrian Piper, Gooding-Williams claims that racial classification is the result of being subjected to a practice that counts one as a member of a particular race. Michaels wrongly assumed that for social constructionists, one’s racial identity is determined solely by visual features. But, at least in the United States, racial identification draws on both visual and cognitive criteria: facial characteristics, hair texture, skin color, ancestry. That is why, Gooding-Williams writes, “someone who would not be classified as black on the basis of visual criteria could still be black because Americans’ conventional (though not universal) adherence to the one-drop rule cognitively identifies her as black.” In saying that Dolezal committed racial fraud, you do not have to believe that race is biological. You simply have to think that the practice of racial classification cognitively identifies her as white. In other words, social construction can be ruled-governed without appealing to biological essence.
What does this tell us about debates over racial fraud today? While people like Dolezal, former George Washington University professor Jessica Krug, graduate student CV Vitolo-Haddad, and activist Satchuel Cole dominate the headlines, there are more subtle forms of this phenomenon to which we should pay attention. The most obvious versions are often easiest to denounce, perhaps because they are more easily detected or recognized. But I think the subtlest version—the fraud of whiteness itself—is the one we should be most concerned about, for it is by far the most destructive to our polity. To understand its stakes, we must see how it differs from two other, more familiar types of racial fraud.
Perhaps the most familiar type of racial fraud amounts to identity theft. A classic example occurs in the 1986 movie Soul Man, in which the character Mark Watson (played by C. Thomas Howell), a white Californian, poses as a Black man in order to get a scholarship from Harvard Law School. To pull it off, Watson takes tanning pills, perms his hair, learns a few cultural references, essentially donning blackface for the sake of personal gain. He attempts to defraud Harvard and others by misrepresenting himself, the white son of a wealthy psychiatrist, as a Black man.
Racial fraud as identity theft seems to be quite clearly what is happening in cases like that of Krug as well. Krug outed herself as a white woman last fall after having claimed various Black identities over the years. She deceived others by misrepresenting herself as something she isn’t, appropriating the identities of North Africans, African Americans, and finally Bronx-based Afro-Latinx. Krug’s posing took place all while building her career as a scholar working on the history of Africa and the African diaspora. Perhaps she believed doing so would boost her credibility as a scholar.
However, personal gain is only one basis for engaging in this kind of identity theft. Another basis is fetishization. Sometimes a person’s admiration for a group of people can result in a kind of conflation where that person no longer recognizes a distinction between themselves and the group. Arguably, this is what may have happened with Dolezal. Before her true parentage was revealed, part of her identification included claiming a Black man as her father, claiming her adopted Black brothers as her sons, wearing hairstyles typically associated with Black women, and tanning her skin to make it darker. Dolezal continues to identify as Black even after being exposed. This suggests a different motivation from that of the personal gain of things like money or social status.
It is the need to protect the ultimate fraud of whiteness that imperils not only the vulnerable other, but everyone.
Perhaps a clearer instance of fetishization is the case of German model Martina Big. Once a blonde-haired, white-skinned German woman, she has since transitioned into a brown-skinned, black-haired “Black” woman. On her website, she says she changed her ethnicity in 2017 to Black and has changed her legal name to Malaika Kubwa. She also notes that she very much likes her “new African look” and will complete the transformation by changing her facial features to “African” and enlarging her buttocks. Big—along with her husband, Michael Eurwen, who has also been injecting Melanotan to darken his skin—expressed plans to move to Kenya to “be with her ‘people’ and learn how to raise a family in the African way.”
Why should we be concerned with racial identity theft? Engaging in racial fraud for personal gain is wrong because it typically cheats members of marginalized groups out of resources intended to redress historic injustices. Racial fraud motivated by fetishization, however, is more complicated. Dolezal, for instance, was certainly wrong for the lies she told in presenting herself as Black. Big, on the other hand, does not appear to have engaged in such behavior. Her actions appear more pathological than diabolical. Big is also an extreme case. Less extreme cases may provoke more debate about what exactly is at issue. Perhaps the mildest form of these cases falls into a second type of fraud—a certain kind of appropriation.
In her book White Negroes (2019), Lauren Michele Jackson thinks through the stakes of cultural appropriation. She makes clear that the “act of cultural transport is not in itself an ethical dilemma. Appropriation can often be a means of social and political repair.” What matters, in her view, is the combination of cultural appropriation with power: white people profiting from the cultural productions of Black people, all the while denying credit to the originators—resulting in the erasure of Black contributions to society. And as Jackson notes, these kinds of appropriations exacerbate and prolong our society’s inequalities.
