Black Bodies, Broken Worlds

Who am I to tell you about the law and Justice? I have no legal degree. I am in a room with people like Fred Dow, who played a very important role in the Department of Education’s Civil Rights division in the Clinton administration (my wife was a graduate student at Brown University, and remembers fondly her work with the OCR and Fred in particular in those perilous years). I am also disparaged for being an immigrant – you don’t like it, go home. What credentials do I have, a mere historian and journalist with so little title to America? But I stand on shoulders wider than mine, the shoulders of people such as Harry Dow, a child of Chinese working-class immigrants, who seized the right to a voice, who fought to make this country – structured around the principles of racial capitalism – more just, more honorable. What gives me the right to speak? The answer: Harry Dow.

What is this America that we live in? This country where police officers feel emboldened to shoot with impunity black bodies, bodies whose humanity has been cast aside by a culture of intolerance. There are a string of names from Eric Garner in Staten Island (2014) to Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana (1930) and backwards through slavery times. Watching the events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, I was reminded of the 1935 Harlem riot – which began when a sixteen-year old Afro-Puerto Rican boy Lino Rivera was threatened with a beating for shoplifting. In the aftermath of the unrest, the Mayor of New York City commissioned an inquiry, whose report The Negro in Harlem suggested that the riots were “spontaneous” and that the causes of the rioting were “injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police and racial segregation.” Reading the report in 2014 provokes a sense of frozen time.

Resistance to the everyday atrocities against black bodies takes me back to 1803, when a shipload of enslaved Igbo peoples, chained together, disembarked from their ships in Georgia and walked into the sea under the protection of their Water Spirit. Over the course of these past few days, chained humanity in the United States has gathered on the frozen plains of Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive and beneath the high peaks of New York’s Brooklyn Bridge – shutting down these arteries to register dissent. Humanity is outraged against abuse – humanity is not an American value alone, but a universal one. Humanity is a value that suggests that these killings are despicable, and that the lack of justice is intolerable. The people refuse. They will not tolerate this any longer. They say, it must end.

But why do these killings happen? They are not to be blamed on the policemen alone. That is too easy. This is a problem of a system. Inequality rates in the United States are at historic highs. The rich not only refuse to pay tax, but they have used their wealth and power to ensure that the idea of tax is seen as illegitimate: we live in a post-tax society. General Electric, Bristol-Meyers Squibb and Verizon are non-tax firms, in a post-tax economy. A man ducking the cigarette excise tax is killed; Fortune 500 firms that duck tax in general are applauded. At zero percent interest, the government turned over billions of dollars to the banks for their reserves, as a protection against the meltdown of the credit system ($1.8 trillion of government money sits in “excess reserves” in private banks). Banks sat on this money, just as the rich sit on their fortunes. We have little investment inside the country to provide jobs for increasingly disposable people; we have no money for services to provide those who have been cast aside. Global unemployment is at spectacularly high levels, with an “alarming” future for joblessness, according to the International Labour Organisation’s World of Work Report. Young people are nearly three times as likely as adults to be unemployed. An estimated 6.4 million young people have given up hope of finding a job. African American youth unemployment is now at 35 per cent. There is no plan to turn around this dynamic.

What money goes to interface between the people and the State is toward police and prisons. Three quarters of those who entered jail in the past two decades came for non-violent drug offences. The scandal of US jail expansion is this: that prisons have become the holding pens for the chronically unemployed population. Ferguson’s depleted municipal budget has come to rely more and more on levies generated by such things as traffic fines (the second highest item in its revenue stream). In 2013, the police issued 32,975 arrest-warrants to Ferguson’s population of only 21,135. The police write tickets to people for harmless infractions. These tickets come with high fines, which are priced beyond the poverty wages in the city (the poverty rate is at twenty percent). When these tickets are not paid, the police issues arrest-warrants – and put the population into the prison pipeline. The population is not a part of society; it is seen as a threat to law and order.

American society has been broken by these mechanisms – high rates of economic inequality, high rates of poverty, impossible entry into robust educational systems, unattainable opportunity for economic advancement, remarkable warlike conditions to manage populations seen not as the citizenry but as criminals. Such a corrosive set of processes should leave us necessarily despondent. The names Martin, Brown, Garner are the names of the present. Somewhere in America tonight, another person will be killed – another poor person who the police deem to be a threat. Tomorrow another, and then another. These deaths are not an outrage against this system. They are normal for this system.

Many of us are Asian Americans, a political category that emerged out of the Asian American movement. The term developed as a way to claim America on the one hand, and to retain the specificity of our place as Asians in America. There has been a long history since the end of the Civil Rights movement to pit Asian Americans against African Americans, to suggest that we are the model minority against the problem minority. Look, we are sometimes told, you do not need state support, and you succeed! Why can’t African Americans be more like Asian Americans, is the ridiculous question? Fifteen years ago I wrote a book called The Karma of Brown Folk, which argued that our immigration history and the hierarchies of racism have a great deal to do with outcomes. Careful state selection of Asians – with education achievement and personal determination – allowed the Asian
trayvonscommunities in the US to produce social outcomes that are at askance not only with other minorities in the US but also with populations in their home countries (all people in India and China, for example, are not doctors and engineers, or lawyers). It was state selection, not natural selection that helped provided the advantages. Much the opposite story for African Americans. If we are not sensitive to the different histories and to the very dangerous use of one community against another, we will betray not only the legacy of the progressive Asian American movement, but our own values of human dignity. The violence meted out against African Americans is specific; it is not identical to the racism that Asian Americans face. But that should not lessen our commitment to the widest kind of justice in our world.

The political class has failed us. No longer do we see the unapologetic standard-bearers for the good side of history – those who call for public education and public health care, public this and public that, financed by higher, progressive taxes on income and inheritance? Why do we cower from making clear that we do not agree that so few families should so obscenely enjoy the fruits of social wealth? It is not enough to think of justice as the procedure that kicks into motion when someone has been killed; what about justice at the heart of social lives. Where is the justice in denying children the right to decent schools, to decent work? What would Michael Brown have majored in if he were allowed to go to a liberal arts college? What would Eric Garner have named his small shop?

Frustration has led to the streets. But who is on the streets? Diverse motley of people, fed up with the present. They have rejected Today; they want Tomorrow. What drives them? A common view: Black Lives Matter, which is more than a hashtag. It is a first principle. It contradicts the Crime Bills, the Welfare Reforms, the Wars on Drugs and Terror. It suggests that Life is more important than the confidence of capital markets. Out there on the streets are also those who had found their feet in the Occupy Movement, as well as those who masked themselves as Anonymous to occupy the Internet. There are college students, who recognize that the debt-fueled present will only end in a debt-burdened future. There are those who continue to drill deep into working-class survival with the anti-eviction movement. In these crowds we see the immigrant rights activists, the Dreamers, standing beside the Dream Defenders from Trayvon Martin’s hometown. This is the growing majority. Where this majority will go, who knows? But it is on the move.

In 1968, just before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

It is now dark enough.

Vijay Prashad is the author of No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (forthcoming from LeftWord Books, New Delhi). He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence.

Keynote address at the 29th Annual Celebration for the Harry H. Dow Memorial Legal Assistance Fund, December 5, 2014.



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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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