Wisconsin State Journal columnist Chris Rickert, in an April 7th column about Madison’s Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition (YGB), should have stopped after the first sentence: Madison’s struggle for racial equity does, indeed, call for radical action. The remainder of his article, however, misses the mark.
Rickert’s basic conclusions are that 1) YGB operates outside the bounds of realism, 2) YGB calls for reduced policing in Madison’s low income black communities is a non-starter, 3) “Among the establishment” there is praise for YGB’s passion, but no enthusiasm for their proposed solutions, 4) That disparities in incarceration rates are not based on a racist system because MPD is racially diverse and because the DA is black.
Where to begin.
In “The Case for Reparations,” published in the Atlantic in June of last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates make the case that liberals, perhaps even those “establishment” liberals Rickert refers to in his article, “view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality.” In other words, because most whites in the US believe we have evolved into a post-racial society, progressives have perhaps concluded that today's civil rights battle is over class and not race.
I agree with Coates. As Lyndon Johnson said in his infamous 1965 civil rights speech at Howard University, “negro poverty is not white poverty.” It has been 50 years since that speech, and the reality is stark: while income and wealth gaps remain very real and significant hurdles in our march toward equality, the gap between black and white continues to loom even larger. And, as Coates notes, it is because the United States has basically been built upon 400 years of systematic, societally sanctioned, preference for white people.
Contrary to the beliefs of those ready to move on, the problem did not end with slavery or even Jim Crow. In the lifetimes of many still alive we, through our US federal government, developed, implemented and maintained policies that not only created a seemingly impenetrable wealth gap, but also actively targeted and literally prevented wealth creation by black people who were trying to succeed. And as if that’s not recent enough history, one needn't look further than banking industry policies as recently as 2008 that were developed, in the words of the Justice Department, to target subprime, predatory loans toward black people and black communities. Policies that not only once again stole the dream of homeownership from millions of black Americans, but simultaneously caused a Great Recession for all but the very wealthiest among us.
So, back to Chris Rickert’s concerns.
First, that YGB operates outside the bounds of realism. Exactly what realism does he mean? The realism of slavery, Jim Crow, separate but equal, or government sanctioned racist housing policies? The realism of our "too big to fail" banks engaging in predatory behavior as recently as 7 years ago? The realism of St. Louis area police departments committing a "pattern of civil rights violations" and "practice of conduct that violates the 1st, 4th, and 14th amendments" as recently as last year? Or just the realism of unarmed black men getting choked or shot in the back by police?
Second, Rickert's contention that YGB calls for reduced policing in black communities is a non-starter. As I wrote in my last blog article, “It’s Time for Peace Officers,” the issue is not whether reduced policing is a good idea or not. The issue is that so many low income black communities feel that a police presence does nothing to increase their safety and security. That lack of trust in our police should, at the very least concern all of us, and, if we’re honest, help us understand a little better why an unarmed black men being encountered by police might think it best to do anything other than freeze and put their hands on their heads.
I don’t even know where to start with the “establishment.” The establishment, as we all know, literally has no clue how to handle the racial issues with which we are confronted. (But I am glad we keep trying.) Between a half-century of social programs, new policies, equal opportunity clauses, and supposedly post-racist harmony, one would think we’d have made more progress than we have. The establishment, which has tried just about everything and come up generally empty in making significant improvements, could do worse than listening to some ideas from outside the wall.
With all we now know about incarceration disparities, it is astonishing that anyone would say that they have nothing to do with racism. A racially diverse police force, a black DA, even a black President of the United States does not somehow magically undo 400 years of racism. Madison is still part of the United States and shares this history. Wishing it away is not the same as taking it away. While Madison may not breed overtly racist leaders, that does not in and of itself remove the very real barriers that black people continue to face in our city.
In his article, Coates is making the case for reparations. He states, “What I'm talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
Chris Rickert may be right: a national reckoning may be unrealistic (perhaps because of the same “establishment” he claims can’t get behind YGB). But it may, in fact, be our only hope.