Instances of these kinds of erasure are quite widespread. In music, Elvis Presley is a vivid illustration; Jackson alerts us to instances of erasure in the culinary world, too. Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, a white-owned restaurant based in Nashville, has become the embodiment of this distinctively Nashville cuisine. But as it turns out, Black-owned restaurants—Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack and Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish—are responsible for its creation and existence. When the mainstream culinary outlets got wind of it, Prince’s and Bolton’s were all but erased from the picture. What makes both of these cases instances of racial fraud is the consuming of the cultural productions of the group coupled with the erasure of that group’s contribution. Apportioning credit to the Elvises and Hattie B’s of the world rests on a fraud, a fraud perpetrated by the erasure of someone else.
Beyond these two types of racial fraud, however, there is a third type—less often discussed, but perhaps most consequential—that has to do with one’s relationship to one’s own history. By “history” I don’t mean exclusively, or even primarily, a person’s particular history, but more so corporate or social history: the kind of thing a person is a part of with others in virtue of being identified in a particular way. There are narratives that provide a unified sense of the various happenings to a group of people who evolve over time. But the sense of history I have in mind is slightly different. It is the notion of history found in James Baldwin’s essay “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes” (1965):
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
The presence of this history in our present, its impact on our frames of reference and identity, is crucial to the third type of racial fraud.
There are at least two versions of this type. The first is exemplified by the incident last year in New York City’s Central Park when Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police on Christian Cooper, an African American man (no relation, despite the common last name), after he asked her to leash her dog. Amy became more and more irate in response to Christian’s insistence that she leash her dog. She became so upset that she called the police and claimed Christian threatened her, making sure to emphasize that he was “an African American man.” Amy signaled the urgency of the situation in her voice, sounding agitated and fearful.
What preexisting ideas and practices did Amy have available to her to make her think her indignation over being told to leash her dog was a violation worthy of police intervention and to lead her to emphasize the perpetrator was an “African American male”? It is the latter thing that is most revealing. Amy’s inclination to point out Christian’s African American maleness drew—consciously or not—on an understanding of the world as one in which African Americans stand in a particular kind of relationship to white people. Christian was out of line, out of place, in calling Amy’s attention to the park’s rules and insisting she follow them. Given the kind of person she is, as well as the kind of person he is, this was especially egregious.
The basis of white identity is a “lie of their history,” a lie used to justify dominating others.
This understanding of the world presumes a natural relationship of ruler to ruled, reminiscent of the one Aristotle describes in his Politics. To be sure, Amy Cooper and many others would likely deny believing anything like this, but her reflex to act this way hints at something present practically, almost like muscle memory. I think that Amy’s actions can possibly be linked to what Baldwin might say is her belief in being white. In “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies” (1984), Baldwin details the fraud of those who “believe they are white.” In a powerful passage, Baldwin registers a catalog of the effects of white racial fraud:
Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable populations, cheerful natives and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety. Because they think they are white, however vociferous they may be and however multitudinous, they are as speechless as Lot’s wife—looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt.
Baldwin points out that the “price of the ticket” for Europeans immigrating to the North American continent was to become “white.” What this meant, in essence, was leaving behind their history as English or Spanish or German to forge something different. But this newly forged whiteness was so monstrous that it became necessary to misrepresent it as something else—something grander, superior, innocent.
This kind of racial fraud differs from the others in that those perpetrating it do not attempt to pass themselves off as a member of another race or attempt to pass off as their own the cultural traits or mannerisms of another group. Instead, perpetrators of this fraud commit to something so disturbing that it becomes necessary to hide it even from themselves. The basis of their identity is a “lie of their history,” a lie used to justify dominating others. A stark example of this phenomenon is arguably present in our current political context. The election of figures like Donald Trump reflects, at least in part, the desperation of some to hold onto whiteness. It is as Baldwin noted: “Just so does the white community, as a means of keeping itself white, elect, as they imagine, their political (!) representatives. No nation in the world, including England, is represented by so stunning a pantheon of the relentlessly mediocre.”
A second manifestation of this type of fraud is highlighted in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks (1952). Fanon considers the case of an Antillean who spends time in the French metropole getting educated and then returns to his homeland with a new outlook, one that has him looking down on his fellow Antilleans with disgust:
All colonized people—in other words, people in whom an inferiority complex has taken root, whose local cultural originality has been committed to the grave—position themselves in relation to the civilizing language: i.e., the metropolitan culture. The more the colonized has assimilated the cultural values of the metropolis, the more he will have escaped the bush. The more he rejects his blackness and the bush, the whiter he will become.
The fraud in this instance is in the colonized believing the deceptive history of the colonizer. The colonized Antillean who goes to France for a “civilized” education and believes the terrible lies told about him and his descendants has failed to confront his history honestly and has identified himself with a fraudulent identity. Once again, the basis of this racial identity is a lie, and to behave on the basis of that lie is to perpetrate a fraud.
The pervasiveness of the third type of racial fraud is a grave problem. Addressing it is much more difficult because it is less detectable, even by its perpetrators. It is not just dyed-in-the-wool racists, confident in their superior racial stock, who are racially fraudulent. The good white liberal is also guilty of this kind of fraud. That is, good white liberals also believe they are white. Amy Cooper’s political contributions to Barack Obama, Pete Buttigieg, and John Kerry suggest she identifies politically as a liberal.
