I’m part of a research team that has been following more than 800 Black American families for almost 25 years. We found that people who had reported experiencing high levels of racial discrimination when they were young teenagers had significantly higher levels of depression in their 20s than those who hadn’t. This elevated depression, in turn, showed up in their blood samples, which revealed accelerated aging on a cellular level.
Our research is not the first to show Black Americans live sicker lives and die younger than other racial or ethnic groups. The experience of constant and accumulating stress due to racism throughout an individual’s lifetime can wear and tear down the body – literally “getting under the skin” to affect health.
These findings highlight how stress from racism, particularly experienced early in life, can affect the mental and physical health disparities seen among Black Americans.
Why it matters
As news stories of Black American women, men and children being killed due to racial injustice persist, our research on the effects of racism continue to have significant implications.
In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics identified racism as having a profound impact on the health of children, adolescents, emerging adults and their families. Our findings support this conclusion – and show the need for society to truly reflect on the lifelong impact racism can have on a Black child’s ability to prosper in the U.S.
How we do the work
The Family and Community Health Study, established in 1996 at Iowa State University and the University of Georgia, is looking at how stress, neighborhood characteristics and other factors affect Black American parents and their children over a lifetime. Participants were recruited from rural, suburban and metropolitan communities. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, this research is the largest study of African American families in the U.S., with 800 families participating.
Researchers collected data – including self-reported questionnaires on experiences of racial discrimination and depressive symptoms – every two to three years. In 2015, the team started taking blood samples, too, to assess participants’ risks for heart disease and diabetes, as well as test for biomarkers that predict the early onset of these diseases.
Our study shows how vital it is to think about how mental and physical health difficulties are interconnected.
Some of the next steps for our work include focusing more closely on the accelerated aging process. We also will look at resiliency and early life interventions that could possibly offset and prevent health decline among Black Americans.
Due to COVID-19, the next scheduled blood sample collection has been delayed until at least spring 2021. The original children from this study will be in their mid- to late 30s and might possibly be experiencing chronic illnesses at this age due, in part, to accelerated aging.
With continued research, my colleagues and I hope to identify ways to interrupt the harmful effects of racism so that Black lives matter and are able to thrive.
Republished with permission under license from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
In our School to Prison Pipeline page, I wrote about how my youngest son was unfairly penalized with suspension for a very minor offense that would not have even been written up when I was in school. Most of my teachers were black, while most of my son's teacher's were white, which might help explain the harser treatment.
by Charles Bell, Illinois State University
School suspensions are intended to deter violence and punish students who demonstrate problematic behavior.
Yet, when I interviewed 30 Black high school students in southeast Michigan who had been suspended from school and 30 of their parents, I learned that many students were suspended because school officials misinterpreted their behaviors. Additionally, the suspensions led to students’ grades dropping significantly and to some parents withdrawing their children from their school districts.
You might assume that these punitive disciplinary practices have stopped since so many children are not physically in school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You would be wrong. News reports show that suspensions have continued throughout the pandemic, while children are attending school remotely from their homes.
For example, in September, school officials suspended 9-year-old Louisiana student Ka’Mauri Harrison for six days because he placed a BB gun on a shelf in his room after one of his siblings tripped over it during virtual learning. In other incidents, such as when 12-year-old Isaiah Elliot played with a toy gun during virtual art class, school officials sent law enforcement officers to his home – terrifying everyone in their household. Although these cases attracted considerable media attention, I believe most do not.
Collectively, these instances of unwarranted school punishment raise important questions about their impact on millions of individuals – particularly Black students and parents. The most recent data shows Black students represent 15% of K-12 public school students in the U.S. but receive 39% of school suspensions.
Students and parents silenced
In one interview after another, students told me they were denied the opportunity to explain their side, which could have led school officials to determine a suspension was unnecessary. Parents also said educators and administrators ignored them throughout the disciplinary process.
For example, Sandra, a ninth grader, received a five-day suspension for deescalating a fight between peers.
“I feel like they didn’t hear me out,” she said. “I told my mom and my dad and they was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t see why they suspended you.’ … [T]he [school officials] was like, ‘We feel like you threatened her.’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t, and the girl even said I didn’t threaten her.’ When I came back to school she was like, ‘Why did you get suspended?’ and I was like, ‘[Because] they said I threatened you,’ and she was like, ‘How did you threaten me?’ I’m like, exactly. So, I just felt like they should have listened to me and let me explain the whole situation.”
Mike’s daughter Kimberly, a ninth grade student, received a five-day suspension for hugging a boy.
“To suspend a child for five days for giving a person a hug is ridiculous,” he said. “I raised my voice about it many times. Their policies around suspension are very unnecessary.”
Students also told me their achievement declined by as much as two letter grades due to suspensions. Students and parents attributed the academic declines to missing high-point-value assignments, experiencing difficulty catching up, missing vital instruction and educators’ unwillingness to distribute makeup assignments to suspended students.
“[School discipline] affected my grades a lot,” said Marcus, a 10th grade student who received a 39-day suspension after he punched a gated window in response to his teacher calling him a “failure.” “I go up there to get my work, but it’s hard to do the work when you are outside of school. You get where you’re not receiving the proper guidance to do the work.”
Tangie’s 10th grade son received a 10-day suspension for defending himself after several gang members attacked him at school.
“I was going back up to the school every other day, fighting to get his makeup work from the teachers,” she said. “I kept calling and calling, and finally I ended up taking him to [a new school], which is terrible. But I had to because his teachers would not give me the damn work.”
Black educational flight
Several parents told me that excessive school suspensions motivated them to remove their child from a school district.
Lisa’s son, a 10th grader, borrowed a cellphone from a classmate. Then another student stole the cellphone from him. In response, school officials handcuffed him to a railing, suspended him for five days, and referred the case to the local prosecutor.
“I just feel at that time they failed him,” she told me. “He is asking to be transferred so I am looking into another school for him.”
Patrice met with school officials after her son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in order to create an individualized education plan for him. Although school officials created the plan, she said, they didn’t implement it. Instead, they continued to suspend him.
