Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Equality DEANNE LEBLANC
“Interrupting the forces of racism is ongoing, lifelong work because the forces conditioning us into racist frameworks are always at play: our learning will never be finished.”
—Robin Diangelo, White Fragility
Racial tension and division has been woven into the fabric of this country since white men first stepped foot on this soil and proceeded to colonize, own and kill humans who already lived here. We are currently living in a society that has been reaping the benefits of a country that has profited from racism even before the dawn of its establishment. Never was this front and center for me like it was after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by a white police officer on August 9, 2014. The details of what happened in the minutes after Michael and his friend were stopped for walking across the street (just feet away from his home) are not clear, but what is clear is that a white officer shot 12 bullets from his gun at an unarmed Brown within 90 seconds of stopping his vehicle and an 18-year old—described by friends, family and teachers as a “gentle giant”—was dead.
Witnesses at the scene said that the outrage the nation saw blasted in the media for days on end—that consequently became the main talking point surrounding the shooting—was not immediate. The initial protests were actually peaceful, with most of the rioting coming outside of Ferguson. It was a gradual, slow burn that continued all day and during that first night, due to the disrespect and trauma that the Ferguson community endured in the wake of Brown’s death. Not only was a child dead, but hour after hour went by while a human being who had a family, friends and was loved by his community, lay in the street, uncovered, for hours. After nationwide protests, the case prompted an agreement with the Department of Justice for police reforms after the DOJ probe uncovered routine racist practices among St. Louis police.
I live 25 miles from Ferguson but in reality, we lived worlds apart. In the aftermath of this tragedy, my mothering heart could not reconcile how this boy’s bleeding body was left in the middle of the road for over four hours in the sweltering, Missouri August sun. I couldn’t make sense of it. No matter what had happened that afternoon, a young man never should have been gunned down right in front of his home, his brain matter trickling in a dark stream down the street, as family and friends watched in horror… for hours. When I heard about how long Michael’s body stayed in the street, a sentence from “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, echoed hauntingly through my mind: “The world had taken a deep breath and was having doubts about continuing to resolve.”
I imagined my own child, who is just a couple of years younger than Michael was that day, lying in the street, bullet holes visible throughout her body and blood pouring from her face. I imagined being in the position his parents were in when they begged and pleaded with police to give them answers. I tried to imagine how I would respond if no one gave me answers, no one listened to my many requests for my child’s body to be covered, no one giving basic human decency or respect to me or my family. I imagined. But that is all I could do. Because I am a white, middle class woman who has never known the black experience. I have never been stopped for walking in my own neighborhood. I have never been the target of racial profiling. I have never even been asked by a police officer to get out of my car in my 25 years of traffic stops. I have never been told to keep my hands on the wheel, even as I absentmindedly reached for my purse, wallet or glove compartment. I have never been shown disrespect or disregard when stopped by police. I have never known this amount of trauma. I have never.
With a searing clarity, I was gutted with knowledge I must have been suppressing my entire life: this country has not come far at all since our darkest days when half the country was fighting to hold onto slavery simply for our own personal and financial gain. A gradual, slow burn began to kindle in my heart—and with the startling increase of racial violence since 2016—that slow burn has turned into a raging wildfire.
What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be free? The Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
So what does life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness look like for people of color?
The Pursuit of Happiness
I am happy when I’m warm and safe in my home. I am happy when I can work to receive a decent wage that provides for my needs. I am happy having adequate transportation to come and go as I please. I am happy that I can vote, my children can attend a good public school and receive a solid education. I am free to live the way I desire, within a few reasonable perimeters.
The Right to an Equitable Education:
In order to be able to pursue happiness as an adult, a good education is required. I received a great high school education, was able to go to the college of my choice and, though it was expensive, I was able to access grants and loans, as well as find work quickly so that I could attain my goal of getting a college degree.
Although racist segregation of American schools is outlawed, education across the country is still largely divided along racial lines. Districts are allowed to rezone schools to decrease or increase segregation, but there simply has not been enough impact to decrease segregation within school districts. In the city of St. Louis, education is a hot topic because we have some of the worst public school discrepancies in the nation. St. Louis School District policies perpetuate segregation by recreating the segregation of its underlying neighborhoods, according to new research.
