African American writer and activist James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” America, it appears, has finally started to face its institutional racism. Most of the people I associate with are not overtly racist. But some of us might be without even realizing it. But whether individuals are racist, openly or otherwise, the American system seems to be stacked against persons of color. While modern-day Americans might no longer harbor the racism that once motivated the establishment of racist practices, the effects of that old racism remain. In short, life is hard for everyone, but if you are a person of color, your race is making your life harder.
Racism is not a new topic for this blog. I have repeatedly discussed films with themes challenging prejudice, protests, the criminal justice system, and economic inequalities.[i] But following the brutal murder of George Floyd, it feels as if we are facing America’s prejudices for the first time in a meaningful way that could bring about change.
While you can find numbers to prove almost anything, there are so many statistics illustrating the challenges African Americans have faced during the history of this country, there must be some truth to the racism behind them. Here are a few of those statistics (as well as a few movies based or inspired by true stories related to those statistics).
Americans imported over twelve million Africans, chained below deck in cargo ships, and sold and traded them as slaves. The labor forced upon these slaves made them less than human. If you don’t believe me, watch 12 Years a Slave or the miniseries, Roots. The Founding Fathers, not sure whether slaves were people or property, split the difference—counting a slave as three-fifths of a person to establish each state’s number of elected representatives. It took a bloody civil war, the deadliest of all American conflicts, to end the legalized practice of slavery. Although the Union army did not use African Americans in combat as much as it could have, by the war’s end, 179,000 served (making up ten percent of the Union’s army). Over 40,000 African Americans died because of the war, 30,000 from diseases. Watch the films, Glory or Harriet, to get a sense of African American soldiers’ contributions to the Union cause.
After the Civil War, the country replaced slavery with other forms of racial hierarchy, enforced through lynchings, disenfranchisement, and segregation. According to the NAACP, from 1882 to 1968, America lynched 4,743 persons, 3,446 of whom (or 72.7 percent) were African American. Watch Rosewood, for an account of vigilante (in)justice against African Americans. Jim Crow laws reinforced the “less than” status of black Americans. Watch The Help or The Green Book to get a sense of what that segregation was like. Poll taxes, literacy tests, property ownership requirements, and strict registration laws prevented many blacks from voting. A hundred years after the Civil War, the federal government finally began declaring such practices illegal. Watch Mississippi Burning to see how difficult it was to register African American voters even after the changes in the law.
Most of us can acknowledge the sad history of race relations in America. And although things have improved, racism remains a part of America’s culture without most of us knowing it. For example, during the Great Depression, Congress created Social Security to help guarantee a stable retirement for most Americans. But when initially passed, it excluded domestic and agricultural workers, rendering 67 percent of black Americans ineligible for that benefit. Banking laws and practices made it all but impossible for black Americans to obtain mortgages for houses in certain areas, effectively keeping them in the poorest sections of cities and towns. And although Congress has eliminated those banking practices, its effects remain. In 2016, the average African American household was worth $17,000, while the average white-owned home was worth more than $170,000. In 2018, 72 percent of whites owned a home. For African Americans, it was only 42 percent.
The film, The Banker,[ii] tells the story of Bernard Garrett (played by Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (played by Samuel L. Jackson) who help other African Americans pursue homeownership. They do this by training a working-class man, Matt Steiner (played by Nicholas Hoult), to pose as the wealthy and privileged face of the real estate and banking empire they have created. But their success catches the attention of the federal government. Here is the closing argument of Bernard Garrett before a Congressional committee:
Those hearings led to prohibitions against discrimination in housing and banking practices. But the disparity between black and white housing has other effects. Although the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in 1954, more than half of America’s children still attend racially concentrated schools. That’s a school that has more the 75 percent of its students either white or persons of color. Since most school districts rely primarily on local property taxes for funding, the economic resources of predominantly black schools are significantly below those of mostly white schools. According to a 2018 report from the nonprofit EdBuild, predominantly white school districts receive $23 billion more than those serving primarily students of color. That means the average nonwhite school district receives $2,226 less per student than a white school district.
And the disparity continues into higher education. According to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 64 percent of whites entering college complete their degree within six years. For black students, only 39 percent complete their degrees.
Of course, disparities in education translates into less earning power. According to census data, black families with a new-born baby have a median annual income of $36,300. For a white family, it is $80,000. But even black Americans with advanced degrees are not competing with their white counterparts, earning only 82 cents for every dollar earned by whites. For black women, the gap is worse, making only 64 cents per dollar. When it comes to net worth, according to William A. Darity, the co-author of From Here to Equality, blacks make up 13 percent of the population but hold only 2.6 percent of its wealth. Incredibly, the net worth of black American heads of households with a college degree averages only two-thirds the net worth of white heads of families who didn’t even graduate from high school.
Less income means less saved for retirement. Sixty percent of white families have at least one retirement account; only 34 percent of black families do. And the median balance of those accounts is $151,000 for whites compared to only $46,100 for blacks. All this means there is less wealth to pass on to the next generation. The median inheritance for whites in 2016 was over $56,000; for blacks, it was only $38,000.