“He is going to another school this year,” she said. “How are you going to have an IEP and not follow through with what’s on the IEP? That’s a big issue! It’s just a lack of communication and too much suspension.”
Rethinking school discipline
My findings suggest that schools should use alternatives to school suspensions. They also suggest that teachers should be required to distribute assignments to students who receive suspensions, and consider using virtual learning to reduce the negative impact of suspensions on student achievement.
Schools should also better understand how students and parents view school discipline and involve them in establishing school rules. Students changing schools is a major concern for administrators, and my study shows excessive school discipline motivates Black families to leave a district.
Several states, such as Michigan and Illinois, have passed school discipline reforms to reduce suspension rates. However, the data I collected, which will be featured in my upcoming book “Code of the School,” suggests the discipline reforms have been ineffective in some districts because school suspension data is not publicly available.
School discipline data that is anonymous and separated by race, gender, disability and infraction type should be published annually on the district’s website. Without school discipline transparency, parents and legislators cannot hold school districts accountable for the disciplinary reforms. I am working with Michigan legislators to resolve this issue.
Running on progressive platforms that include ending mass incarceration and addressing police misconduct, candidates defeated traditional “law-and-order” prosecutors across the country.
Elected prosecutors – often called state’s attorneys or district attorneys – represent the people of a particular county in their criminal cases. Their offices work with law enforcement to investigate and try cases, determine which crimes should be prioritized and decide how punitive to be.
After decades of incumbent prosecutors winning reelection based on their high conviction rates or the long sentences they achieved, advocates for criminal justice reform began making inroads into their territory a few years ago. They did so mainly by drawing attention to local races and funding progressive challengers.
She won, becoming the first Black woman to serve as state’s attorney in Chicago. It was also the first high-profile sign that this progressive prosecutorial approach was working.
Her victory was followed by the 2017 election of Larry Krasner as district attorney in Philadelphia. Krasner, a former civil rights attorney, had never prosecuted a case when he ran for office – a move that the city’s police union chief called “hilarious.”
But Krasner’s campaign platform – addressing mass incarceration and police misconduct – responded to a city saddled with the highest incarceration rate among large U.S. cities, nearly seven out of every 1,000 citizens. Krasner won with 75% of the vote.
In Detroit, Karen McDonald won her race for Oakland County prosecutor by promising “common-sense criminal justice reform that utilizes treatment courts and diversion programs, addresses racial disparity, and creates a fair system for all people.”
“I think people are starting to realize, ‘Why don’t I know who my DA is?‘” said Gordon McLaughlin, the new district attorney for Colorado’s Eighth Judicial District, who campaigned on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. “It’s brought criminal justice into the main conversation.”
One prominent issue on voters’ minds is how prosecutors’ offices choose to handle police violence.
Gascón vowed to hold police accountable for officer-involved shootings. During the campaign, he pledged to reopen high-profile cases, including two where people were shot for not complying with an officer’s directions.
Mass incarceration and cash bail
Progressive prosecutors are likely to have the most impact by diverting people away from the criminal justice system in the first place.
Many have been motivated by what they see as “the criminalization of poverty” – a phenomenon in which the poor compile criminal records for minor offenses because they cannot afford bail or effective legal counsel.
Alonzo Payne, the new district attorney for San Luis Valley, Colorado, was outraged that poor people were forced to stay in jail because they couldn’t afford to post bond.
“I decided I wanted to bring some human compassion to the DA’s office,” he told the Denver Post.
Reforming the cash bail system and reducing mass incarceration is a goal shared by all of the newly elected prosecutors this election cycle, including Jose Garza, an immigrant rights attorney, in Austin, Texas.
It seems that progressive policies are here to stay in some of the nation’s largest cities, but reformers didn’t enjoy success everywhere.
Nonetheless, progressive prosecutors are increasingly winning races – and staying in power – by using the criminal justice system in more equitable ways.
Worrell, in Orlando, is a good example. She ran the Conviction Integrity Unit in the district attorney’s office, investigating innocence claims from convicted defendants.
Her reform message resonated a lot more with voters than the message of her opponent, Jose Torroella, who pledged to be “more old-fashioned” and more “strict.” Worrell won the race with nearly 66% of the votes.
“Criminal justice reform is not something people should be afraid of,” Worrell said. “It means we’re going to be smart on crime, rather than tough on crime.”
by Guo Xu, University of California, Berkeley and Abhay Aneja, University of California, Berkeley
Economic disparities in earnings, health and wealth between Black and white Americans are staggeringly large. Historical government practices and institutions – such as segregated schools, redlined neighborhoods and discrimination in medical care – have contributed to these wide disparities. While these causes may not always be overt, they can have lasting negative effects on the prosperity of minority communities.
Abhay Aneja and I are researchers at University of California, Berkeley, who specialize in examining the causes of social inequality. Our new research examines the U.S. federal government’s role in creating conditions of racial inequality more than a century ago. Specifically, we researched the harmful impact of government discrimination against Black civil service employees. We also examined how such discrimination continues to affect their families decades later, rippling across future generations.
Decades of discrimination
Soon after his inauguration in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson ushered in one of the most far-reaching discrimination policies of that century. Wilson discreetly authorized his Cabinet secretaries to implement a policy of racial segregation across the federal bureaucracy.
A Southerner by heritage, Wilson appointed several Southern Democrats to Cabinet offices, several of whom were sympathetic to the segregationist cause. Wilson’s new postmaster general, for example, was “anxious to segregate white and negro employees in all Departments of Government.” Historical accounts suggest that Wilson’s order was carried out most aggressively by the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Treasury Department, the latter responsible for revenue generation including taxes and customs duties. Based on the data we collected, the majority of Black civilians worked in these two federal departments before Wilson’s arrival.
Given his support among Southern Democrats, one goal of the Wilson administration was to limit the access of Black civil servants to the highest positions within government. This outcome was achieved through both demotions and reductions, efforts to discourage the hiring of qualified Black candidates.
For example, photos became required to apply for government jobs in order to screen out Black candidates. Black Americans already employed in the federal civil service were transferred from relatively high-status posts to low-paying ones. This overall policy of Jim Crow-style segregation served to shut out Black Americans from working in one of the few places where they could find opportunities for economic mobility and success.
