The American elephant

On Thursday night the BBC allowed Question Time to be primarily about the US elections, with Colleen Graffy speaking for the Republicans and Jerry Springer actually sounding more left-wing than a Democrat ever would.

Neither Colleen Graffy nor Jerry Springer, who are white, mentioned anything about the elephant.

From, 5 Random Factors That Determine Whether You Succeed in Life:

So then things took a turn for the oddly specific. Black men who had rounder faces were perceived to not only earn more money but have higher positions within their companies. The crazy part was that those ridiculous predictions were right! The black guys with baby faces really did earn more money than their black counterparts who were more facially chiseled. Can you guess why? If your answer started with an “r” and rhymed with “fascism” if “fascism” had a long “a” sound, then you’re right. One of the researchers put it this way:

To function effectively as an African-American male in the U.S. it helps to have a disarming mechanism.

Matt Taibbi asks How did the election come to be this close?

The fact that Barack Obama needed a Himalayan mountain range of cash and some rather extreme last-minute incompetence on Romney’s part to pull safely ahead in this race is what really speaks to the brokenness of this system. Bruni of the Times is right that the process scares away qualified candidates who could have given Obama a better run for all that money. But what he misses is that the brutal campaign process, with its two years of nearly constant media abuse and “gotcha” watch-dogging, serves mainly to select out any candidate who is considered anything like a threat to the corrupt political establishment – and that selection process is the only thing that has kept this race close.

Four years ago, this meme was running round the Internet: what if John McCain were black? (The meme may have been inspired by a poster design by Grey NYC, or the meme may have inspired the poster.) John McCain and Sarah Palin were – from a British perspective – as comically unsuitable to be President of the US as, well, George W. Bush was.

John McCain black, Barack Obama white?

Fifty-five years ago, in September 1957, Louis Armstrong heard that the National Guard had been posted to keep nine black students out of Little Rock High School, and told a journalist who sneaked into his hotel room (a hotel where Louis Armstrong was the first black man to stay as a guest) for an interview:

“It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” a furious Mr. Armstrong told [Larry Lubenow]. President Eisenhower, he charged, was “two faced,” and had “no guts.” For Governor Faubus, he used a double-barreled hyphenated expletive, utterly unfit for print. The two settled on something safer: “uneducated plow boy.” The euphemism, Mr. Lubenow says, was far more his than Mr. Armstrong’s.

Mr. Armstrong had been contemplating a good-will tour to the Soviet Union for the State Department. “They ain’t so cold but what we couldn’t bruise them with happy music,” he had said. Now, though, he confessed to having second thoughts. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said, offering further choice words about the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?”

Then Mr. Lubenow showed Mr. Armstrong what he’d written. “Don’t take nothing out of that story,” Mr. Armstrong declared. “That’s just what I said, and still say.” He then wrote “solid” on the bottom of the yellow copy paper, and signed his name.

What happened? On 24th September – less than a week after the story Larry Lubenow got by interviewing Louis Armstrong hit the national newspapers – President Eisenhower sent 1200 101st Airborne paratroopers to Little Rock, and on 25th September, the soldiers escorted nine black students into the previously all-white Central High School. Louis Armstrong’s manager had reacted to the story by claiming Armstrong had been “tricked”:

The Russians, an anonymous government spokesman warned, would relish everything Mr. Armstrong had said. A radio station in Hattiesburg, Miss., threw out all of Mr. Armstrong’s records.
There were calls for boycotts of his concerts. The Ford Motor Company threatened to pull out of a Bing Crosby special on which Mr. Armstrong was to appear. Van Cliburn’s manager refused to let him perform a duet with Mr. Armstrong on Steve Allen’s talk show.

Larry Lubenow got $3.50 for writing the story and was fired a week later – he’d been told not to “get into politics”.

Three years later, Ruby Bridges became the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school, five blocks from her home. Norman Rockwell painted her portrait and titled it The Problem We All Live With.

The Problem We All Live With, Norman Rockwell

Ruby Bridges remembers going to school:

My mother took special care getting me ready for school. When somebody knocked on my door that morning, my mother expected to see people from the NAACP. Instead, she saw four serious-looking white men, dressed in suits and wearing armbands. They were U.S. federal marshals. They had come to drive us to school and stay with us all day. I learned later they were carrying guns.

I remember climbing into the back seat of the marshals’ car with my mother, but I don’t remember feeling frightened. William Frantz Public School was only five blocks away, so one of the marshals in the front seat told my mother right away we should do when we got there.

“Let us get out of the car first,” the marshal said. “Then you’ll get out, and the four of us will surround you and your daughter. We’ll walk up to the door together. Just walk straight ahead, and don’t look back.”

I remember looking out of the car as we pulled up to the Frantz school. There were barricades and people shouting and policemen everywhere.

I don’t deny the issues about money in the US presidential campaign. Fun though it is to pick at Mitt Romney and Donald Trump I just want to look at something else. There is a perfect storm of problems – between the open Republican efforts to ensure that voters likely to vote Democratic don’t get to vote or to have their vote counted, which is linked to the demographic facts that black voters are overwhelmingly likely to vote Democratic, and poor voters are overwhelmingly likely to vote Democratic. And there is a huge overlap between the two.

Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, published in 2010:

Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.