While the Krugs, Dolezals, and Vitolo-Haddads attract all of the media attention, the focus on figuring out what motivates their behavior provides a neat scapegoat on which to load all of our anxieties, fears, misgivings, and disdain. Doing this allows us to avoid confronting turbulent histories that become repressed and, in turn, produce fraudulent identities that become the basis for destructive behavior.
Perhaps the fire James Baldwin foresaw in 1963 will be set by those who have had so much practice setting things ablaze.
Our present is full of such instances of destruction, as is our past. Rosewood, a small Black town in northern Florida, was burned out of existence in 1923 all in the service of protecting whiteness. As the story goes, a white woman, Fannie Taylor, was sexually assaulted, allegedly by a Black man. Sarah Carrier, a Black woman employed as a domestic worker by Taylor, remembered things differently. Carrier and her granddaughter were in the back of the house that day, preparing to wash clothes, when they saw a white man—an engineer who worked on the railroad and rumored paramour of Taylor—enter the house. Taylor and her lover apparently got into a heated argument that became physical. Carrier and her granddaughter both heard the altercation and saw him subsequently run from the house. Taylor then made her way into the street, screaming that she had been attacked by a Black man. What ensued was a rampage that resulted in the burning of the town and the lynching of several residents. (Estimates of how many were killed vary, with an official death toll of 8 but claims of up to 200.)
The massacre at Rosewood was made possible by the belief of so many that they were white. The need to protect “the purity of the white woman” from the advances of the ravenous Black man was a pretense used to lynch countless numbers of people. The belief in an identity boasting purity and superiority instigated murderous behavior that has created and sustained various inequalities in our land till this day. As we saw last week, when hundreds of white Trump supporters staged a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, it is the need to protect this fraud at all costs—the ultimate fraud of whiteness—that imperils not only the vulnerable other, but everyone. What happens when reality comes crashing down and the fraudsters realize the scam cannot be maintained? In 1963 Baldwin spoke of the fire to come if America did not heed the warning of the oppressed and turn from its wicked ways. Perhaps the fire Baldwin foresaw will instead be set by those who have had so much practice setting things ablaze.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Ten months into America’s viral outbreak, low-income workers are still bearing the brunt of job losses — an unusual and harsh feature of the pandemic recession that flattened the economy last spring.
In December, the nation shed jobs for the first time since April. Once again, the layoffs were heavily concentrated in the industries that have suffered most because they involve the kind of face-to-face contact that is now nearly impossible: Restaurants, bars and hotels, theaters, sports arenas and concert halls.
With the virus transforming consumer spending habits, economists believe some portion of these service jobs won’t return even after the economy has regained its footing. That trend will likely further widen the economic inequalities that have left millions of families unable to buy food or pay rent.
Typically in a recession, layoffs strike a broad array of industries — both those that employ higher- and middle-income workers and those with lower-paid staff — as anxious consumers slash spending. Economists had worried that the same trend would emerge this time.
Instead, much of the rest of the economy is healing, if slowly and fitfully. Factories, while not fully recovered, are cranking out goods and have added jobs every month since May. Home sales have soared 26% from a year ago, fueled by affluent people able to work from home who are looking for more space. That trend has, in turn, bolstered higher-paying jobs in banking, insurance and real estate.
“Such differences in … employment loss between the highest- and lowest-wage workers are almost certainly unprecedented among U.S. recessions over the past 100-plus years,” Brad Hershbein, an economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, and Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University, concluded in a new research paper.
On the surface, the December jobs report the government issued Friday was dismal: The economy lost 140,000 jobs. It was the sixth straight month in which hiring has slumped from the previous month. Unemployment remained stuck at a still-high 6.7%.
But the negative number stemmed entirely from a brutal loss — nearly 500,000 jobs — in a category that includes restaurants, bars, hotels, casinos and entertainment.
State and local governments also cut workers. So did hair salons and other personal services. There were layoffs, too, in education.
The decision not to charge the officer who shot him stems in part from weak legislation.
Jacob Blake Sr., father of Jacob Blake, holds a candle at a rally Monday in Kenosha.Morry Gash/AP
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Jacob Blake, paralyzed and still suffering from injuries, got a phone call on Tuesday afternoon from Kenosha District Attorney Michael Graveley with some news: There would be no charges filed against the police officer who shot Blake seven times in August, sparking massive protests in the city.
“Based on the facts and the law, I have decided not to issue criminal charges against Officer Sheskey, Officer Meronek, or Officer Arenas. This decision was by no means easy,” Graveley wrote in a report published later that day. In a press conference, he described the shooting as a “tragedy.”
The video of the shooting has been viewed by millions of people, and is difficult to watch: Blake, who is Black, walks toward the driver’s side of a parked car in a residential Kenosha neighborhood, with his children in the back seat. A white officer, Rusten Sheskey, follows behind him with a gun drawn. As Blake approaches the door, Sheskey grabs him by the shirt and then fires his weapon.
