When Subtle Encroachments Blossom: Violence, Ethnic Tension, and Civil Rights in the Context of the Modern American Police State

I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. ~James Madison

Over the weekend and during the last four days, there have been some disturbing events unfolding in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.  I know that we would like to make this issue all about a black and white ethnic clash.  It would be so much simpler to grasp in that context.  But it isn’t.  I’m not saying that the issue is unrelated to ethnic tensions in an America that is obviously not post-racial.  I’m saying that it’s not nearly that simple.  Not only are other ethnic groups familiar with this type of brutality, but also ethnic violence is only a single aspect of a much more complex and deeply systemic issue.  To so simplify the events in Ferguson is to render them more easily dismissed.  It makes it only about “race” and not about a particularly disturbing cultural trend that stands to impact us all.  One that, in many subtle ways, already has.

The events in Ferguson–which will serve as our Petri dish in this exploration–can be connected to several issues beyond disproportionate violence directed at the African American community.  Far from dismissing this theme, I believe that that in and of itself could form a substantial document of inquiry.  But violence directed at communities in which poverty is a major concern, the proliferation of military-grade arms and tactics in domestic police forces, the recruitment of otherwise socially marginalized individuals with axes to grind, and the use of disproportionate and deadly force during police actions that has devolved into an overt show of power rather than remaining reserved as a tactic of last extreme–each of these issues must be examined in order to understand the complexity of such situations.

{I invite rebuttal and insight by those who have a better handle on some of these topics–sociologists, political scientists, and other scholarly experts. This is as much about me seeking answers as it is an expository piece.}

The Elephant in the Room

Let’s jump right in and make everyone as uncomfortable as possible.  Let’s talk about race relations in America and the “Culture of Poverty” ideology that has developed in order to rationalize maintaining unequal race-relations within a cultural hierarchy based on valuations that privilege whiteness.  There, now.  That wasn’t so hard was it?  It’s about to get worse, because I’m not just going to make the statement, I’m going to try to unpack it a bit, here. We’re going to dig into America’s Dirty Laundry Duffel Bag of secret racism and subtle despotism.

I say secret, not because anyone is actually fooled, but because the official policy stance is one of equality under the law.  The reality is somewhat…different.  All we accomplished with the Civil Rights movement was to push racism out of the light of the public sphere and into the dark and fetid corners of private opinion and euphemistic epithet.  Yes, most of us are pretty well-balanced compared to pre-1960s behavior and thought, but racism hasn’t actually disappeared.  Those opinions still impact how public policy is formed and enacted, which school zones receive the most money, and which areas are most strictly policed.

The idea that those in poverty will always be impoverished, no matter how much help they receive because being poor is a part of a subcultural way of life, is pervasive in America.  It underpins a great deal of the objection to social assistance programs, and even informs how those social programs are enacted.  The fact that Ferguson is a suburb of largely African American population may, for the purposes of this inquiry be coupled with the fact that it also boasts a median income of approximately $10,000 less per year than the rest of Missouri.

Add to that the fact that it is home to a multi-billion dollar international electronics manufacturer and at least a portion of its population also find employment with a nearby pharmaceutical company.  It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that the median doesn’t accurately describe the income of at least some of its residents.  How large that number is will require a more detailed analysis of the demographic information than we have space for here.

The Both/And End of the Stick

You may be asking at this point, “So, is it a question of demographics or one of ethnicity?”  Guess what?  The answer is “both.” Remember that Culture of Poverty thing we touched on above?  Here, we see it in full, racist swing.  Now, this issue is incredibly complex and I have neither the education nor the space to completely unpack it in a simple blog entry, but I want you to take it for consideration.

That’s because it plays directly into the ways in which we think about justification for police action in impoverished areas, how victims of police brutality are characterized by the mainstream media–especially when they are members of non-white ethnic communities–and why making this simply about tension between two ethnic groups renders it simplistic enough to be swept under the cultural carpet–something America has been doing for a long time.

That’s where the concept of whiteness comes into play.  We often have this idea that the Civil Rights Era ended racism in America.  That’s what they teach us in high school.  The great Dream of Martin Luther King Jr. was realized.  Except that it wasn’t.  I don’t like the term “racism” because it assumes the existence of more than one race of human beings–an exploded, outmoded theory of a bygone and backward era in the history of scientific inquiry.