Deep roots of economic disparities
Despite the potential for enormous harm, the cost of segregation to the economic status of Black civil servants has long remained unknown. Our research started by examining how President Wilson contributed to earnings disparities between Black and white civil service workers. In so doing, our research added to the collective knowledge within the social sciences about the roots of racial inequality.
To build a database on earnings inequality, our team undertook a large-scale data digitization of previously undigitized and, to our knowledge, unexamined historical government records containing a detailed list of all people who worked for the federal government and what they earned each year. These records were contained in eight volumes of the Official Register of the U.S., a series spanning 1907 to 1921. For 1907, we obtained information for 125,000 workers. By 1921, the size of the government workforce had more than doubled.
This data collection and cleaning process created a comprehensive dataset to understand the operation of the American federal government at the beginning of the 20th century. It not only described a worker’s position and salary, but also contained rich personal information including a federal employee’s place of birth, the state from which they were appointed and the Cabinet department where they worked.
Because the register was issued every two years, our research made it possible to track a civil servant’s career progression over time. Looking at this data source, it was clear that President Wilson’s policy of segregating the federal workforce exacted an enormous cost from Black civil servants.
Sidelining Black federal workers
To isolate the impact of racial discrimination and establish comparable jobs and salaries, the analysis paired Black and white federal employees with similar characteristics. Each worked in the same city, the same government office and even had the same salary before President Wilson’s inauguration. Within this set of comparable workers, Black civil servants earned about 7% less than their white counterparts during Wilson’s two terms as president.
When we account for differences in civil servants, such as educational background, the reduction in earnings suffered by Black civil servants remains. Moreover, under the order to segregate, Black civil servants were less likely to be promoted over time and more likely to be demoted. This disparate treatment by the federal government enabled white civil servants to earn more over time than Black civil servants with the same levels of skill and experience. Our research provides strong evidence for the discriminatory nature of workplace segregation faced by Black Americans within the federal government.
Our research shows that the damage caused by working under discriminatory conditions persisted well beyond Wilson’s presidency. The same Black civil servants victimized by discrimination in federal employment were also less likely to own a home in 1920, 1930 and 1940, almost three decades after Wilson was elected. Moreover, the school-age children of Black civil servants who served in the Wilson administration went on to have poorer-quality lives than their young white counterparts in terms of their overall earnings and quality of employment in adulthood.
This research can help to contribute to the understanding of the roots of economic disparities. A policy of racial discrimination – even if implemented temporarily – has lasting negative effects. A clearer understanding of historical discrimination can help to inform the design of policies aimed at remedying the painfully persistent racial inequities we observe today.
Until the 21st century, the contributions of African-American soldiers in World War II barely registered in America’s collective memory of that war.
The “tan soldiers,” as the black press affectionately called them, were also for the most part left out of the triumphant narrative of America’s “Greatest Generation.” In order to tell their story of helping defeat Nazi Germany in my 2010 book, “Breath of Freedom,” I had to conduct research in more than 40 different archives in the U.S. and Germany.
When a German TV production company, together with Smithsonian TV, turned that book into a documentary, the filmmakers searched U.S. media and military archives for two years for footage of black GIs in the final push into Germany and during the occupation of post-war Germany.
They watched hundreds of hours of film and discovered less than 10 minutes of footage. This despite the fact that among the 16 million U.S. soldiers who fought in World War II, there were about one million African-American soldiers.
They fought in the Pacific, and they were part of the victorious army that liberated Europe from Nazi rule. Black soldiers were also part of the U.S. Army of occupation in Germany after the war. Still serving in strictly segregated units, they were sent to democratize the Germans and expunge all forms of racism.
It was that experience that convinced many of these veterans to continue their struggle for equality when they returned home to the U.S. They were to become the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement – a movement that changed the face of our nation and inspired millions of repressed people across the globe.
As a scholar of German history and of the more than 70-year U.S. military presence in Germany, I have marveled at the men and women of that generation. They were willing to fight for democracy abroad, while being denied democratic rights at home in the U.S. Because of their belief in America’s “democratic promise” and their sacrifices on behalf of those ideals, I was born into a free and democratic West Germany, just 10 years after that horrific war.
Fighting racism at home and abroad
By deploying troops abroad as warriors for and emissaries of American democracy, the military literally exported the African-American freedom struggle.
Beginning in 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power, African-American activists and the black press used white America’s condemnation of Nazi racism to expose and indict the abuses of Jim Crow at home. America’s entry into the war and the struggle against Nazi Germany allowed civil rights activists to significantly step up their rhetoric.
“You jim crowed me / Before hitler rose to power- / And you are still jim crowing me- / Right now this very hour.”
Believing that fighting for American democracy abroad would finally grant African-Americans full citizenship at home, civil rights activists put pressure on the U.S. government to allow African-American soldiers to “fight like men,” side by side with white troops.
The military brass, disproportionately dominated by white Southern officers, refused. They argued that such a step would undermine military efficiency and negatively impact the morale of white soldiers. In an integrated military, black officers or NCOs might also end up commanding white troops. Such a challenge to the Jim Crow racial order based on white supremacy was seen as unacceptable.
The manpower of black soldiers was needed in order to win the war, but the military brass got its way; America’s Jim Crow order was to be upheld. African-Americans were allowed to train as pilots in the segregated Tuskeegee Airmen. The 92nd Buffalo Soldiers and 93rd Blue Helmets all-black divisions were activated and sent abroad under the command of white officers.
Despite these concessions, 90 percent of black troops were forced to serve in labor and supply units, rather than the more prestigious combat units. Except for a few short weeks during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 when commanders were desperate for manpower, all U.S. soldiers served in strictly segregated units. Even the blood banks were segregated.
‘A Breath of Freedom’
After the defeat of the Nazi regime, an Army manual instructed U.S. occupation soldiers that America was the “living denial of Hitler’s absurd theories of a superior race,” and that it was up to them to teach the Germans “that the whole concept of superiority and intolerance of others is evil.” There was an obvious, deep gulf between this soaring rhetoric of democracy and racial harmony, and the stark reality of the Jim Crow army of occupation. It was also not lost on the black soldiers.