And we haven’t even touched the disparity between whites and blacks in healthcare where a black woman is almost four times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman. As of 2018, 9.7 percent of black Americans have no health insurance, while only 5.4 percent of whites are uninsured. And blacks are more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than whites.
Perhaps the most significant evidence of our inherently racist society is in the criminal justice system. It is a system designed to keep a person in it once entered, regardless of race, but it affects blacks harder than whites. If you don’t believe me, watch the films, Detroit, The 13th, Brian Banks, and 16 Shots, and the Netflix series, When They See Us. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2.3 million persons currently behind bars, with 7 million more on probation or parole. Unbelievably, one in three black men between the ages of 18 and 30 are in jail or on probation or parole. In large urban areas such as Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., those percentages increase to between 50 and 60 percent. In Alabama, 34 percent of all black men have permanently lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction.
If you are thinking, well, it’s good that all these felons are behind bars, making our streets safer for the rest of us, think again. Two-thirds of the people currently in jail are there while they wait for their day in court. In other words, they have not been convicted of their alleged crime and remain incarcerated because the court denied them bail, or they are too poor to pay it. Of the 12 million arrests in this country, only five percent of those are for violent crimes. Only five percent! The vast majority of arrests (about 75 percent) are for low-level misdemeanors. If you think the system is always fair to all races and all economic classes, then consider the homeless man in Texas who, on a cold night, stole four blankets to keep warm. He spent eight months in jail awaiting his trial because he had no means to pay the $3500 bail. Or the Louisiana court that sentenced a man to 13 years in prison for possession of two marijuana joints.
The film, Brian Banks,[iii] is the true story of an African American unjustly accused of rape by his 16-year-old classmate. While his accuser was also black, it is a compelling tale of how difficult it is to prove your innocence once the system finds you guilty—even of a crime you didn’t commit. Even his lawyer, Justin Brooks (played by Greg Kinnear), who started the Innocence Project in California, acknowledges how one-sided the system is in this clip:
The movie, Just Mercy,[iv] is based on the early career of Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), who has tirelessly represented individuals that the system has wronged. Here is his closing argument in the case of Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx), on death row for a crime he did not commit:
DNA evidence ultimately exonerated McMillian, but how many others are there like him? As of 2018, courts have exonerated 367 convicted persons by DNA evidence. Of those, 61 percent are black. Stevenson, who also specializes in defending young boys who are tried as adults (some as young as 13 years old), argues that race and wealth need to come out of the justice equation. He often asks the question, how does it happen that we allow judges to turn a young boy, maybe as young as 13, into something he is not [an adult]? He would like that same young boy to be turned into a 70-year-old white CEO of a major company and see what justice looks like then. Or, in his words, “The opposite of poverty in America is not wealth; it’s justice.”
There is much work to be done to break down the institutional racism of America. Those of us who enjoy white privilege need first to educate ourselves about the problem. Watch the films I suggest in this blog. Take the time to listen to those of different races, cultures, and wealth and learn to empathize with them. As Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird counsels, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
I recently watched The Best of Enemies,[v] a film about the integration of public schools in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971. It pitted civil rights activist Ann Atwater (played by Taraji P. Henson), against C.P. Ellis (played by Sam Rockwell), the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. As these two enemies work together, they learn to realize, as Atwater says to Ellis, “The same God made you, made me.” Here is the trailer from the film:
I close with this quote from Jake Tyler Brigance (played by Matthew McConaughey) in the movie A Time to Kill: “Until we can see each other as equals, justice is never going to be even-handed. It will remain nothing more than a reflection of our own prejudices.”
Come on, America. We can do better.
[i] See for example:
- I Hate White People at https://lifelessonsthroughfilm.com/2016/07/15/i-hate-white-people/
- Take a Knee at https://lifelessonsthroughfilm.com/2017/10/14/take-a-knee/
- Some Gave All at https://lifelessonsthroughfilm.com/2018/04/15/some-gave-all/
- Criminal Injustice at https://lifelessonsthroughfilm.com/2018/06/01/criminal-injustice/
- I Hate It When I’m Angry at https://lifelessonsthroughfilm.com/2018/09/15/i-hate-it-when-im-angry/
- To Err is Human at https://lifelessonsthroughfilm.com/2019/11/01/to-err-is-human/
[ii] The Banker:
- Production Companies: Romulus Entertainment, Hyphenate Films, and Iam21 Entertainment
- Director: George Nolfi
- Screenwriters: Niceole R. Levy and George Nolfi
- Starring: Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, and Nicholas Hoult
- Release date: March 20, 2020
[iii] Brian Banks:
- Production Companies: ShivHans Pictures, and Gidden Media
- Director: Tom Shadyac
- Screenwriter: Doug Atchison
- Starring: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, and Sherri Shepherd
- Release date: August 11, 2019
[iv] Just Mercy:
- Production Companies: Warner Bros., Endeavor Content, and One Community
- Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
- Screenwriters: Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham
- Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson
- Release date: January 10, 2020
[v] The Best of Enemies:
- Production Companies: Astute Films and Material Pictures
- Director: Robin Bissell
- Screenwriters: Robin Bissel and Osha Gray Davidson
- Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, and Babou Ceesay
- Release date: April 5, 2019