Also, it doesn’t treat with tensions that arise from differing stances on religion or philosophy.  If you’ve ever seen the Gregory Peck movie Gentleman’s Agreement or have any interest in Jewish American history, you know that America remained a de facto anti-Semitic culture long after VE Day. But that’s another topic for another day.  The point is, discriminatory policy and ways of thinking aren’t limited to the easily identified boundaries presented by physical characteristics.

 

Perpetuating Inequality

Let’s turn to inequality of opportunity.  In tandem with the concept that the poor will always remain poor because it’s their culture, one has to look no farther to bust the idea of equality of opportunity wide open than the annual budget of schools in impoverished districts.  How, I ask, are individuals raised in poor communities supposed to compete with those raised in more affluent areas when they are given no tools with which to work?  The textbooks are often damaged, outdated, and delivered in numbers insufficient to class sizes.  Scientific lab equipment is often altogether absent, unless provided by the teacher at their own expense, which is the case for a number of supplies ordinarily provided by the school or purchased by parents who can (in many cases) afford it.

As well, posting to these districts is often seen as punitive in the educational community, and is also used as a sort of Teacher Hazing, with the less experienced or newer teachers being posted, often in communities where they are seen as outsiders.  Most of these instructors are not adequately prepared to teach or treat with their students in these districts in a way that is either effective or compassionate.  They are all too regularly speaking from a framework of Whiteness–which utilizes terms and examples, as well as standards, that privilege more affluent ways of life, and assume a standard of safety, health, and nutritional opportunity that these children may never know.

How, do you imagine, these children might feel about that?  Of what value are the lessons being drilled into them–a life and a world they are shown they may not have, in terms that demean and negate the one in which they live?  How is this intended to produce equality of opportunity?  How is it an improvement upon the Separate But Equal policy that characterized segregated America?  We are still segregating America–just not officially.  Moreover, it’s done along lines of affluence as well as ethnicity.  Here, we begin to see how the game may be effectively rigged to serve a subtly biased agenda–ensuring that undesirable elements remain impoverished and at a clear disadvantage in order to keep them from being a threat to resources.  “A few is fine, but they can’t all be allowed to compete for what I view as mine.”

 

For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them. ~Sir Thomas More, Utopia

The “Not Our Problem” Ideology and Police Violence

That doesn’t sound very nice, does it?  And for those of you who cling to the idea that we live in a society that prizes equality above all things, I know you’ll find it very difficult to accept.  If you have a shred of intellectual honesty in your being, you’ll set aside any reactionary, pre-packaged rhetoric of “cultures of inherent violence, poverty, and/or filth” that have been fed to you over the years.  That’s a holdover from a culture that put signs on drinking fountains and lunch counters, and soldiers at the doors of schools to prevent little girls and boys from learning alongside their peers who had skin of a different color.  Look into the disproportionate level of violent incursions in poorer neighborhoods, where unequal educational and employment opportunities are in place.

I didn’t grow up on the Mean Streets of Anywhere.  I came of age in a sheltered, suburban environment, with affluent schools and shopping districts–generously zoned neighborhoods and the evidence of Money.  I don’t pretend to speak with authority on how it feels to grow up in less privileged environments.  I don’t pretend to understand the struggles and how the comprehension of unequal power distribution impacts a child’s environment.  What I will claim is an understanding of what cultural appropriation does, and how affluent groups take what they perceive as desirable elements from other spheres of being while leaving the rest neatly closeted, away from notice or care.

I do claim the right of seeing these neighborhoods in Atlanta and elsewhere as an educated adult woman; having a sensibility that everyone has the right to create a life that is their own, not a product of neglect, ghettoization, brutal police suppression, internecine gang warfare fueled by external drug trafficking, and subtly state-sponsored cultural genocide.  Much of America permitted the increased violence of police suppression methods because they happened in these neighborhoods.  The individual lives such methods impacted were not the problem of the Suburbanite or the affluent Urban Dweller any more than they were a consideration for the Rural American Citizen of any level of affluence.

The atrocities of inner city clashes between gang members, and those resulting in police intervention were distant, invisible–a product of an inferior breed of people who were poor, stupid, and dirty–are these terms ringing any bells?  They should, because these are the terms by which the culture of poverty concept spreads its poison into your brain.  You see the individuals living in these impoverished regions as less human, as somehow deserving of such treatment.

