It seems like no exaggeration to suggest that at this moment, a half-century after the greatest victories of the civil rights movement, America is drifting backwards towards apartheid. It’s not a word I use lightly, nor one we are accustomed to using when describing our current condition. Indeed, its not even a word that most are willing to utter when referencing our past. It’s a word we like to reserve for others, for the formerly white-dominated South Africa, but not for ourselves, and certainly not now, what with a black president and all.
But beyond the presence of brown faces in high places, can anyone really claim without gagging on the sheer dimensions of the lie, that we are even within intercontinental-ballistic-missile-striking-distance of that state of post-raciality so many naive white folks assured us had arrived upon the election of Barack Obama? People like Rudy Giuliani and William Bennett and John Bolton and Ann Coulter, all of whom proclaimed racism essentially over as soon as the election had been called?
Is it really a stretch to call it apartheid, even as one after another after another after another black male (roughly one every 28 hours) — and more than a few black women and girls — are gunned down by police or vigilantes in city after city and town after town, unarmed, or armed only with an air rifle in a Wal-Mart? And this, even as white men can point their guns at federal officials or parade around the streets, or in Target or churches or Chipotle, or bars (because guns around booze is always a great idea) or anywhere they damned well please with weapons — real ones, with bullets — and be left to see another day? Or in some cases even lauded as heroes and the new “freedom riders,” standing up for their constitutional rights?
Honestly, when a white man in a place like New Orleans can literally point his weapon directly at not one, not two, but three members of the New Orleans Police Department, and when told to drop his weapon, answer back, “No, you drop your fucking gun,” and remain a breathing, carbon-based life form — as was the case this past April for Derrick Daniel Thomas — then you know you’re dealing with a two-tiered law enforcement regime hardly different from the ones that existed under Jim Crow. Google the NOPD and check out their history if you harbor any doubts about how such an act as Thomas’s would have gone down had he been black.
Hell, when I lived in the city, one of my roommates was punched and bloodied by the NOPD just for giving side-eye after they accused him of robbing a white woman several blocks away. Even after she told them he wasn’t the guy — oh yeah, they shoved him in the car and took him over to her for an entirely improper sidewalk lineup — they still threw him back in the car and headed downtown to book him for resisting arrest. Because apparently denying culpability for a crime you didn’t commit is resisting arrest in apartheid America. It was only when Darryl informed the police that his uncle had been the city’s first black Lieutenant (and having named him, sufficiently scared the white grunt cops) that they resigned to letting him go.
Why should we refrain from the charge of apartheid when police departments like those in Ferguson, Missouri — scene of the latest sacrifice to the gods of white supremacy, and with a recent history of overtly racist leadership and racist brutality against folks of color — continue to patrol the streets of their town as if they were an occupying force in a foreign country? As they include among their ranks the kind of retread bigots who openly berate the people for whom they work as “animals?” This is Sharpeville, 1960 or Soweto, 1976, only with lower body counts (so far). This is Birmingham, 1963, Selma, 1965, only with a midwestern accent, rather than the southern type we’d long been told to expect. Fifty years later and white law enforcement officers are still behaving as if the ruling in Dred Scott — that blacks “have no rights which the white man is bound to respect” — were still operative. Because sadly, and no matter what the Constitution may say, it appears that it is, so much so that it may well become the new motto for police around the country, soon to replace the “protect and serve” emblems on their patrol cars.
Can we really dispute the creeping, perhaps galloping return of apartheid, in a nation where black children are 3 times more likely than white children to be suspended or expelled from school, even though the rates of serious school rule infractions are roughly the same between whites and children of color? When black children are being suspended from pre-school as young as 3 years of age, while white children in their very same classes, whose behavior is far worse, are not? When African American youth are six times more likely than similar white youth to be incarcerated for a first offense, even when their crimes are identical? When black youth are twice as likely as whites to be in classrooms taught by the most inexperienced teachers?
Can we afford to split hairs about how it’s not really apartheid because after all, there are no formal laws mandating discrimination, when black folks continue to be 4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for a marijuana possession offense, even though rates of weed usage are virtually identical across racial lines? Apartheid 2.0 may be a slight upgrade to the nation’s racial software, but it’s running on the same basic platform.
