Ferguson and what it means to be Black

Ferguson and what it means to be Black

By Geert Dhondt

“But what is this group; and how do you differentiate it; and how can you call it ‘black’ when you admit it is not black?”  I recognize it quite easily and with full legal sanction; the black man is a person who must ride “Jim Crow” in Georgia.

—W.E.B. Du Bois, Dusk of Down: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. (1940)

In the United States there are currently 1213 endangered species (US Fish and Wildlife Service), 164 million pets (2012), and 67.8 million pigs (2007).  We also know that 82 police officers have died so far this year in the line of duty.  This includes 33 cops who were killed in or by cars and motorcycles, 1 drowned, and 8 died of a heart attack.  Thirty-eight died by gunfire (including accidental). Yet we have no idea how many people are killed by cops each year.  According to journalists and criminologists the estimates are well over a 1000 a year.  In a very incomplete federal data set of 1217 police killings between 2010 and 2012, young Blacks were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million versus young whites at a rate of 1.47 per million.  If young whites were killed at a rate equal to the young Blacks annually, then the police would have to kill an extra 185 young whites to even their effort.

One thing is clear regardless of the data: multiple police killings happen everyday in the United States, mostly directed against young Black and Brown boys.  These police killings don’t happen everywhere but in specific neighborhoods or specific towns, the same populations that overwhelmingly fill the prisons and jails in the United States.  This is not because these areas are high crime neighborhoods, but because they are poor and Black neighborhoods.  For example, in a study of Tallahassee[1], prison admissions are highly correlated with how Black the neighborhoods are (.69) and not with how much crime is committed in those neighborhoods (.19).

The criminal justice system hasn’t always been used to incarcerate, kill, and harass the Black and Latino populations.  For most of the century the overall incarceration rate hovered around 100 per 100,000.  Since 1980 this has climbed exponentially to about 750 per 100000 by the late 2000s.  Before this massive increase Blacks made up less than 1/3 of all 200,000 prisoners, now 2/3 of all 2.2 million prisoners are Black and Latino. This massive lockup binge in the post-segregation and neoliberal era occurred simultaneously with the decline of Black labor as a central component of the U.S. Economy, thus rending young Black men and women superfluous to the needs of capital. Today the “criminals” and “welfare queens”[2] are the descendents of menial workers, sharecroppers and slaves.

The fact that officials keep no data on the number of police killing of young blacks is intentional and hugely significant. It is a blatant disregardfor human life.  As a society we now exclude our Black and Brown brothers from equal education and employment, we incarcerate them in largenumbers, or we kill them by the hands of the police. Seemingly out of nowhere, Black folks in working class Ferguson rose up and challenged the brutal murder of Michael Brown.  Their rebellion lead to a national debate about race, policing, prison, modern segregation, and what it means to be Black in the United States. These conversations are now on the forefront of the nation’s collective mind, with the potential for other uprisingslooming. And when the dust settles, when the media leaves, we will find ourselves in a changed nation.

 Geert Dhondt is an Assistant Professor of Economics at John Jay College, The City University of New York.


[1] Dhondt (2012), “The bluntness of incarceration: crime and punishment in Tallahassee neighborhoods, 1995 to. 2002,” CrimeLaw and Social Change, 57 (5): 521-538.

[2] Welfare for Black women is used in parallel to the criminal justice system for Black men.  Glenn Loury (2008) describes in Race, Incarceration, and American Values  (MIT Press) that public opinion of welfare used to not be correlated with race but after the end of segregation it became highly correlated. See also Loic Wacquant (2009) Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity(Duke University Press) for a discussion of the relationship between Welfare and Prison in Neoliberal era.


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