Post-Nazi Germany was hardly a country free of racism. But for the black soldiers, it was their first experience of a society without a formal Jim Crow color line. Their uniform identified them as victorious warriors and as Americans, rather than “Negroes.”
Serving in labor and supply units, they had access to all the goods and provisions starving Germans living in the ruins of their country yearned for. African-American cultural expressions such as jazz, defamed and banned by the Nazis, were another reason so many Germans were drawn to their black liberators. White America was stunned to see how much black GIs enjoyed their time abroad, and how much they dreaded their return home to the U.S.
By 1947, when the Cold War was heating up, the reality of the segregated Jim Crow Army in Germany was becoming a major embarrassment for the U.S. government. The Soviet Union and East German communist propaganda relentlessly attacked the U.S. and challenged its claim to be the leader of the “free world.” Again and again, they would point to the segregated military in West Germany, and to Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. to make their case.
Newly returned veterans, civil rights advocates and the black press took advantage of that Cold War constellation. They evoked America’s mission of democracy in Germany to push for change at home. Responding to that pressure, the first institution of the U.S. to integrate was the U.S. military, made possible by Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981. That monumental step, in turn, paved the way for the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
The veterans who had been abroad electrified and energized the larger struggle to make America live up to its promise of democracy and justice. They joined the NAACP in record numbers and founded new chapters of that organization in the South, despite a wave of violence against returning veterans. The veterans of World War II and the Korean War became the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Medgar Evers, Amzie Moore, Hosea Williams and Aaron Henry are some of the better-known names, but countless others helped advance the struggle.
About one-third of the leaders in the civil rights movement were veterans of World War II.
They fought for a better America in the streets of the South, at their workplaces in the North, as leaders in the NAACP, as plaintiffs before the Supreme Court and also within the U.S. military to make it a more inclusive institution. They were also the men of the hour at the 1963 March on Washington, when their military training and expertise was crucial to ensure that the day would not be marred by agitators opposed to civil rights.
“We structured the March on Washington like an army formation,” recalled veteran Joe Hairston.
For these veterans, the 2009 and 2013 inaugurations of President Barack Obama were triumphant moments in their long struggle for a better America and a more just world. Many never thought they would live to see the day that an African-American would lead their country.
Was abolitionist John Brown a psychopath, a sinner or a saint?
The answer depends on whom you ask, and when.
Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird,” based on James McBride’snovel of the same name, comes at a time when evolving popular perceptions of Brown have once again gotten people thinking and talking about him.
Since he cemented his place in history by leading a failed slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, the flinty-eyed militant’s cultural significance has waxed and waned. To some, he’s a revolutionary, a freedom fighter and a hero. To others, he’s an anarchist, a murderer and a terrorist.
My research tracks how scholars, activists and artists have used Brown and other abolitionists to comment on contemporary racial issues.
With the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the president’s push for “patriotic education,” Brown is perhaps more relevant now than at any other time since the dawn of the Civil War.
So which version appears in “The Good Lord Bird”? And what does it say about Americans’ willingness to confront racial oppression?
From farmer to zealot
Born in 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut, John Brown was living a relatively undistinguished life as a farmer, sheep drover and wool merchant until the 1837 murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy. An outraged Brown publicly announced his dedication to the eradication of slavery. Between 1837 and 1850 – the year of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act – Brown served as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, first in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then in the Adirondacks, near the Canadian border.
Gifted a farm by wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith, Brown settled in North Elba, New York, where he continued helping escaped slaves and assisting the residents of Timbuctoo, a nearby community of fugitive slaves, with their subsistence farming.
In 1855, Brown took his anti-slavery fight to Kansas, where five of his sons had begun homesteading the previous year. For the Browns, the move to “Bleeding Kansas” – a territory riven by violence between pro- and anti-slavery settlers – was an opportunity to live their convictions. In 1856, pro-slavery forces sacked and burned the anti-slavery stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas. Outraged, Brown and his sons captured five settlers from three different pro-slavery families living along Pottawatomie Creek and slaughtered them with broadswords.
These brutal murders thrust Brown onto the national abolitionist stage.
For the next two years, Brown led raids in Kansas and went east to raise funds to support his fights. Unbeknownst to all but a few co-conspirators, he was also planning the operation that he believed would deal slavery a death blow.
Brown had hoped that both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman would join him, but neither did; perhaps their absences help explain why Brown’s expected uprising of enslaved Virginians never materialized. In addition to dooming the initial raid, the absence of a slave army torpedoed Brown’s grand plan to establish mountain bases from which to stage raids on plantations throughout the South, which he referred to as taking “the war to Africa.”
In the end, Harpers Ferry was a debacle: Ten of his band died that day, five escaped, and the remaining seven – Brown included – were tried, imprisoned and executed.
The myth of John Brown
From Pottawatomie to the present, Brown has been something of a floating signifier – a shape-shifting historical figure molded to fit the political goals of those who invoke his name.
That said, there are certain instances in which opinions coalesce.
In late October 1859, for instance, he was roundly vilified and decried as a violent madman. The outrage was so strong that five of the Secret Six – his most ardent supporters and active financial backers – denied association with Brown and condemned the raid.
However, during the Jim Crow era, most white Americans – even opponents of segregation – either ignored Brown or condemned him as an anarchist and a murderer, perhaps because the delicate politics of the civil rights struggle made him too dangerous to discuss. For followers of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s philosophy of nonviolence, Brown was a figure to be feared, not admired.
In contrast, Black Americans from W.E.B. DuBois to Floyd McKissick and Malcolm X, faced with waves of seemingly endless white hostility, celebrated him for his willingness to fight and die for Black freedom.
The past three decades brought renewed interest in Brown, with no fewer than 15 books on Brown appearing, including children’s books, biographies, critical histories of Harpers Ferry, an assessment of Brown’s jailhouse months and the novels “Cloudsplitter” and “Raising Holy Hell.”