It can be hard to imagine how Sheskey’s actions wouldn’t warrant criminal charges, even considering the blatant racism of our criminal justice system. But District Attorney Graveley, in a roughly two-hour press conference, argued that pressing charges would be unethical because, given the state’s law about when officers can use force, there was no way he could win at court
Even after atrocious policing, even after a man is paralyzed, use-of-force laws around the country often make it very, very difficult to punish cops. In Wisconsin and most states, police can legally fire their weapons against someone if they have “reasonable” fear the person will otherwise gravely harm them or someone in the vicinity. And here’s the kicker: The law usually says police officers get to define what’s reasonable.
At the press conference, Graveley explained why police could successfully argue that Sheskey’s decision to shoot was reasonable under the circumstances, using evidence not visible in the viral video most of the country watched.
According to Graveley, the police had reason to be nervous off the bat: Three officers were called to the scene by Laquisha Booker, the mother of Blake’s children, who told a 911 dispatcher that Blake had grabbed the keys to her rental car and was trying to take their kids away from her, according to a recording of the call played at the press conference. The officers knew that Blake had a felony warrant for alleged domestic abuse and sexual assault. When they arrived at the scene and tried to arrest him, a physical confrontation ensued—Blake says the officers punched him and dragged him to the ground, and the officers say he resisted their orders. At one point during the struggle, Blake was on top of Sheskey on the ground, according to a second video. Officers tried to stun him with a taser, but he tore the prongs out.
Blake admitted to investigators later that he was holding a knife in his hand after he stood up and began walking to the car. Sheskey says he followed Blake and then grabbed his tank top because he feared Blake would take the car with the children inside. (Booker had yelled that the children were hers.) According to a statement Sheskey gave later, he worried that if Blake drove away, it could result in a high-speed chase that could harm the kids, or they might be taken hostage. An independent police expert, former Madison Police Chief Noble Ray, concluded it was reasonable for Sheskey to grab Blake, according to the district attorney.
In the video footage, it looks like Sheskey then shot Blake seven times in the back. But according to the district attorney, two police officers and citizen witnesses told investigators that before the shooting began, Blake started turning toward Sheskey and made a motion with his knife hand; this allegation couldn’t be confirmed in the video because the camera view was obstructed by the car door and another officer. A medical examiner later concluded that Blake was shot four times in the back but also three times on his left side, adding some corroboration to the allegation that he turned.
Ray, the independent police expert, concluded it was reasonable for Sheskey to fear that Blake was trying to stab him at that time. Blake denies this allegation and says he was simply trying to put the knife back into the car. “They didn’t have to shoot me like that,” he said in a statement later, published in the district attorney’s report. “I was just trying to leave and he had options to shoot my tires and even punch me, tase me again, hit me with the night stick.”
If you asked many people on the street, they’d probably say it’s unreasonable for a cop to follow behind a man who is walking away, grab him by the shirt, and proceed to fire multiple shots into him at close range while his children watch from the back seat. But our laws are set up so that it doesn’t really matter what most people think: It matters what a police officer decides is a reasonable fear. And in a racist society where Black people are too often viewed as threats, police will almost always be able to come up with some justification for why they were afraid and believed they had to shoot.
Prosecuting cases like this will require states to change their use-of-force laws, so that officers don’t have so much power to define what’s reasonable. Until that happens, law enforcement will regularly get away with shooting people, including those sleeping in a car or at home on a couch, when it might have been possible to deescalate the situation instead. Officers continue to get away with violence because it’s not very hard to come up with a reason why they thought someone would harm them, especially when the law doesn’t require them to prove that they were correct or that the person was actually a threat. “Without any new rules from the legislature, we’re going to have this problem again and again,” says Farhang Heydari executive director of the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law. “We saw it in Breonna Taylor’s case, Eric Garner’s case, with Tamir Rice. It will happen over and over again until legislators step up and enact clear rules around force.”
It’s possible to change these use-of-force laws, which often differ from state to state and even city to city. California recently amended its statute so that an officer can only legally shoot if it’s “necessary,” rather than “reasonable,” to protect against an imminent threat of death or serious injury. But even there, it’s hard to predict whether the statute will bring justice after future police shootings, because California lawmakers didn’t define what “necessary” means in the law, again potentially leaving some room for discretion among police officers.
More than half of states considered legislation last year dealing at least in some way with police use of force, and at least several focused on deadly force. But many of the bills didn’t go as far as some criminal justice reform activists would hope. Delaware’s attorney general has pushed to reform her state’s law, but her proposed changes wouldn’t even go as far as California’s did: Delaware’s statute currently allows deadly force if an officer believes he or she is in danger. The attorney general wants to reform the law merely to specify that it must be a “reasonable” belief—which brings us back to the problem in Wisconsin and many other states.
