America: Home of The Cowardly? Why overcoming racism means overcoming our fear.

5/19/16

The American flag waves in the blustering wind, almost as if it’s a greeting; a “Hello. I’m here to symbolize the freedom of your nation.” Much like the flag, equality is theoretically the fabric of our nation. So if America is truly the “Home of the Brave”, then why is so much of our stance on racism rooted in fear? As a democracy, we’re able to choose our own rights. So that would mean the “Land of The Free” is also a land of equality, right? Maybe not.

We’ve all seen it—White cop murders black man. Riots in Baltimore. Black man allegedly rapes white woman. Does crime equal mental illness? Black and white people are scared of each other—it’s that simple. Equality can be written into the constitution, but we are not truly equal until we don’t have to fight for what we say we stand for. Until harmony is accepted as commonplace, something has to give—and that something is the belief that humans should be objectified for the color of their skin. Black and white are opposite colors, but they don’t have to be treated as opposite races.

According to Daniel C. Poole, a 20-something black street performer I interviewed in New Orleans, “Defense is never wrong… It’s cause and effect.” I asked him what he meant by that and he said in a placid voice, “It’s long overdue.” We had a relatively long discussion on racism and he seemed to be pretty level-headed—especially while talking to a fifteen-year-old white girl from the Pennsylvania suburbs. When asked about racism in general, he replied, “Racism is a problem of the past. I can see the truth in it— there’s power in racism and people will do anything to keep their power.” When I asked him to elaborate, he spoke about fear: “Fear invites everything negative into your life—makes you accept defeat.” My personal thought: What Daniel told me that night on Bourbon Street while I sat on the wet cobblestone ground will ring in my ears every time someone tells me that racism is only a one-sided story. Because it’s not. Everyone is intermittently involved in some way, shape, or form. Even if it’s not necessarily “our” fault, reversing the problem still requires the help of the entire United States population.

According to The Guardian’s The Counted: people killed by police in the U.S., in 2015/2016 black people are almost 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people, with young, black men being killed at the highest rate. Black Americans are also twice as likely to be unarmed when killed by police. But do these statistics account for things like poverty, pressure, and—most of all—fear? While talking about police brutality, Daniel said “There are only two types of people: good and bad.” A cop’s job is no joke. These officers find themselves in life-or-death situations on a daily basis. Because of this, policemen roaming the “bad areas of town” are likely to have elevated cortisol levels. But when racial profiling is involved, stress levels don’t justify the irrational killings. The bottom line: racism is often dependent on fear.

Though slavery is no longer, racism is still alive and well. We live in a society where the “N-word” is often used in colloquial conversation, but that doesn’t make it okay. Cultural appropriation announces itself at the Grammys by big-time artists, and often on social media by people who are famous for being conventionally beautiful, as if being pretty or famous excuses it. The long-lasting effects of racism are still relevant, even if they’re more covert. It’s disturbing to think about the similarities between police brutality and slavery. People no longer get beaten by their owners, but their lives are threatened each day by police; the same people who should be helping save their lives. The idea behind the “Black Lives Matter” movement is to empower black people—especially those who have witnessed or been a victim of police brutality or white privilege or supremacy. There are those who support the movement and those who oppose it (protesting and the race’s empowering “#blackout” days). However, racism doesn’t just involve movements like Black Lives Matter.

During another New Orleans interview with a young black tarot reader, Antoinette Emory told me her thoughts on police brutality: “You wore that badge to protect and to serve, not to overstep your boundaries— not to become a bully.” While asking her what she thought about the murders being committed by police, she said, “It’s a crying shame. It’s not right to use excessive force. That’s not their job.” And when asked to elaborate on the brutality occurring mostly within black communities, “They have the authority to shoot you. We see the cops, we’re gonna run.” Antoinette continued speaking on the topic and while I began to write, “What did he do? You still have no answer? That’s why you lost your job”, I caught something important: the word “he”.