Often, it’s nothing of the sort.  It points to something more insidious that every American citizen, irrespective of demographic or ethnicity, must be cognizant of and guard against.  The continuation of our own freedom depends directly on ensuring the freedom of others.  Not the freedom to live in squalor amid violence and drug abuse, but the freedom to access information about rights and opportunities, complete with the tools to obtain lives that enrich their humanity, whatever that is. Below is a scene from a movie released in 1990 that had a huge impact on the way I have always seen the issues we have spent the past 1850 words discussing.  I was not yet ten when it came out in theaters, but I saw it as a young, sheltered “tween.” I’d like you to look at it and think about some of the points it makes before I continue and close this segment.  It may be fiction.  It may have been a popularized film.  But it introduced subjects that were not being discussed in the spheres in which I lived and played.  In that way, it was important.

 

Military or Domestic Police: Whose Problem?

It’s been happening for a while, this stockpiling of paramilitary gear and weapons in police departments.  Most of us simply weren’t aware of it, because it was happening in places we never went or didn’t want to look.  Brutality was occurring to people we would never meet, those we would avoid making eye contact with if we passed them on the street.  It wasn’t the problem of staid, comfortable Americans.  The term SWAT Team is batted about casually, without most people knowing what it stands for–Special Weapons and Tactics Team.

They came into  being in the 1960s to combat extraordinary circumstances too complex for ordinary police action, such as domestic terrorism, snipers, and the like.  Think about bell towers and militant separatist compounds serving as bomb factories, not suburban side streets.  That’s where they are now.  When did this shift take place?  Well, there’s been a great deal of focus on the sale or free provision of decommissioned military vehicles, weapons, and protective gear by the Federal Government to local police departments since 2012, when the United States began withdrawing forces engaged in foreign conflicts.  That’s the tip of the ice berg.

While it has become something of a prestige race for small town P.D.’s to acquire immense and threatening vehicles, gear that makes Andy Griffith into a faceless Riot Cop Monster, and crowd suppression mechanisms that most of these towns don’t have the population for, much less the need, it isn’t the beginning.  The beginning can be found in the impoverished, largely multi-ethnic communities of Urban America in the 1980s.  America’s War on Drugs was really a war on undesirable people.  But as long as the brutality was taking place in neighborhoods few people beyond them cared about, America was largely content to allow it.

Only in recent years have the dedicated social activists, who worked to bring to light the real threat these policies present to all of us, been more than marginally successful.  They have labored to show an unconcerned populace why it is wrong, why it cannot be dismissed as a “they must have done something to deserve being beaten/shot/attacked/arrested” matter.  We can no longer afford to accept that such violence, such militarization of domestic police forces, within our borders.  Perhaps you think it’s not a problem for you because you haven’t broken any laws or you have nothing to hide.  These police often don’t ask questions about culpability first.  They have set a record for acting violently and paying damages to grieving family members after the fact–with your tax dollars.

 

Please think about that, and ask yourself what should happen if a law came to pass that rendered you criminal in the eyes of law enforcement.  You will have had a hand in crafting your own condemnation.  These law enforcement officers are utilizing military crowd suppression methods against members of the press and peaceful citizens asking for clarification.  They are violating the First Amendment with abandon.  In closing, I present to you a few minutes of footage filmed Wednesday night in Ferguson, MO.  The neighborhood is quiet, suburban, and residential.  The people involved are peaceful protesters and members of the press.

 

 

{I think it’s important to note that some of the concepts discussed above, such as the Culture of Poverty, can be applied to rural American populations who live in substandard housing, have substandard educational resources, and often cope with community drug issues.  But this has already gone on for so long, that must wait for another day.}

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2 thoughts on “When Subtle Encroachments Blossom: Violence, Ethnic Tension, and Civil Rights in the Context of the Modern American Police State

  1. Since I have had family friends, acquaintances and co-workers across almost every spectrum there is, I am always puzzled by these attitudes. I understand that racist undercurrents still flow here (and not just from white out, but across other ethnicities against other non-whites, and back at whites as well); I am still shocked when I come face to face with it. It is for me, one of the most difficult things to unravel. As someone who works daily with Somalians, Brazilians, Bulgarians and others, I just don’t get it. We are all human beings. Why is this so hard for humans? Divided against each other, we will always be used. Thanks for the good write.

    1. I wish I better understood the issues that underpin American racism, in particular, since it’s so very vital to helping find a solution. My take on it is that it stems largely from fear–of oppression, mistreatment, disrespect, and particularly of dispossession. From a socioarchaeological perspective–could it be an adaptation of the Self/Other differentiation that helped us to interact when contact with other groups was less frequent? Perhaps. I suppose all we can do in the moment is try to treat each other with as much respect and care as possible. Thank you for your comments and for taking time to read that very, very lengthy piece.

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