Michael Brown was a graduate of Normandy High School, one of the most segregated high schools in the country—97% enrolled are black students. Normandy also happens to be in one of the most poverty stricken areas of St. Louis, and also in a district that has been at the center of legislative battles by the Missouri Board of Education. But Michael Brown had made it. He worked hard and just a couple of months before his death, he had accomplished a life long goal to graduate high school and go on to college. His friends said he was determined to fight the system. He told close friends at his graduation that he “wasn’t going to end up like so many of their neighbors on the streets.” He was going to get an education. He wanted to make his life better. At the time of his death, he was just two days away from starting his first day of college.
Michael Brown was not only the result of a dubious terry police stop, which ended in his senseless death, but even before his death he was also the consequence of racially segregated housing laws that were put into place over a hundred years ago—laws that we are still seeing the dramatic and devastating effects of today. Michael Brown was the byproduct of a broken education system that is in such disrepair, it has not been improved upon in decades. Housing is dependent on education; education is dependent on money; money is dependent on a good job and a good job is dependent on a good education… round and round it goes. More often than not, the future for monitories in this system becomes a hopeless cycle of poverty, addiction, prison or death. The reality is that the odds were stacked against Michael Brown before he had even been born.
The Right to Equitable Housing:
After the Civil War, St. Louis was a hot spot for immigrants, former slaves and industrialists. The political and business elites in St. Louis created a rule in 1876 which erected a political and geographic barrier between the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County. By the early 20th century, white flight from St. Louis to the suburbs had already been happening and continued to get worse.
The Ville, the neighborhood that sits north of the “Delmar Divide,” was a refuge for former enslaved persons and their descendants as they began to escape the Jim Crow south during the Great Migration. The white-controlled St. Louis real estate industry used racial covenants—contractual agreements that prohibit the purchase, lease, or occupation of a piece of property by a particular group of people—and steering to drive the city’s growing black population to the neighborhoods north of Delmar, while driving white families to the neighborhoods south. These ordinances stated, among other things, that if “75% of the residents of a neighborhood were of a certain race, no one from a different race was allowed to move into the neighborhood.” In 1948, it was ruled as unconstitutional but the damage was already done.
So the history of The Ville can’t be written without including the systematic denial of mortgages and other home-based lines of credit to black neighborhoods starting in the 1930s, known as “redlining.” Many left, including the black middle and upper classes, heading out to suburbs such as Ferguson and Kinloch, only for the cycle of mortgage denial to repeat itself. St. Louis is currently living in the aftermath of this deep rooted segregation that traces back to the mid-1800s, and it is continuing to affect education, housing, job opportunity, financial stability, health and everything in between. Your future will be completely different if you live on one side of the Delmar Divide or the other. The federal government needs to recognize that it played a deliberate role in creating racially segregated neighborhoods in cities all over the United States—just like in St. Louis.
Median Home Value
Percentage of residents with bachelor’s degrees
Neighborhood directly North of Delmar Blvd
Neighborhood directly South of Delmar Blvd
A researcher with the Economic Policy Institute, Richard Rothstein drew a direct line between today’s segregated schools and neighborhoods and two federal housing programs from the 1930s to the 1950s: public housing and subsidized construction. Rothstein has said that there is a national myth that the reason our metropolitan areas are segregated is for informal reasons—private prejudice, differences in income, demographic trends, and racial steering by real estate agents among other reasons. Rothstein said, “The reality is that the segregation that we see today was established by the federal government with help from state and local governments. It’s an officially established system.” (news.stlpublicradio.org/post/researcher-st-louis-segregation-legacy-deliberate-federal-policy). This means that housing segregation was never an accident. It was created this way on purpose by those who have always held the power—white men. The government intentionally and systematically destroyed integrated communities to build housing for one race only—caucasians.
Education goes hand-in-hand with housing. The zip code you live in gives or takes away your ability to get a loan, which then affects your education—because tax dollars stay within districts, so in turn, rich schools continue to become richer and schools in poverty continue to get worse. There is no sharing of the wealth. Your inability to get a good education then affects your ability to get a job, which then decides if you can purchase a home and have access to decent healthcare. This cycle is dependent on the success of each tier or it falls apart. We can’t blame human beings for getting stuck in the vicious cycle that our very own government implemented to keep them separate.
The expansion of slavery in the first eight decades after American independence drove the evolution and modernization of the United States. Slave-produced cotton accounted for 60% of exports and roughly one out of every five dollars of US capital was tied up in slaves. In the span of just one lifetime, the South grew from old tobacco plantations to a continental cotton empire, and the United States grew into a modern, industrial, capitalist economy. We quite literally built this country on the backs of black bodies, yet now want nothing to do with reparations—as we simultaneously reap the benefits of a country that only became successful as a direct result of slavery. Black bodies have never been given the chance to pursue true happiness—that dream was stolen in 1619 when the first shackled African set foot on American soil.