At the same time, right-wing extremists have invoked his legacy. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, for instance, expressed the hope that he would “be remembered as a freedom fighter akin” to Brown.
Which brings us to McBride’s novel, the inspiration for Showtime’s miniseries.
Among the most distinctive features of McBride’s novel is its bizarre humor. Americans have seen a devout John Brown, a vengeful John Brown and an inspirational John Brown. But before “The Good Lord Bird,” Americans had never seen a clownish John Brown.
McBride’s Brown is a tattered, scatterbrained and deeply religious monomaniac. In his ragged clothes, with his toes bursting out of his boots, Brown intones lengthy, discursive prayers and offers obtuse interpretations of Scripture that leave his men befuddled.
We learn all of this from Onion, the narrator, a former slave whom Brown “rescues” from one of the families living on Pottawatomie Creek. At first, all Onion wants is to get back home to his owner – a detail that speaks volumes about the novel’s twisted humor. Eventually, Onion embraces his new role as Brown’s mascot, although he continues to mock Brown’s ridiculously erratic behavior all the way to Harpers Ferry.
Like many reviewers – and apparently Ethan Hawke, who plays Brown in the Showtime series – I laughed loud and hard when I read “The Good Lord Bird.”
That said, the laughter was a bit unsettling. How and why would someone make this story funny?
At the Atlantic Festival, McBride noted that humor could open the way for “hard conversations” about America’s racial history. And Hawke’s hilarious portrayal of Brown, along with his commentary about the joys of playing this character, suggests he shares McBride’s belief that humor is a useful mechanism for fostering discussions about both slavery and contemporary race relations.
While one might reasonably say that the history of American race relations is so horrific that laughter is an inappropriate response, I think Hawke and McBride may be on to something.
One of humor’s key functions is to change people’s way of seeing, to open the possibility for a different understanding of the subject of the joke.
“The Good Lord Bird” gives readers and viewers a mechanism for seeing past the historical Brown’s violence, which is the defining feature of most iterations of him and the basis for most judgments of his character. For all of Brown’s madness, for all of his commitment to ending slavery, his care and affection for Onion show that he is fundamentally kind – an attribute that invests him with an appealing humanity more powerful than any physical blow he strikes.
Given all of the cultural baggage that John Brown has carried since Pottawatomie, giving audiences a means of empathizing with him is no mean feat.
Perhaps it will help Americans move the needle in the ongoing struggle for racial understanding – an outcome that’s as necessary now as it was in 1859.
The job of slicing up the economic pie in the U.S. has traditionally fallen to Congress, with the Federal Reserve tasked with making sure there is enough to go around. But this could soon change.
Under proposals put forward by Democrats in Congress, the mandate of the Fed would be tweaked for the first time since 1977, when its objectives were made explicit: promote maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates. Under the new proposals, the central bank would gain an additional task of reducing racial inequality. In short, the central bank could be handed the pie cutter and told to make sure everyone gets a fair share.
The main tool the Fed has in guiding the U.S. economy is through the setting of interest rates. Adjusting its benchmark interest rate changes the cost of borrowing for companies and consumers, which in turn can stimulate or subdue their spending. When the unemployment rate is extremely low – as it was prior to the pandemic – the Fed may increase interest rates. This puts a brake on private consumption and investment and protects against inflation.
The problem is that currently the Fed focuses on the national jobless rate, the same one reported every month in the news. This figure obscures the wide variation among different regions and demographic groups, not to mention it ignores the growing share of Americans who are underemployed.
At present, the Fed uses the national unemployment rate to help guide its rate setting. But even during times of prosperity, the Black American jobless rate is roughly two times the white rate. As a result of the Fed targeting the national unemployment rate – which is roughly equal to the white rate – interest rates are hiked before many Black Americans fully experience the benefits of a deep and lengthy economic boom. My research with former Fed economist Seth Carpenter shows that when the Fed puts its foot on the brakes, the Black jobless rate rises more. Black teen unemployment suffers the most from this brake pumping.
But in line with a change to the mandate to include reducing racial inequality, central bankers could ditch the national rate as its target and instead use the Black unemployment rate. Doing so would still maintain strong economic growth for white Americans but would enable the Fed to set rates in a way tailored to addressing the economic needs of Black people too.
2. Opening up credit
The Fed can also use tools handed to it under the Community Reinvestment Act to narrow racial wealth differences and provide Black Americans with greater access to credit. The act, enacted in 1977, requires the Fed to use its oversight powers to encourage financial institutions to help meet the credit needs of the communities in which they do business, particularly in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. The new proposals specifically call on the Fed to aggressively implement the act.
This is important because many Black consumers continue to experience discrimination getting loans and mortgages.
3. Reporting discrimination
Proposals in the act would ensure that policymakers and the public are made fully aware of racial economic disparities. Under the act’s terms, the Fed would be required to report on recent racial, ethnic, gender and education gaps in income and wealth, with the Fed chair expected to identify racial disparities in the labor market through periodical congressional testimony. The chair would also have to make public how the Fed intends to reduce these gaps.
This is important because the act could be viewed as lessening Congress’ traditional role of using fiscal policy such as taxation and spending to address issues of inequality. Instead, the Fed’s new data collection and analysis responsibilities would put additional pressure on lawmakers to act.
I believe this could have a profound long-term impact on not only individual Black families but the national economy as a whole. The availability of much more data that clearly shows just how wide the racial inequality gap is would put pressure on Congress to find ways to help Black Americans accumulate wealth and the means to secure and affordable housing. This would likely result in lower health care costs, increased housing values and lower crime. This in turn could lead to less spending on social services, with savings redeployed to community enterprises that raise overall productivity.
Likewise highlighting racial discrepancies in employment could force Congress to introduce proposals to bring equitable child care and education to Black communities, as well as better transportation and reliable technology, all of which would raise worker productivity.
No silver bullet
Changing the Fed’s remit is no silver bullet. But at a minimum, the provisions of the proposed act – to make reducing inequality part of the Fed’s mission, to ensure that racial economic disparities are not ignored and to require robust reporting on labor force disparities – could provide a federal response to racial disparities that moves the needle on improving the prosperity of Black Americans. And it comes as America’s reckoning with systemic racism has received fresh urgency and scrutiny following the killing of George Floyd.