Let’s look at those mortality figures a little closer. Examining age and gender, we learn that young, black men are killed disproportionately. According to The Guardian’s “The Counted”, 304 American black people were killed by police in 2015, compared to 582 whites. However, blacks make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population, while whites make up 64 percent. Translation: Blacks are killed at the highest rate of any demographic, at 7.22 per million. By contrast, whites are at 2.94. So while whites outnumber blacks by nearly five times, blacks are killed by police more than twice as often, with young, black males killed at a rate nearly five times higher than whites of the same age. A lot of people may say this is purely hate-crime. But, if racism is based on fear, we need to understand crime isn’t always racially motivated.

According to Politifact.com, 93 percent of murders of black people are committed by other black people—black males being the main perpetrator and victim. Similarly, 85 percent of white murders are also committed by their own race. In fact, murder committed by whites is almost twice the amount of murder committed by blacks, at 10,038 vs. 5030. However, despite this fact, white people account for roughly 6.2 times more of the population than blacks; meaning that black people are almost 3 times as likely to commit murder. But could fear be the ultimate weapon?

People are killed daily, whether black or white, as stated above—by police, by others of their own race, by others of a different race, and by themselves. If weapons equal fear, logic dictates that fear equals weapon. Words make a definite impact on the idea of racism. Some of those words are even used as scare tactics. “All cops are bad.” “All white people kill.” “All black people are scary.” All are overgeneralizations, and all are potentially fatal. We could be working together to overcome racism, but instead we choose to keep each other against each other. If we reduce the fear behind the mess we’ve created, we reduce the weaponry.

Poverty and the wage gap could very well be the cause of most crime. From “Race and Crime in the United States” (Handbook of Crime Correlates; Lee Ellis, Kevin M. Beaver, John Wright; 2009; Academic Press): “The data imply a stronger tie between poverty and crime than crime and any racial group…Most studies find that the more ethnically/racially heterogeneous an area is, the higher its crime rates tend to be…The direct correlation between crime and class, when factoring for race alone, is relatively weak.” In a 1996 study of data from Columbus, Ohio, researchers Lauren J. Krivo and Ruth D. Peterson found that “differences in disadvantage in city neighborhoods explained the vast majority of the difference in crime rates between blacks and whites.” (Extremely Disadvantaged Neighborhoods and Urban Crime, 1996). That being said, this may be the answer to why the incarceration rate of black males is over six times higher than white males. When Daniel from New Orleans said “There are only two types of people: good and bad,” he may be absolutely right. Maybe it’s nature versus nurture,—being raised poorly in an environment of drugs and crime, or just being a “bad” person. Socioeconomic studies can’t tell for sure.

Now, let’s talk about policing. Community police systems are different everywhere, depending on the town. So, if we don’t use our towns’ money efficiently, we don’t have nearly enough resources to prevent crime. Education is the key to success, and the lock is ignorance—it may not be bliss after all. In theory, police brutality is due to racism. But is racism always blatant? Gaining more knowledge on social and economic behaviors may save some towns a lot of further trouble. Overcoming crime may mean reducing the wage gap by raising minimum wage. Or even keeping innocent people out of jail to be able to pay for more resources. We need to start helping future generations by providing them more education and financial support—not ignoring the problems they have at home or in school. Better community policing may be the start to a safer future.

The question behind it all: Is racism something we can or can’t overcome? People are always going to be people and you can’t change them overnight. Changing a system of beliefs we’ve had for centuries doesn’t just happen. Racism doesn’t disappear like magic— White privilege and unjust treatment exists. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t use our fear more efficiently. The answer: turn the anger into passion.

To overcome racism, we’ll have to start acting as one. One population. One desire. One outcome. The color of our skin is not our only difference. We have many similarities too. We’re all people—whether we’re black, white, brown, female, or male. We have strengths and weaknesses. But in the end of it all, we must fight this battle together. With all of our help, commitment, and passion, maybe racism can finally become a thing of the past. One by one, we can change the world. I know it’s something we’ve all heard before, but believing we can… that’s the missing puzzle piece. Inspiration is imperative— inspire others in any way you possibly can. “Do as I say, not as I do” holds no relevance here. Don’t listen to the mind-numbingly racist, anecdotal conversations of our ancestors. Listen to your heart. What does the future hold if you choose to go out and do?