The Right to Liberty
The United States criminal justice system is the largest in the world. Over 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in federal, state, or local prisons and jails. The US is a world leader in its rate of incarceration, and every other country in the world doesn’t even come close.
The Judicial System & the Right to Vote:
In America’s judicial system alone, the blinding racism and hypocrisy is impossible to deny. While black people only make up 13% of the U.S. population, they make up 40% of the prison population. People of color are convicted at significantly higher rates than people who are white. A new study done at Harvard recently revealed that Republican appointed judges give much longer sentences to black defendants. The data was analyzed from over 500,000 defendants, and the authors noted that their results yielded a very clear disparity. The Sentencing Project has also done extensive research on this matter and the results are shocking: “African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, and they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences. African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites and Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely. As of 2001, one of every three black boys born in that year could expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as could one of every six Latinos—compared to one of every seventeen white boys.” (sentencingproject.org) 1 in 3 black boys born in 2001 can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Statistics like these glaringly reveal that this problem is deeper than racial discrimination—this was created with a specific purpose in mind.
In his book, No Equal Justice, Georgetown Law Professor David Cole explains why having a justice system for the wealthy and a system for the poor does not work. “The rhetoric of the criminal justice system sends the message that our society carefully protects everyone’s constitutional rights, but in practice the rules assure that law enforcement prerogatives will generally prevail over the rights of minorities and the poor. By affording criminal suspects substantial constitutional rights in theory, the Supreme Court validates the results of the criminal justice system as fair. That formal fairness obscures the systemic concerns that ought to be raised by the fact that the prison population is overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately black.”
Within the justice system, Americans are entitled to the right to a fair trial. But based on overwhelming evidence, it is clear that if you are black, you will likely not be afforded a fair trial if the judge and jury is mostly white—and even if you do, the odds are stacked against you due to the deep set white bias and prejudice that is so subtle, it touches everything in our lives. So, we dismantled slavery but then built a system that systematically takes away African-American rights as legal, American citizens. We just erected a new way of doing slavery through racial profiling, the “War on Drugs,” unequal punishments, racial policing, etc. The most depressing part of it all is that once the injustice is realized, there is no chance for any change because those incarcerated for a felony lose their right to vote (even after release) in many states and thus are unable to affect these laws with the power of their vote—just like slaves.
A great example of American institutionalized slavery is the labor practices in our penal institutions. The financial benefits of cheap prison labor incentivizes mass incarceration. For example, many of the fire fighters battling the devastating wildfires in California are convicted felons, with the majority of them being minorities. These inmates are paid only $1-2 an hour to fight the fires, with the added benefit of one day off of their sentences for each day “on the job.” Despite getting the literal hands-on training and experience of fighting fires, oftentimes they are not even able to use their intensive experience after release—in fact they are prohibited from ever becoming fire fighters in most counties in California because of their criminal history. So if you’re keeping track, prisoners are doing dangerous labor for basically nothing, at the detriment of their livelihood and well being. When they are released from prison, the very needed and necessary skillset they attained is useless, and they aren’t even allowed to use the skill to better themselves and get a good job or make a living. If that’s not slavery, I’m not sure what is. California is not alone. Most states actually reap the massive benefits of having practically free labor from incarcerated people and when over 40% of our prisons are made up of people of color, then how is this not considered veiled slavery happening in plain sight?
In the 1800s, slaves had no constitutional rights; they could not vote; they could not testify in court against a white person; they could not leave the plantation without permission. Slaves were often “rented out,” used as prizes in lotteries, or as wagers in card games and horse races. So slaves were not even considered human beings because they literally could not attain the human rights that white people enjoyed. Being a slave meant you had no human rights—you were recognized as less than your white counterparts, as less than human.
Slavery has been abolished, but when over half of an entire country viewed human beings as “less than human”—and not only that, but also owned, abused, raped, lynched and murdered black bodies—then simply saying, “slavery is abolished” doesn’t mean much if those same people then continued living out their racist ways and ideologies in their communities, passing those same racist systems down—from business to business, family to family, and throughout generations.