Despite this fresh impetus, the act faces an uphill battle. It is unlikely to become law under present political circumstances. And even if the Democrats succeed in winning the Senate and presidency in November, the chances for the act’s success are uncertain. But if over time more Fed governors are appointed that support the proposed mandate, the act’s elements could become policy and practice. This updated mandate would represent a down payment by one of the nation’s most powerful institutions to end systemic racism.
The legacy of structural racism in Minneapolis was laid bare to the world at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and East 38th Street, the location where George Floyd’s neck was pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee. But it is also imprinted in streets, parks and neighborhoods across the city – the result of urban planning that utilized segregation as a tool of white supremacy.
As co-founder of the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice project, Delegard and her colleagues have been shedding new light on the role that racist barriers to home ownership have had on segregation in the city.
As a scholar of urban planning, I know that Minneapolis, far from being an outlier in segregation, represents the norm. Across the U.S., urban planning is still used by some as the spatial toolkit, consisting of a set of policies and practices, for maintaining white supremacy. But urban planners of color, especially, are pointing out ways to reimagine inclusive urban spaces by dismantling the legacy of racist planning, housing and infrastructure policies.
Racial segregation was not the byproduct of urban planning; it was, in many cases, its intention – it was “not by accident, but by design,” Adrien Weibgen, senior policy fellow at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, explained in a 2019 New York Daily News article.
Residential racial segregation continues to exist because of specific government policies enacted through urban planning. A key tool is zoning – the process of dividing urban land into areas for specific uses, such as residential or industrial. In the introduction to her 2014 book “Zoned in the USA,” urban planning professor Sonia Hirt argues that zoning is about government power to shape “ideals” by imposing a “moral geography” on cities. In Minneapolis and elsewhere, this has meant excluding “undersirables” – namely the poor, immigrants of color and African Americans.
With explicit racialized zoning long outlawed in the U.S. – the U.S. Supreme Court ended the practice in 1917 – many local governments instead turned to “exclusionary” zoning policies, making it illegal to build anything except single-family homes. This “back door racism” had a similar effect to outright racial exclusions: It kept out most Black and low-income people who could not afford expensive single-family homes.
In Minneapolis, single-family zoning amounted to 70% of residential space, compared to 15% in New York. Buttressing this, redlining – the denial of mortgages and loans to people of color by government and the private sector – ensured the continuance of segregation.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Minneapolis City Council acted quickly in advancing plans to dismantle the city’s police force. Dismantling the legacy of by-design segregation will require the tools of urban planning being utilized to find solutions after decades of being part of the problem.
The opening scene of HBO's "Watchmen" begins with a powerful depiction of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. Last year, when "Watchmen" aired, many people were shocked to learn for the first time this atrocity actually happened.
In honor of Juneteenth, HBO has made all nine episodes of "Watchmen" available to stream for free through Sunday on HBO.com and Free On Demand.
by Russell Cobb, University of Alberta
For only the second time in a century, the world’s attention is focused on Tulsa, Okla. You would be forgiven for thinking Tulsa is a sleepy town “where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,” in the words of the musical Oklahoma!.
But Tulsa was the site of one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history, and a long, arduous process of reconciliation over the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 was jarred by President Donald Trump’s decision to hold his first campaign rally there since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The city is on edge. Emotions are raw. There’s anxiety about a spike in coronavirus cases, but lurking even deeper in the collective psyche is a fear that history could repeat itself. Tens of thousands of Trump supporters will gather close to a neighbourhood still reckoning with a white invasion that claimed hundreds of Black lives.
A Trump rally near a site of a race massacre during a global pandemic already sounded like a recipe for a dangerous social experiment. But then there was the matter of timing. The rally was to be held on Juneteenth (June 19), a holiday commemorating the day slaves in the western portion of the Confederacy finally gained their freedom.
Normally, Juneteenth in Tulsa is one big party, the rare event that brings white and Black Oklahomans together. But fears about spreading COVID-19 led organizers to cancel the event. Then came the protests over the murder of George Floyd. During those demonstrations in Tulsa, a truck ran through a blockade of traffic, causing one demonstrator to fall from a bridge. He is paralyzed from the waist down.
COVID-19 cases surging
To make a bad situation even worse, the city is witnessing a surge in coronavirus cases. Local health officials have acknowledged that the increase in new cases, mixed with close to 20,000 people packed into an arena, is “a perfect storm” that could fuel a super-spreader event.
Faced with the prospect of provoking a fight with Trump, however, Bynum equivocated. Bynum found himself under attack from former friends and allies who urged him to do something. Then, on June 13, the Trump campaign announced that it would change the date of the rally to June 20 “out of respect” for Juneteenth. It was a small victory for protesters, but some were further enraged by Bynum’s moral equivalence between the protests over Floyd’s murder and a Trump campaign rally.
Reminiscent of another mayor
The mayor’s impotence has also brought back memories of 1921. The mayor then, T.D. Evans, found himself unable — or unwilling — to stand between an angry white mob ginned up over fears of a “Black uprising” and a Black community demanding racial equality.
Evans saw the rising influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma politics and quietly voiced his displeasure. As the Tulsa Tribune cultivated white paranoia about a Black invasion of white Tulsa, Evans, and many like him, did little. “Despite warnings from Blacks and whites that trouble was brewing,” Tulsa Word reporter Randy Krehbiel wrote in a book about the massacre, “(Evans) remained mostly silent.”
One historical parallel with 1921 stands out above the rest: the power and influence of “fake news” to mobilize alienated voters.
While much has been made of a revolution of social media and YouTube to undercut the gatekeepers of traditional media, a false news article was the most proximate cause of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
The Tulsa Tribune published an article on May 30, 1921, with an unproven allegation that a Black man, Dick Rowland, had tried to rape a white woman in a downtown elevator. The dog-whistle came through loud and clear. No evidence was presented and charges were later dropped. But the news was enough to set off calls for a lynching of Rowland.