The Policing Project’s Heydari recommends that new laws require officers to take deescalative steps, and to only use force as a last resort, limiting the types of response depending on the situation. Fair and Just Prosecution, an advocacy group that works with district attorneys, recommends a ban on deadly force against suspects who are fleeing.
Under the Biden administration, the federal government could step in to encourage these changes. The Justice Department, which may soon be led by US Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general, could set a national guidance on when it’s acceptable for officers to use lethal force. The agency or Congress could also require states to follow this guidance in order to receive federal funding for training or other programs. Biden’s pick to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, formerly prosecuted police brutality at the department. She supports efforts to scale back law enforcement and invest more in social services, and has encouraged the federal government to stop funding agencies with a long history of violence and racism.
In terms of Blake’s case, federal prosecutors at the Justice Department and a US attorney’s office are now conducting a civil rights investigation and could later decide to bring federal charges. The Justice Department could also launch an investigation into the Kenosha Police Department and push for a consent decree that would require reforms.
“Now our battle must go in front of the Congress, it must go in front of the Senate,” Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., told reporters Tuesday after the district attorney’s decision not to file charges locally. One of Blake’s attorneys, Benjamin Crump, said they would press forward with a civil rights lawsuit. “It is now our duty to broaden the fight for justice on behalf of Jacob and the countless other Black men and women who are victims of racial injustice and police brutality in this country,” he said in a statement.
“We’re going to talk with the Speaker of the House, Speaker of the Senate,” Blake Sr. added. “We’re going to change some laws. Some laws have to be reckoned.”
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.
From promulgating the racist birther conspiracy theory to exhorting vigilante Proud Boys to “stand by,” Donald Trump has amplified white nationalist ideas in the United States. But neither Trump’s emergence nor his impact can be understood fully by looking at the United States in isolation. Rather, Trump must be understood for his place in a long line of Anglophone leaders who claimed to speak for besieged whites, with precedents including Ian Smith, the leader of the white minoritarian regime of Rhodesia, and Enoch Powell, the British MP who infamously warned of “rivers of blood” if Britain did not halt non-white immigration. Moreover, white nationalism is global not only in its history but in its present manifestations: white nationalists worldwide have hailed Trump’s actions and would be emboldened by his reelection.
White nationalists worldwide have hailed Trump’s actions and would be emboldened by his reelection.
While his authoritarian response to a season of Black Lives Matter protests has brought renewed attention to Trump’s racist politics, his investment in global white supremacy is long-standing and was instrumental to his election. Indeed, Nigel Farage, a leader of the UK’s far right, was an important international ally while Trump was campaigning. The morning after the June 2016 Brexit referendum vote, Donald Trump landed at his Scottish golf resort and tweeted that Britons “took their country back, just like we will take America back.” During his campaign that summer, Trump forged a close alliance with Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party and the most prominent advocate of British withdrawal from the European Union. Farage already knew Trump’s campaign manager, Steve Bannon, who hailed the rise of right-wing European nationalism as executive chairman of the alt-right website Breitbart News. In November, Farage was the first foreign leader to meet the president-elect; pleased with their successes on both sides of the Atlantic, they posed for a celebratory photograph before a glimmering set of golden elevator doors in Trump Tower. Trump and Farage’s image marked a victory in a struggle by linked resurgent white nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic to “take back” their countries from non-white immigrants and internationalist liberal elites.
Although many have observed the similarities between Brexit and Trumpism, few have noted that those similarities arise from the entwined histories of U.S. and British revanchist politics. Likewise, many have been baffled by the international spread of white supremacist violence, with authorities and the mass media wrongly depicting such attacks as the work of isolated loners rather than emanating from a dispersed political movement. Such bonds link not only Trump’s and Farage’s successes, but also the 2016 assassination of pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox in Yorkshire by a neo-Nazi proclaiming “Britain First”; the 2018 killings at a Pittsburgh synagogue by a white supremacist who believed that Jews were orchestrating white genocide by abetting immigration from Latin America; and the 2019 murder of Muslims in Christchuch, New Zealand, by an Australian white supremacist. Both the rise of ethnonationalism in electoral politics and of white supremacist violence in the English-speaking world need to be understood as related developments in a longer history of exchange among white nationalists globally.
Because white nationalists are primarily concerned with the racial integrity of states, they have wrongly been assumed to be parochial in their politics, focused solely on domestic issues. In fact, transnational ties and transnational flows of culture and capital have long undergirded the pursuit of white racial nationalism. The success of Brexit, for example, emboldened Trump’s nativist supporters to see themselves as part of a global movement that could achieve power in the United States. Trump’s victory in turn inspired the Christchurch killer, who praised the U.S. president as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” We need to understand the history of these connections if we are to grasp what has sustained white nationalism despite global trends toward liberation and equality.