Black bodies were still used, abused and killed by white people long after the abolishment of slavery. There was not a lot of “freedom” involved for former slaves. It was too late. America had made her mark on black bodies. Systemic slavery continued in blatant ways, yet somehow was still touted as “acceptable”—like segregation, discrimination, lack of voting rights, inability to legally bear arms and, of course, as seen in the mass incarceration of black bodies for minor offenses. Banks wouldn’t even approve small loans to black citizens, so home ownership was mostly a dream for the majority of black communities in America.
During Nixon’s presidency, his “war on drugs” was really a war on minorities. This was proven after the Watergate scandal when details and recordings emerged. John Ehrlichman, a Nixon aide at the time, stated “We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” This is the first time the war on drugs had been characterized as a political assault put directly in place to help Nixon win and keep the White House. The “war on drugs” was nothing more than a political stunt that has ended in millions of minority lives destroyed. The white majority has always decided how the black minority lives and dies. The line can clearly be traced from slavery to present day. It is a fact that we, as a country, must face, confront and attempt to repair by any and every means necessary before we can have any hope for change in this current racial divide.
In the months and years that passed after Michael Brown’s death, the word that I heard the most in my community and on the news when referencing Michael Brown was the word, “thug.” Without even knowing the details of the case, this word and worse was thrown around like hearing the word “guilty” shouted across the courtroom before the trial even begins. But even if he was innocent of any crime, Michael Brown was already guilty in the eyes of the law. He was guilty for being a black man in America.
The Right to Life
Is it really living without any of the above rights? In the lives of Michael Brown, Trevon Martin, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Yvette Smith, Julius Johnson, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Terence Crutcher, Botham Jean, Malissa Williams, John Crawford III, Atatiana Jefferson, and thousands more black lives, it quite literally is not. Since 2010, there have been over 3,600 black bodies murdered by police officers, many under highly suspect circumstances. This country truly does not see black bodies as equal to white bodies. It is a fact that has been proven time and time again—in our prison systems, education disparities, housing inequalities, boundary lines, poverty rates, and even in our hospitals, as black women statistically die at dramatically higher rates during childbirth and emergency situations than white women.
I think there is an unsettling disconnect for white people who continue to defend and deflect after learning about these horrific stories. Psychologically, we view these events through the lens of our own “white experience” and the white washed framework in which our entire existence is set up. We don’t have to consider race in our everyday lives. We are able to attain liberty without considering what long historical trail of racism, hate and privilege has led us to our white centered life in the first place.
I believe Michael Brown had Eric Garner’s face in his head on that July day. Garner died at the hands of police just weeks before. At the very least, I’m sure Brown certainly felt that his body was not safe when police officers were near. Just a week after Michael Brown’s death, two police officers from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police fatally fired 12 shots at Kajieme Powell, a mentally ill black man who was suspected of shoplifting food at a gas station less than four miles from where Michael Brown was killed. Yes, twelve bullets fired at a hungry, mentally challenged, elderly man.
Where is the outrage when black bodies are killed at an alarmingly higher rate than white bodies, without comment or care from white people? As countless statistics reveal, we aren’t taking this as seriously as the problem necessitates. The majority of white people immediately think those black bodies must have done something to make the officer feel the need to shoot to kill. But why, instead, isn’t the talking point focused on why killing a man/woman at all has to be the answer? Why not offer support for required officer training on social justice/racism/diversity and de-escalation tactics, using tasers instead of guns, shooting to wound versus to kill, etc. If history tells us anything, it’s that our bias is engrained in us from birth—that white men have authority over black bodies and have the right to be biased against them. History proves it over and over again, and continues to do so in 2019.
This year, I went to Canfield Drive where Michael Brown took his final breaths. The concrete had to be replaced in the days after the shooting because the blood was not able to be cleaned off due to how long his body was left on the hot street. I looked at photos on my phone of Michael smiling as a child—his adorable dimples impossible to ignore. I scrolled through photos of Michael with friends, grinning with his family, proudly wearing his high school graduation cap and gown, and finally, I watched a video of his father talking about what a great kid he was and the future that he had hoped would become a reality—that is now a distant dream of what could have been.
My own parents were of voting age during segregation. My relatives, who are still alive today, lived when there were separate bathrooms for black and white people. We are not even one generation removed from such a dark time in our nations history. How many more people are alive who are still voting against black rights in different ways, and who continue to hang onto the ideas from the segregation era? Mitch McConnell points to the fact that we had a black president, so everything is reconciled. According to him, no reparations are needed. But as long as those people who voted saying black people were less than human, that they shouldn’t have the same rights—as long as those people are still voting, how can we say that racism is in our rear view mirror?