A mob formed around the Tulsa courthouse. The Tribune had been stoking fears of a “Black uprising” for months, running stories of race mixing, jazz and interracial dancing at Black road houses.
A few Blacks armed themselves and tried to stop the lynching. The sight of armed Blacks made the white mob direct its fury at a bigger target — the Black section of town, Greenwood.
By the dawn of June 1, 1921, Greenwood lay in ruins, with hundreds dead and thousands interned in camps. The devastation did not come as a surprise to those who had watched the rise of xenophobia during the First World War and the second coming of the KKK, an organization that received a boost after the screening of the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915 at the White House.
Tulsa, and the nation, had been primed for racial violence by a white supremacist media and presidential administration. Many well-intentioned people stood idly by, hoping the trouble would soon blow over. It did not.
Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. During the spring of 1921, Tulsa got the tragedy. With Trump rallying tens of thousands of his supporters near Greenwood amid a deadly pandemic, the best we can hope for this time around is farce.
Wendi C. Thomas is a black journalist who has covered police in Memphis. She learned during a police surveillance trial that the Memphis Police Department spied on her and three other journalists. One officer admitted to spying on her. She’s on a long list of prominent black journalists and activists who have been subjected to police surveillance over decades.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Aug. 20, 2018, the first day of a federal police surveillance trial, I discovered that the Memphis Police Department was spying on me.
The ACLU of Tennessee had sued the MPD, alleging that the department was in violation of a 1978 consent decree barring surveillance of residents for political purposes.
I’m pretty sure I wore my pink gingham jacket — it’s my summer go-to when I want to look professional. I know I sat on the right side of the courtroom, not far from a former colleague at the city’s daily newspaper. I’d long suspected that I was on law enforcement’s radar, simply because my work tends to center on the most marginalized communities, not institutions with the most power.
One of the first witnesses called to the stand: Sgt. Timothy Reynolds, who is white. To get intel on activists and organizers, including those in the Black Lives Matter movement, he’d posed on Facebook as a “man of color,” befriending people and trying to infiltrate closed circles.
Projected onto a giant screen in the courtroom was a screenshot of people Reynolds followed on Facebook.
My head was bent as I wrote in my reporter’s notebook. “What does this entry indicate?” ACLU attorney Amanda Strickland Floyd asked.
She, he replied, used to write for The Commercial Appeal. In 2014, I left the paper after being a columnist for 11 years.
It’s been more than a year since a judge ruled against the city, and I’ve never gotten a clear answer on why the MPD was monitoring me. Law enforcement also was keeping tabs on three other journalists whose names came out during the trial. Reynolds testified he used the fake account to monitor protest activity and follow current events connected to Black Lives Matter.
My sin, as best I can figure, was having good sources who were local organizers and activists, including some of the original plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the city.
In the days since cellphone video captured white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd, a black man, residents in dozens of cities across the country have exercised their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality.
Here in Memphis, where two-thirds of the population is black and 1 in 4 lives below the poverty line, demonstrators have chanted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”
The most recent protests were sparked by the killings of Floyd and of Breonna Taylor, a black woman gunned down in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March. But in Memphis, like elsewhere, the seeds of distrust between activists and police were planted decades ago. And law enforcement has nurtured these seeds ever since.
A Long History of Spying
In the mid-1960s, the MPD launched a domestic intelligence unit to spy not just on activists, but also on teachers’ meetings, a college black student union and labor organizers. That included Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to stand in solidarity with underpaid and mistreated black city sanitation workers.
The police surveillance wasn’t conducted just with wiretaps and long lenses, but with snitches planted within local organizations, including spies planted by then-Mayor Henry Loeb, an anti-union segregationist, among sanitation workers who wanted to join a union.
In the iconic photo taken just moments after a gunman shot King on the Lorraine Motel balcony, several people are seen pointing in the direction from which the bullet came. Crouched over King’s body is a man holding a towel to the gaping wound on King’s face. The man, rarely identified in photos, is Marrell “Mac” McCollough, a Memphis cop who was assigned to infiltrate a militant activist group hated by Memphis police. There’s no evidence he was involved with King’s assassination.
Some, including members of King’s family, have long speculated that the assassination was not the work of a lone gunman but orchestrated by federal law enforcement agencies (the FBI famously monitored and harassed King). Both a U.S. House committee independent review in 1979 and a Department of Justice review in 2000 found no basis for this. Still, in 2002, the National Civil Rights Museum, which sits where the motel was, added to its permanent exhibits “Lingering Questions,” which contains hundreds of pieces of evidence, including the bullet plucked from King’s body. One of the questions (that the exhibit does not definitively answer): “Was the Memphis Police Department part of the conspiracy?”
In 1976, the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging it had violated residents’ First Amendment rights by maintaining records that “contained unverified information and gossip which related exclusively to the exercise of lawful and peaceful activities,” and, according to the complaint, “served no lawful or valid law enforcement purpose.”
A judge agreed and in 1978 signed the Kendrick consent decree, the first such decree in the country, which barred law enforcement from surveilling protesters for political purposes.
Many of today’s protesters know about that ruling, because in 2017 the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging that police were violating the consent decree by again illegally spying on residents who were exercising their First Amendment rights.
In 2016, protesters had a series of high-profile demonstrations including a May protest at the Memphis Zoo, a spontaneous protest against police brutality in July in which hundreds blocked traffic on the Interstate 40 bridge and a December “die-in” in the mayor’s front yard. After those, according to the lawsuit, the city started a blacklist of residents barred from City Hall without an escort.
It contained the names not just of those who had been arrested at demonstrations, but many who had not, including the mother of Darrius Stewart, a black teen police shot and killed in 2015 following a traffic stop, and a white grandmother who’d made it through a security blockade outside Graceland while black protesters were held back.
Reynolds’ sleuthing made up a good part of the joint intelligence briefings, which were shared with law enforcement agencies and some of the city’s largest corporations, such as FedEx and AutoZone, at the businesses’ request. (Facebook told the MPD it violated the social platform’s terms of service by creating fake accounts and impersonating others.)