White nationalism is an ideology that asserts national identity and belonging in terms of European descent. Accordingly, white nationalists see their countries as threatened by immigration and social advancement by non-whites. They contend that national identity and belonging must be built around racial whiteness—rather than culture, language, or place—and that it is the whiteness of the nation’s past, present, and future that ensures its continued historical development and survival. The fundamental ideas of white nationalists are hardly new, yet they have taken on new formulations since the mid-twentieth century as a politics of reaction to the promise of racial equality and decolonization. Though the numbers of self-identified white nationalists remain small, their ideas resonate broadly, impacting contemporary debates about global demographic change, national identity, and mass migration.
The shift of white nationalist politics from center to ostensible periphery is a relatively recent phenomenon. At the British Empire’s zenith, its apologists claimed that the rule of law, free trade, and parliamentary sovereignty were natural virtues of the “English race.” At the turn of the twentieth century, U.S. elites shared with British imperialists a discourse of English racial heritage termed Anglo-Saxonism that was used to justify the subjugation of Native Americans, the subordination of African Americans, and the possession of the United States’ own overseas empire. According to Anglo-Saxonism, white, Protestant, English-speaking men naturally made modern nations. This racialized modernity is based on the presumption that only whites can govern and that the empowerment of non-whites is therefore an existential threat to white self-government.
Although many have observed the similarities between Brexit and Trumpism, few have noted that those similarities arise from the entwined histories of U.S. and British revanchist politics.
Anglo-Saxonism’s cherished ideal of a white man’s country reserving self-government and economic opportunity to whites may no longer be as dominant as it was a century ago, but neither has it disappeared. Popular historian Niall Ferguson still maintains that British colonial settler culture brought “modernity” to the world. Today some Brexiteers look to trade within an “Anglosphere” to reanimate this historical political tradition and harness racialized notions of kith and kin in the English-speaking world. Indeed, nostalgia for a past period of national glory in which white rule was unchallenged is a signature feature of today’s right-wing populists who seek to make their nations great again.
Any account of white nationalism’s influence today must take account of this longer history and also recognize that profound and persistent structures of white supremacy remain deeply rooted in the English-speaking world. To understand the politics of racism in the present requires locating and examining the histories of modern white nationalism in global terms: as a response to decolonization, struggles for equal rights, mass migration, and postwar international institutions. As Western political and social elites professed a commitment to color-blind ideals, assumptions of white supremacy were challenged and reformulated.
In particular, the declining legitimacy of overtly racist political expression produced new international alliances and new populist claims among white supremacists. As they saw themselves losing power locally, they looked abroad for allies. Countering liberal internationalist organizations such as the United Nations and the World Council of Churches, white nationalists increasingly adopted a rhetoric of ethnic populism, casting themselves as representatives of forgotten whites betrayed by globalist liberal elites. Even as they shifted their focus from opposing civil rights and preserving white rule in settler colonies to Islamophobia and opposing non-white immigration, they articulated a consistent mindset stressing the need to preserve the ethno-racial character of their nations.
In 1900 the ideal of the white man’s country was broadly shared among whites of all classes.
At the turn of the twentieth century, English-speaking whites throughout the world drew a global color line that marked out their own nations as white men’s countries. Their policies restricted immigration to “desirable” Europeans and limited non-whites’ right to vote to ensure whites’ ability to govern themselves. Though their aims were ethnonationalist, they developed ideas and policies in coordination with international networks. As historians Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds write: “The project of whiteness was thus a paradoxical politics, at once transnational in its inspiration and identification but nationalist in its methods and goals. The imagined community of white men was transnational in its reach, but nationalist in its outcomes, bolstering regimes of border protection and national sovereignty.”
In 1900 the ideal of the white man’s country was broadly shared among whites of all classes, even as it provoked tension between aggressive white settlers and cautious metropolitan elites. Nonetheless, the global color line was slowly erased over the twentieth century. The industrialized slaughter of World War I undermined notions of European civilization’s superiority. After the war, the colonized increasingly demanded self-determination and a new generation of intellectuals discredited the precepts of scientific racism. World War II, which pitted the Allies against a fascist enemy, also did much to discredit notions of racial hierarchy and subordination. The most important developments accelerated after World War II: the rise of national liberation movements and of movements for racial equality in existing nations. It was, as British prime minister Harold Macmillan put it to Australian prime minister Robert Menzies, “the revolt of the yellows and blacks from the automatic leadership of the whites.”
Many liberal elites, over the course of the twentieth century, evolved from a white nationalist perspective toward color-blind or multicultural conceptions of their nations. For instance, in the 1920s, the Carnegie Corporation funded studies to justify white minority rule in South Africa. But by 1944, it was publishing Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, an influential text calling for the gradual extension of equal rights to African Americans. Rejection of explicit white supremacy became one of the components of a new liberal internationalism, embodied in the United Nations. While the violence of apartheid and Jim Crow continued unabated, in 1950 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released the first of its influential statements on race, drafted by an international team of prominent scholars and rejecting any notions of racial superiority. Many metropolitan elites also came to embrace decolonization, and thereby contain it, envisioning it as a historical step forward into modernity. Those who adhered to explicit white supremacy, however, experienced this new racial liberalism as a betrayal. Postwar white nationalism thus shifted toward a populist perspective, arrayed against white elites—the racial enemy within—as well as racial minorities.
