An Illusion of Equality

In 2017, the gap still has not been closed.


The United States is a country that touts itself as a land of freedom with slogans such as “home of the brave, land of the free.” However, this remains far from the truth for people of color. While many would assert that slavery, Jim Crow and lynching were actions of the past, these practices still exist under different names. Mass incarceration and police brutality currently plague the Black community disproportionately more than the White population. This is a striking phenomenon considering that White Americans make up the majority of the American population.


Two Protestors Holding a #JusticeForPhilando Sign. Generated by IJG JPEG Library.


In modern times, the US is still lagging in racial equality and there is evidence to prove this. From the Black people who have been unlawfully slain by police and neighborhood watch coordinators such as Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile to the 2010 data showing that 40 percent of the incarcerated population consists of Black Americans. The effects of systemic racism are still in place in this society as people of color are still not being granted equal rights. Examples such as being shot to death or dying in custody through the actions of police is a contradiction to the fair and speedy trial that the sixth amendment promises.


US incarceration
Data Source: Statistics as of June 30, 2010 and December 31, 2010 from Correctional Population in the United States and from U.S. Census Summary File 1. (Graph: Peter Wagner, 2012)


The effects of mass incarceration have delayed the progress of the Black community. In most states, a felony conviction results in the loss of voting privileges and a harder time gaining employment. In this case, given the large percentage of Black males incarcerated, which according to American Progress is 1 in 15, there is a continuation of disenfranchisement of people of color in the United States. Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, the treatment of Black and White Americans still remains unequal. The gap in wealth between Whites and Blacks is by and far still large and is increasing.


While the horrors of police brutality on the Black community remain the focus of events today, however this is not a new phenomenon. For over three centuries, Black Americans have been the target of racially violent attacks including lynching which involved mobs of angry White people beating, humiliating and hanging Black people to death for alleged crimes. Lynching was a common phenomenon in the United States until the 1930s and resulted in the infamous murders of Sam Hose, Mary Turner and Emmett Till. Many of these cases were retrospectively proven to be based on fear and racial hatred over actual justice and claimed the lives of many innocent people.


The Lynching of Laura Nelson, 1911. Okemah, Oklahoma. Gelatin silver print. Real photo postcard. 3 1/2 x 5 1/2″


While the practice of lynching had declined after the push for Civil Rights in the 1960s, many parallels from that era can be drawn to police brutality of today. The victims of lynch mobs and police brutality are punished for allegations based on emotion and stereotypes rather than facts or evidence and do not get to live to witness a fair trial in the justice system.


In the cases of Trayvon Martin (2012), Tamir Rice (2014) and Michael Brown (2014), three unarmed Black teenagers were unlawfully shot and killed by police officers (in Martin’s situation, a neighborhood watch coordinator). In all these cases, it was found that suspicions of criminal activity were the motivation for police pulling the trigger. Yet very little evidence has been found to justify such extreme behaviors that lead to these three young Black men losing their lives. Generally, it is expected that police incapacitate suspects without having to kill them.


Perhaps, the most heartbreaking was the case of Philando Castile, a Black male professional who was a respected member of his community, shot to death by paranoid police officers. Another was the death of Sandra Bland, a young Black woman who committed suicide due to the psychological trauma of being wrongfully incarcerated. And finally, Freddie Gray, another young Black male who died in custody after police failed to treat the injuries he received from their aggressive man-handling.


The actions of the police in regards to how people are treated have been extreme historically. One infamous case was the death of Michael Stewart (1983) which involved a Black graffiti artist who suffered lethal injuries from the NYPD. Stewart’s death sparked an outrage in New York City which led to the development of Michael Stewart Justice Committee which sought to combat police brutality and tributes to his death such as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) (1983) and Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing (1989).


Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat.


One of the most publicized incidents of police brutality in the 20th century was the case of Rodney King (1991) where four officers viciously beat an unarmed Black man unconscious. The incident became a media frenzy due to its coverage on national television. The public scrutiny of this incident especially in regards to the acquittal of the officers responsible for beating King resulted in the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. These riots lasted four days and caused much damage, racial conflict and prompted a reassessment of police training and conduct.


A question that can be inquired is why are Black people still victims to the brutality of police and mass incarceration in comparison to White people. Statistics show that Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be shot and killed by police officers and that Black people are more likely to receive longer prison sentences than their White counterparts. The effort of the War on Drugs disproportionately affected the Black community with Black people more likely to be imprisoned for drug possession. Despite White people making up 37 percent of regular illicit drug users and Black people making up only 14 percent.


There is no doubt that throughout the history of the US, Black people have been stereotyped as irrational and violent with a predisposition towards criminal behavior. This imagery was appropriated into popular media originating from early pro-slavery propaganda, minstrel shows, to the advent of emerging technologies such as film (one infamous case of racist sentimentalism was D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)), television and popular music.


Blackface minstrel shows reinforced racist and stereotyped depictions of African-Americans. Sheet Music Illustration for Ernest Hogan’s (in)famous song “All Coons Look Alike to Me, 1896.


This negative stereotype has roots in American history and colonialism. In a culture of Eurocentrism where Whiteness was treated as the human ideal, the concept of Blackness served as its polar opposite. Whiteness meant pure, noble, innocent, gentle, intelligent and godly while Blackness meant dirty, cowardly, perverse, violent, stupid and evil.


While, the enslavement, legal discrimination and segregation of Black people was officially ended in 1863 and 1964 respectively, the 300 years of systemic racism, Eurocentrism and White supremacy has yet to end. If the United States wants to live up to its motto “land of free, home of the brave” then there must be greater effort in ensuring the equal rights of all its citizens. For centuries, people of color have suffered from systemic racism and disenfranchisement which still endures today. It will take knowledge and empathy from everyone to help move the country past the structural hierarchy that holds certain groups back.


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