In court, the city argued that the surveillance — videotaping demonstrations, using social media collators to sweep up posts about police and Black Lives Matters supporters — was necessary to protect public safety.
But while joint intelligence briefings and internal reports were ostensibly to keep track of potential threats, they were littered with unfounded rumors, misidentified photos of activists and surveillance reports of events that posed no clear threat, such as a black food truck festival.
And while it’s true that the pen is mightier than the sword, there’s nothing about me that screams threat, unless critical reporting on public policy and public officials, including Mayor Jim Strickland, counts.
In 2017, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism covered the anniversary of the bridge protest, but when I tried to get an interview with the mayor, I was rebuffed.
“Objectivity dictates if the mayor does one on one interviews,” wrote Ursula Madden, the city’s chief communications officer in an email. “You have demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland.”
I replied that I was disappointed and asked her to point me to any errors of fact I’d made in my coverage. She did not respond.
I’ve worked as a journalist in Memphis for the last 17 years. I’ve never been a victim of police brutality, but few of my interactions with police have inspired confidence.
In 2014, while I was at The Commercial Appeal, a reader threatened by email to rape me after a column I wrote about Confederate Gen. Nathan B. Forrest. I reluctantly reported the threat to police, but the investigation felt lackluster and no suspect was ever identified.
It nagged at me, and years later, when I tried to learn more about what steps the detective assigned to my case had taken, department officials refused to share any information, even the details of their interview with me.
In July 2015, I covered the demonstrations that followed Stewart’s death by police. I interviewed the teen’s father and posted the video on Instagram.
A few days later, a cousin I hadn’t seen in years stopped by. He wanted to take a quick tour through downtown Memphis. It was dark and rainy. He’s black with long locks and a beard.
I wanted to be a good host, but before I left the house, I tweeted my hesitation: “My cousin is in town for work, leaving tomorrow. He wants to see Downtown. My 1st thought: Do I want to risk an encounter w/ police?”
My fear was not without cause: Less than two weeks earlier, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, had been forced out of her car by an aggressive Texas cop who’d stopped her for failing to signal while changing lanes. A dashboard camera video caught her arrest and three days later, she was found dead in a jail cell. Authorities said she died by suicide.
I was thinking about what happened to Bland and what had happened to Stewart, who had been shot to death by police following a traffic stop the same month.
Just a few miles from home, flashing lights filled my rearview mirror. I pulled over, heart pounding.
I hit record on my cellphone and placed it on the dashboard. You can’t see the officer’s face in the video, which I still have, but you can hear our voices over the windshield wipers. The officer, who was black, asked for my license. I handed it to him and asked why I’d been stopped.
He said my driver’s side headlight was out, but when he leaned over to tap it, he said it was back on.
“I’m not trying to be Sandra Bland tonight,” I told the officer.
The Memphis officer said he was trying to be a nice guy. “You think I want to stand out here in the rain?” he can be heard saying on video.
“Ms. Thomas,” he said, reading my license. “Ms. Wendi Thomas.” I wondered if he recognized my byline. I offered to show him what I had just tweeted but he declined. “Your headlights are working now,” he said. “You be safe, OK?”
“Yeah, but what happens when somebody else pulls me over?” I asked.
“I don’t know what somebody else is gonna do,” he said, “but I know that if you do the right things, if you’re doing the right things, then nothing else can happen but good.”
I now wonder if the police had been following me. The police department did not answer questions for this story.
But at the time, I was paralyzed by fear and wanted to avoid being pulled over again.
I took side streets home.
Why Were You Following Me?
After Reynolds left the stand after naming me as someone he had followed, the judge took a short recess. I headed outside the courtroom and saw Reynolds headed to the elevator.
I followed him. When the doors closed, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. I asked: Why were you following me on social media?
Although it was chilly in the courtroom, Reynolds was sweating. He said he couldn’t talk about it.
Two days after Reynolds’ testimony, I filed a public records request with the city of Memphis, asking for all joint intelligence briefings, emails or other documents that referenced me or any of the three other journalists that the MPD was following on social media.
Four hundred and thirty three days later, the city produced the records — and I still don’t understand what would make police see me as a threat worthy of surveillance in the name of public safety.
Contained in the documents: A screenshot of a Facebook post that I made on Jan. 28, 2016, while I was on a fellowship at Harvard University. I’d shared a notice about a grassroots coalition meeting to be held that day.
In a joint intelligence briefing was a screenshot of a tweet I’d been tagged in. The original tweet, which at the time police captured it had 11 likes and one retweet, was itself a screenshot of an offensive image a Memphis police officer had allegedly posted on Snapchat.
In another police email was a February 2017 tweet I sent about an upcoming protest, which had been announced on Facebook. It got two likes.
The city of Memphis is pushing back against the judge’s ruling. Its lawyers have asked the court to modify the consent decree, contending that the city can’t participate in a Trump administration public safety partnership if it isn’t allowed to share intelligence with federal agencies.
My battles with the city of Memphis didn’t end with the lawsuit, unfortunately.
In 2018, I was trying to figure out which corporations had answered the mayor’s call to financially subsidize police operations by funneling $6.1 million to the city through a secretive nonprofit, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.
Strickland wouldn’t divulge the companies’ identities, but he realized that public records I’d requested would. So the mayor’s staff, in conjunction with the Crime Commission and another secretive nonprofit, came up with a plan to release the companies’ names to local journalists before releasing the records to me, I learned through emails released in conjunction with a 2018 public records lawsuit against the Crime Commission.
And this year, I was forced to sue the city after it refused to include me on its media email advisory list despite repeated requests.
The city of Memphis did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
My experiences have shaped the way my newsroom has covered more recent protests, including those in Memphis since Floyd’s death.
A guide on covering protests from the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy notes, “Understand how police use news coverage to surveil black communities. Don’t allow police to use you, or your coverage, to do their jobs.”
We applied these principles to our recent coverage of a civil disobedience training that drew more than 350 people. While we know the names of the people we talked to, if participants weren’t comfortable using their whole name or showing their entire face, we protected their identity.
After all, I know how it feels to know that the police are watching you.
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.