Are you outraged by the Trayvon Martin shooting?
I am. Or to be honest, I’m notionally outraged.
I’m metering my outrage. If I didn’t, I would go mad. So much in our society seems utterly unfair and hard to change. But let’s look at something close to the experience of Trayvon Martin that if he didn’t himself experience, it’s something close to the experience of many boys who “look like him”1.
Consider the many decades of the Drug War. Study after study shows the actual rates of users and dealers are very similar between different racial groups (other than Asians). Black people are supposedly only 14%2 of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug crimes and a outrageous 56% of those in state prison for a drug crime. This is all drug crimes from simple marijuana possession to being the drug boss many assume are the people the drug war is fighting3. Now consider what it means to have a felony record.
A felony record means you will find it hard to get housing (it’s perfectly legal to refuse to rent to felons). A felony record means you might find it hard to get even a low-paying job (it’s perfectly legal to require felony disclosure on applications). A felony record (and presumably little savings) means you might find it hard to go to school (it’s perfectly legal to refuse to give loans to felons and federal law explicitly disallows drug offenders from federally subsidized financial aid if the drug offense while getting aid). Of course, a felony record means you might not even qualify for public assistance. What exactly are you going to do when you get out of prison, even for the most innocuous of offenses, such as marijuana possession?4
But why do the police arrest so many more black people? Why are so many more convicted? There’s no reason to think there are more black drug users or dealers. Who gets stopped and frisked in New York? Minorities are stopped nine times as often as white people5. This type of disproportionate enforcement hold up all over6. If different groups use and deal drugs at similar rates but you stop and question one subgroup more, then of course they will be arrested more often. Where do the police focus most of their efforts? “High crime” neighborhoods where they can stop anyone “suspicious”, not frat row or white suburbs. But the rates of 15-25 year old males smoking marijuana are pretty similar in both neighborhoods (in fact, white males in that age group use marijuana more!)
Now consider you’re a boy growing up in all of this. Your older siblings or your friends’ older siblings (and eventually you) are stopped by the police at arbitrary times, often just for hanging out on the street. “Driving while black” and “walking while black” and “standing on a corner while black” are not jokes. Many of the older men in your community have gone to prison and now find it hard to find work. You need special watching, society is saying. You’re dangerous.
Doesn’t this seem like it might be burdensome mentally? That perhaps it might be hard to keep one’s nose clean in this social environment7. Doesn’t it seem likely that one mistake could lead to a life of privation and social ostracism? Why are black kids (and poor kids) uniquely held to a high standard that a middle-class white kid never experiences? Don’t stand around on street corners — it looks suspicious. Don’t do drugs or the law will come down hard on you — even though the kid in the suburbs has little such fear. Keep your eye on the prize — but don’t look away even for an instant because you might stumble and never get up.
I’ve left out a lot of details, statistics, argument and history. There’s more to it (and more to be outraged) than just this. But this is enough. I think about it and realize: I didn’t experience this growing up, but others did and do. I grew up poor, but not poor and black (and not male which is important too). Moreover, I grew up poor primarily in areas that the police didn’t see as dangerous. I didn’t have to worry that when I trespassed to sit and talk over the train tracks that police would show up and chase me off (and maybe it could go far worse). When I got into a fight, it was just kids being kids, not criminal activity. I could go wherever I wanted and not really worry about people thinking I was suspicious.
When I think about growing up with that pressure? It freaks me out. My mind freezes up imagining how different it could turn out for me. Instead of a respected (and well rewarded) job at a computer company, plenty of friends, social activities and the ability to just make my own platform for expression on a whim, where would I be? Would I have been able to keep my nose clean while relentlessly being told I wasn’t worth anything? Could I have escaped arrest before eighteen? Would I have bothered to go to college? Would I have even got in? If I’d attended school, might I have gone to a party, smoked some weed and then lost my student loans after a cop stopped me on the way home? Sure, plenty of kids do manage to keep their noses clean, but would I have? Am I so uniquely special that I could have? Why do I expect so many other kids to manage this?
Why do we expect so much of kids when we offer them so little?
I’ll have to stop now. The writing will get more ridiculous and tortured. Sometimes it bubbles up inside, the outrage screaming in my mind and listening to the news brings it up more. It wouldn’t have mattered if Trayvon Martin had been filmed when he was shot. Someone would still say on TV that he shouldn’t have been walking there or that he was suspicious. And some poor kid would have to watch that being said about someone who “looks like him”.
That I let myself be even a little outraged8 about this now is likely because of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Sure, I thought, I know our justice system and society are extremely unfair, but it’s not because that many people are actually racist, right? Even if those enforcing the rules aren’t acting from racism, the outcomes matter. A final quote from her book that hit me hard:
For black youth, the experience of being “made black” often begins with the first police stop, interrogation, search, or arrest. The experience carries social meaning-this is what it means to be black. The story of one’s “first time” may be repeated to family or friends, but for ghetto youth, almost no one imagines that the first time will be the last. The experience is understood to define the terms of one’s relationship not only to the state but to society at large. This reality can be frustrating for those who strive to help ghetto youth “turn their lives around.” James Forman Jr., the cofounder of the See Forever charter school for juvenile offenders in Washington, D.C., made this point when describing how random and degrading stops and searches of ghetto youth “tell kids that they are pariahs, that no matter how hard they study, they will remain potential suspects.” One student complained to him, “We can be perfect, perfect, doing everything right and still they treat us like dogs. No, worse than dogs, because criminals are treated worse than dogs.” Another student asked him pointedly, “How can you tell us we can be anything when they treat us like we’re nothing?”
I use this phrase because of the many people expressing their outrage by saying their son, if they had one, would look like Travyon Martin. ↩
The percentages for drug use, arrests and convictions in this particular sentence come from A 25 Five Year Quagmire but you can find similar ones from many sources just by googling. The numbers vary somewhat but within one data set they tell the same story. ↩
The overwhelming majority of drug arrests are for possession. ↩
To be sure, the logic of this entire piece applies to people who aren’t black. Poorer people in general are obviously treated very similarly. But poor people, as a class, are not generally assumed to be criminals by large numbers of Americans. ↩
In The New Jim Crow, the author cites several high profile studies including: Operation Pipeline where drivers violating traffic laws on the New Jersey Turnpike were stopped looking for drug couriers. 42% and 73% of arrests were of black motorists despite equal rates of traffic law violations. It turned out that the white motorists were more likely to actually be carrying drugs; In Florida, a reporter obtained video footage for 1,000 highway stops. 80% of those stopped were black or latino despite only being 5% of those on the road. And it goes on. These are only the cases where someone bothered to go look to see if there were racial disparities in enforcement. The vast majority of disparity in enforcement goes unreported because if a cop stops you but lets you go, it doesn’t really get reported. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect your view of the world. ↩
And I haven’t even mentioned poor social services, bad schools, or the effects of poverty! ↩
I am not unaware of the sad privilege I have to only sometimes be outraged while other people have to live it. I worry that this post is offensive to use Trayvon Martin as a lead-in, because of that privilege. But it’s the honest truth: endless news on the topic makes it hard for me to suppress that outrage and writing makes me less crazy. And maybe it will make people think a little. ↩