The decades after the end of World War II saw the breakup of the British Empire as nations across the Global South won independence. As European empires dismantled, the United States extended its influence among newly independent nations. Despite losing its own major colony of the Philippines in 1946, the United States emerged from World War II as the preeminent world power, in many ways continuing the European imperial project of making the world safe for global capitalism. The need to maintain good relations with new nations and win their support in the Cold War put considerable pressure on the United States, UK, and British dominions to dismantle domestic racial discrimination. As Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, one of the principal author of the first UNESCO Statement on Race, acerbically remarked in 1954, “The white man is scared down to his bowels, so it’s be-kind-to-Negroes decade at last.”
E. Franklin Frazier, one of the authors of the first UNESCO Statement on Race, acerbically remarked in 1954, “The white man is scared down to his bowels, so it’s be-kind-to-Negroes decade at last.”
Black activists and intellectuals in both the civil rights and anticolonial nationalist movements saw themselves as fighting in a shared international struggle to dismantle white supremacy. By the 1960s, though civil rights movements were unable to achieve their goal of full racial equality, they forced recognition of the formal legal equality of all citizens regardless of race. Landmark legislation prohibited racial discrimination. In 1963 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Elimination on All Forms of Racial Discrimination; two years later, Ghanaian ambassador George Lamptey led the campaign to introduce a UN convention against racial discrimination. Steeped in the language of human rights, this convention condemned colonialism and apartheid, affirmed equality before the law, and required its signatories to criminalize hate speech and institute national procedures to combat racial discrimination. The UN helped propel the extension of antidiscrimination laws globally. The United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the death knell to the southern system of Jim Crow, and followed that with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The UK passed the Race Relations Act in 1965, Canada its Canadian Multiculturalism Policy in 1971, and Australia its Racial Discrimination Act in 1975.
White supremacy was on the defensive. Yet ideas about whiteness and natural ability for self-government continued to shape understandings of global demography, anticolonial violence, and uneven economic development. Racial anxieties ran through analyses of population growth in the Global South, for instance, echoing early twentieth-century panics about white “race suicide.” Anticolonial violence was routinely depoliticized and depicted as an expression of savagery, a rejection of civilization. Whites continued to assert themselves as natural agents of modernity via, for instance, international development; their authority now increasingly drawn from an emphasis on technical expertise rather than any explicit white man’s burden. Tenets of the white man’s country were transmuted by technocracy to appear universal or color-blind.
Though white nationalism developed transnationally and in response to common international changes, it evolved asynchronously and asymmetrically according to different local logics. The United States has a history of domestic slavery, mass immigration, and subjugation of Native Americans that contrasts with Britain’s long history as an imperial metropole or the history of white minoritarian regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. These differences are perhaps clearest in immigration policy changes and their demographic effects. The civil rights movement made the existence of racial quotas in U.S. immigration policy untenable, leading to the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 which soon (unintentionally) led to a mass wave of emigration from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Similarly, Australia dismantled its restrictionist White Australia policy in 1973, leading to a sharp increase in non-white immigration, especially from Asia.
In Britain, however, the story was different. Migrants from colonies and former colonies, who held citizenship in the British Empire and Commonwealth, began to arrive in increasing numbers after World War II in search of economic opportunity. This moment is often marked by the 1948 London arrival of the ship Empire Windrush which carried migrants from the Caribbean. The non-white population in Britain increased tenfold by 1961. Then, as a result of domestic political opposition, the British government began to introduce migration controls. To signal that these controls were part of a wider government effort to benefit race relations, the government also passed new equality legislation modeled on that of the United States but accompanied by the imposition of immigration restrictions rather than their relaxation.
In different countries, white nationalists adapted in similar ways to outlast the challenges against them: they persisted not simply by becoming far-right fringe minorities but also by developing coded electoral appeals within major political parties, such as the Democratic Party’s southern strategy in the United States. Everywhere, though, the array of forces against them led white nationalists to take up a defensive posture. In this new mode, white nationalists mobilized emotions of besiegement, resentment, loss, and nostalgia. The populist language of aggrievement white nationalists developed in retreat enabled them to capture broad appeal when new forms of political activism—on both left and right—challenged the legitimacy of the postwar order and the political establishment.
White nationalists persisted not simply by becoming far-right fringe minorities but also by developing coded electoral appeals within major political parties.