After the fall of the Third Reich, Germany immediately began to atone for their acts of evil against millions of innocent lives. They began the process for reparations and set up memorials and tributes all over their country to keep the atrocities fresh in the citizens minds so that the Holocaust would not have a chance of being forgotten or swept under the rug of “ancient history.” Instead, it was kept at the forefront of the country’s vision for the future. Everyone is consistently reminded of the evil that human beings are capable of committing against one another, including and especially, by their own people. I believe if America had done the same atonement after slavery, we would possibly not have the amount of systemic racism and divide we see in our country today and therefore, it’s quite probable that we would have never seen segregation become a reality. Remembering is the key to not continuing the mistakes of the past. It must be kept front and center. Instead, most of America decided reparations were not needed, we constructed monuments to leaders who fought for slavery and we did nothing to address the overwhelming problems that stem from racist policies that followed the abolition of slavery.
So, you tell me—have we really come that far? Ask Winfred Rembert, who must daily stave off the traumatic memories of being kidnapped by a mob, beaten, stabbed and lynched in 1965. Winfred survived his horrific ordeal, but his life has been marked forever. He wakes up in screaming terror, with tears streaming down his face from the nightmares every morning—in 2019. Or Sarah Collins Rudolph, the “5th little girl” who survived the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, the event that became the catalyst for the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama. Rudolph lost her sister and her eye sight in one eye due to a heinous act of racism by the KKK. To date, she has never received an apology or any form of restitution from the state of Alabama or the city of Birmingham, and Rudolph is still paying medical bills for her eye problems from the bombing.
A 2018 article in an Alabama publication, AL.com highlighted the fact that the University of Alabama didn’t de-segregate their sororities until 2013, and the only reason de-segregation was finally a reality was because the daughter of a prominent judge wanted to be in one of the all-white sororities. She had been denied even though she had all the qualifications—and then some. Even five years later, the sororities at the University of Alabama are still largely segregated, despite the change in policies. 50 years prior to the school desegregating their sororities, the governor of Alabama stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama and made his body a barrier to try and keep two African-American students from enrolling. A city, a state, or a country that has ever had racist policies with racist humans governing them, will still have their roots in racist soil in the present day.
These are the things I think about when family and friends get defensive and fein outrage at the “un-American” black football player as he kneels at our country’s flag to bring our attention to the injustice of a country that has countless times betrayed, manipulated and exploited people of color throughout our nation’s history. I believe it is clear who is really un-American—white Americans. Betrayal, manipulation, exploitation and murder is not life, nor liberty.
So I ask you again, have we come that far? I believe we have barely begun to amend the damage done.
This is the America that has always been—bleeding the blood of black bodies through her red, white and blue. I just wasn’t paying attention because my privilege gave me the advantage of being able to look the other way. As a country, we absolutely cannot afford to look the other way any longer. If we have any hope for the future of an America that truly represents equality and freedom for our fellow man—regardless of color or gender—we must confront the reality of how America’s racist past is still continuing into our present day. In order to stand against racism, white people must come together in a united front against racism, white supremacy, discrimination and the evil of bigotry in all of its underlying forms, and move forward by using our inborn privilege to effect change.
In the words of a true human rights champion, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Bonhoeffer challenged his country to speak out against the rising nationalism that was responsible for slaughtering millions of people who did absolutely nothing wrong except exist. Although his voice was ultimately silenced by Hitler’s regime, his words still ring true today as a warning signal to Americans. Bonhoeffer’s words give me courage to continue to fight the oppressive systems that are thriving in our own country, even in the face of overwhelming injustice. I’m begging my fellow Americans to grab a spoke and drive it into the wheel of injustice—in whatever way it presents itself in your own homes, families, communities, cities and states.
As a nation, while being careful to not slip into a “white savior complex,” we must start reacting to discrimination against minorities as if these grievances are against ourselves, and then fight for them as such. Because if we really do hold these truths— that all men are created equal—then racism is, in fact, against all of our collective rights. As Fredrick Douglas wisely said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” White Americans, yes, this is an uncomfortable truth. We should sit with our discomfort as we simultaneously push and fight for real change for black Americans, not just by holding space for them, but we must also hold politicians and leaders accountable for their policies as well as their words. We must demand equality. We must throw spokes into the wheels of injustice, and we must never give up the fight for a version of America where the future Michael Brown’s of the world really will have “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
-For more information about DeAnne or writing inquiries, please visit foundinthepages.com