Is apartheid truly too strong a noun to deploy in a nation where white women with substance abuse problems are regularly steered towards life and sobriety coaches or other forms of treatment, while black and brown women are steered towards prison cells? Is it mere hyperbole to use such a word in a place where department stores are so guilty of racially profiling black shoppers that they have to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to those they unfairly victimized, while a wealthy white woman who actually did shoplift can go free for an actual crime?
Can we really refuse to call it apartheid when police in a town like Ferguson are almost twice as likely to stop and search black motorists as opposed to white ones, even though whites are nearly 60 percent more likely to have illegal contraband on them when searched? When cops are, according to recent research, likely to view black youth as young as 10 as older and more dangerous than they are, and even to dehumanize them, viewing them as akin to apes?
When a white man can shoot a police officer and kill him because he thought the officer (who was executing a no-knock drug raid on his home) might be a burglar, and not face charges, but a black man who does the very same thing in the very same state is charged with multiple felonies, what do we call it if not a sign of apartheid justice in America?
What other than apartheid can we call it when city officials in Detroit can shut off water to thousands of mostly black residents for owing a few hundred dollars on their bills, while refusing to cut off white-led corporations that collectively owe millions?
Apartheid is indeed making a comeback, and not only on the streets of our cities and towns but at the polling booth, where officials in North Carolina, Texas, Ohio, Virginia and dozens of other states are trying to make it harder for people of color to vote, by requiring photo ID (which people of color are less likely to possess), and by shortening early voting (which people of color are more likely to use), or eliminating minority-majority polling centers altogether. Even though there is literally no evidence of a voter fraud problem, only 31 cases in 15 years involving in-person fraud that could even theoretically have been stopped by a photo ID requirement, and no rational reason for shortening early voting at all, except that black people and lower income folks are more likely to make use of it, because they aren’t as likely to have flexibility on the regular election day.
Occasionally, right wingers even admit that the changes are intended to suppress black Democratic turnout and swing elections to Republicans. Indeed, in Texas, officials even used a version of that argument — the one about the desire to sway elections from one party to another — as a defense of the legal changes they were advocating. The only bias being introduced, they insisted, was partisan, not racial per se, and so the changes weren’t therefore unconstitutional, despite the obvious racial disparity the changes would elicit, and the fact that in states like Texas race and party affiliation are increasingly linked.
And so fifty years after the Selma to Montgomery march — organized specifically to rally support for full voting rights for African Americans, and during which march white police viciously attacked peaceful demonstrators — police are once again attacking peaceful demonstrators, arresting journalists, and firing tear gas at residents just because they can, while political elites, right wing commentators and reactionary Supreme Court justices attack the Voting Rights Act, and seek to roll back access to the franchise by way of less obvious, but no less effective methods than poll taxes and literacy tests, or, say, property requirements (which several on the white right have openly said they would like to reinstate).
Unfortunately, almost no one in the nation’s leadership class is willing to see the beast we are facing for what it is. Few, and certainly not the president, seem prepared to call out the racism that is so endemic to almost every case of police brutality and violence, or the machinations of right-wingers seeking to disenfranchise voters of color. And when it comes to the latest horror in Missouri, the desire of the president to lecture black people about their anger and small-scale property destruction rather than lecturing white people about their racism, their fear and contempt and hatred of black bodies — and prior even to the obligatory condemnation of police violence there — reeks of a moral putrescence both dispiriting and revolting to behold. When a guy like Rand Paul, who thinks companies should have the right to discriminate against black people — in other words, someone who does not even believe in the Civil Rights Act — can actually issue a more meaningful and forceful condemnation of police racism than Barack Obama, something is clearly amiss in this country. And our failure to call it what it is, to name it, to confront the truth of who we are once again becoming, will not make it go away.
Only a commitment to utterly overhauling policing, demilitarizing the cops, purging all racists from the ranks of law enforcement, requiring them to wear cameras at all times, requiring them to live in the communities they police, and a host of other reforms, can possibly stem the tide of brutality and bigotry that currently courses through the veins of the nation’s warrior cops. The temporary replacement of Ferguson’s police by the state highway patrol, led by a conscientious black officer — though it is an excellent start for defusing the current crisis — is only a first step. And only a commitment to a full restoration and extension of the Voting Rights Act can end the drift back to blatant white supremacy in the political system. It is time for laws that will prevent any policy, practice or electoral procedure that disproportionately erects barriers to black and brown voting, and it is time to apply those laws to every state, not just the places covered by the original Act. Apartheid, after all, isn’t just for the South anymore. Hell, it never was.