In response to the efforts to challenge white racial privilege in the 1960s and ’70s, a reactionary discourse emerged that rejected any guilt complex over the long history of white supremacy and instead offered a counternarrative of white victimization. Histories of lost causes were marshalled to this goal. As Paul Gilroy has examined, in Britain the loss of empire produced a “postcolonial melancholia” attached to the lost glories of the past—one detached from any sense of the real history of the empire. In Britain, as in Australia and the U.S. South, white nationalists turned away from acknowledging the atrocities of white supremacy. Instead, theirs is a history of heroism in defeat: the Lost Cause of the U.S. Confederacy, Australia’s Battle of Gallipoli in World War I, and Britain’s myth of self-reliance at the retreat of Dunkirk in World War II all serve as sites for what Gilroy calls “dreamworlds” where white male heroism can be retrieved.
This sense of resentment framed around perceived loss gave additional resonance to a wider set of social and political tensions in the period of decolonization and equal rights. The sexual revolution, student protests, and progressive legal reforms on marriage and abortion came to be viewed by many white nationalists as further examples of the destruction of national culture. Women’s liberation and the moral revolution of the late twentieth century played into fears of a declining white population. White nationalisms throughout the Anglosphere are replete with anxious visions of lost white male and patriarchal authority. Opposition to gender equality has been and remains crucial to the making of modern white nationalism—as the defense of white women and white domesticity has long functioned as a focal point for white supremacy, colonial violence, and the dehumanization of people of color. Drawing from this long tradition, white nationalists present the white woman as the perennial potential victim, under constant threat from migrant rapists, Black male sexuality, and sharia law.
From the civil rights era to the present, white nationalists found a home in right-wing political parties, where leaders appealed to race despite formally renouncing racism. White nationalism fit within the broader constellation of ideas advocated by the transnational right, whose critique of liberal internationalism also included asserting the place of social hierarchy, patriarchal families, and fundamentalist Christian values while attacking the legitimacy of the postwar social welfare state.
White nationalism needs to be understood as a specific political movement of the right, though one hardly limited to just a handful of extremists.
Though white nationalism is nurtured most intensely by a small group of activists and intellectuals, the electoral right throughout the English-speaking world has consistently appealed to racial fears among whites about loss of status. The electoral right receives much of its dynamism from the far right. Yet the existence of such far-right groups makes the electoral right more respectable by contrast, able to appeal to white nationalist sentiment while disavowing violent and explicit racism, and thereby enabling it to assemble a broader political coalition. This dialectic of extremism and respectability operates not simply within national boundaries but in a transnational framework.
One of the key issues involved in understanding global white nationalism is whether it should be perceived as a marginal political movement or as part of the mainstream of contemporary political culture. We think white nationalism should be understood as both constitutive of our societies and as a specific political movement of the right whose fortunes are now resurgent. Given the deep ways in which notions of white man’s countries structured Britain, the United States, and British settler colonies just a century ago, it is hardly surprising that a foundation of white supremacy remains under the edifice of societies that have formally renounced racism. This is particularly true given the partial defeat of movements for racial equality, as reflected in the continuation of vast institutional inequalities. The unacknowledged persistence of white supremacy in our societies has provided a strong platform on which white nationalists can stand, and it must be dismantled.
We also believe that white nationalism needs to be understood as a specific political movement of the right, though one hardly limited to just a handful of extremists. The successes of anti-racist movements in the twentieth century were only partial, but they were enough to spark a powerful reaction from those who wished to openly assert that that their nations were still white men’s countries. White nationalists’ sense of betrayal and loss is very real. While their claims of victimhood often serve as cover for the assertion of racial dominance, they are rooted in very real changes to the racial order. Without question, combatting white nationalism requires truly grappling with the long history of white supremacy and the untold damage wrought by our contemporary racial order. But it does not mean accepting that our civic cultures must remain racist or that a majority of whites will be inevitably drawn to racist politics. Rather, it requires understanding contemporary Anglophone white nationalism as a specific historical formation which cannot be extricated from the history of slavery, settler colonialism, and white supremacy.
To many observers, Brexit and Trump made it seem as if an atavistic ideology was suddenly resurrected. But white nationalism has always been a presence in trans-Atlantic political culture. While rooted in the older ideal of the white man’s country associated with British settler colonialism, it has adapted to the challenges posed by decolonization, civil rights, and liberal internationalism.
Those seeking to explain white nationalism’s renewed political strength in our own time should then ask why it has begun to have greater appeal. To the minority who explicitly identify with white nationalist ideas, their sense of victimization and desire to return to an imagined past era of national glory has everything to do with the decline of white dominance. To many others, white nationalists’ rhetoric of betrayal, nostalgia, and denouncement of non-white immigrants and internationalist elites has increased appeal in a period of depressed wages and precarious employment.
Critically, the lack of a significant left-wing challenge to neoliberalism has made ethnonationalism the main political form in which antiestablishment sentiment can be articulated. The adaptations that white nationalists made since 1945 has enabled it to broaden its appeal in our time. White nationalism is a worldly ideology. Regardless of whether Trump wins or loses, its resilience should never again be underestimated.
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.