The US has the highest number of prisoners and the highest incarceration rate in the world. At the end of 2010, 2,266,800 adult prisoners were incarcerated in US federal prisons, state prisons, and county jails. One in every hundred adult Americans is locked up in prison or jail. This is not because Americans commit more crimes than other nations: it’s because the US criminal justice system will send people to prison, or to jail while awaiting trial, for crimes that wouldn’t get a custodial sentence anywhere else. This growth in prisons has been steadily rising since the 1970s.

California prison overcrowding

Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King wrote in July 2007:

This growth has been accompanied by an increasingly disproportionate racial composition, with particularly high rates of incarceration for African Americans, who now constitute 900,000 of the total 2.2 million incarcerated population. The exponential increase in the use of incarceration has had modest success at best in producing public safety,1 while ontributing to family disruption and the weakening of informal social controls in many African American communities. Overall, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics document that one in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.2 The prevalence of imprisonment for women is considerably lower than for men, but many of the same racial disparities persist, with black women being more likely to be incarcerated than white women.3 (Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity)

The Economist notes in May 2012:

During Jerry Brown’s previous stint as governor in the 1970s the state switched to more inflexible sentencing. It then spent another two decades adding “tough-on-crime” laws that kept extending sentences even for minor crimes.

The resulting prison-building boom, and rapacious bargaining by the prison-guards union, meant that state penitentiaries became the fastest-growing major cost in the state budget. California’s 33 prisons and associated camps therefore bear no small responsibility for the state’s recurring budget crises, and the resultant crunch on school and university funding.

Simultaneously, the prison craze also caused a humanitarian crisis as the places became overcrowded with inmates. The human misery stayed somewhat hidden because most state prisons are far away from cities, often in the dusty inland deserts. But at one point the prisons housed twice as many inmates as they were built for, and a lawsuit made its way to the US Supreme Court. Last year the court ruled that California must reduce its imprisoned population to restore humane conditions.

What do prison inmates do? Well, they work. In principle an inmate who has not yet been convicted cannot be made to do prison labour, but in practice both pre-trial and convicted inmates are made to work.

From a Business Insider story in September 2012, which takes the position that the real problem is prisoners are taking jobs away from people outside jail:

Federal Prison Industries (FPI), a corporation owned by the federal government, employs more than 13,000 inmates at wages from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour, making everything from military apparel to call center and help desk support to solar panels and selling the products to the Pentagon and other federal agencies.

FPI, also known as UNICOR, operates inside 83 federal prisons and made more than $900 million in revenue last year.

Governor Jerry Brown’s solution was to have prisoners transferred from state prisons to county jails. This may resolve the overcrowding as required by the Supreme Court, but gives power to the local sheriff to decide whether to keep prisoners locked up (and get state funding based on the number of prisoners incarcerated) or

send troublemakers to mental-health treatment instead of jail. They can “flash-incarcerate” people for just a few hours. They can put them under home surveillance with a GPS monitor strapped to their ankle, or make them do community service and drug rehabilitation. They can refer them to vocational training so they can get jobs.

Or they can keep them locked up and use the extra money from the state to build more jails. (The freedom that county sheriffs have to dispose of prisoners is indicated by the four-year federal investigation of an Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio, recently closing with no indictments.)

Joe Arpaio re-instituted the chain gang for his prisoners in Arizona. This only got widespread attention when he started to include women prisoners in chain gangs.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in September 2012, reflecting on the death of Trayvon Martin and the white anger that met Barack Obama’s mild response to it:

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.

US healthcare is vastly profitable to a few and vastly expensive for money. As everyone knows, the US spends more on “healthcare” than any other nation in the world, and gets less for it. The US is the only developed nation in the world that has no national healthcare system to cover everyone who needs it, leaving almost everything to private enterprise. (Medicare and VA, the US’s national health system for the over-60s and for military veterans, both function cost-effectively.)

You cannot run a national health system unless it includes everybody. The first national welfare programme in the US, Social Security, was introduced in 1935 by Franklin Roosevelt, explicitly excluding farm workers and domestic servants from its provisions – the two areas of work in which black Americans predominated. Even so, Alan Grayson notes that the right-wing talked about Social Security as if it was “broken” from day one:

Germany introduced Social Security in 1889. It came to America “only” 46 years later, . When the Social Security program was introduced here, one of its most vociferous critics was former Republican President Herbert Hoover. Having led America into the Great Depression, Hoover wanted to make sure that no one led it out.

According to an Associated Press report on May 6, 1935, and a New York Times report on May 22, 1938 (sorry, no NYT link), Hoover attacked Social Security in apocalyptic terms. Regarding the security for seniors that the program would provide, Hoover said that “we can find [the same economic stability] in our jails. The slaves had it [too].” Hoover said that programs like Social Security would put Americans in cages: “Our people are not ready to be turned into a national zoo.”

Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings writes:

It’s worth dwelling on the example of Social Security a bit. As I understand it — and here I defer to any historians in our midst — Southern Congressmen, who ran some of the relevant committees, opposed giving social security benefits to blacks in the South, and particularly to rural blacks. One of the means whereby some landowners secured the loyalty of their black workers was by implicit agreements to make some provision for them if they lived to old age. Had the federal government provided Social Security to black sharecroppers in the South, that would have undercut landowners’ ability to demand their labor and their loyalty. As a result, agricultural workers and domestics were excluded from Social Security for two decades.

But providing healthcare for white people only is only possible with the kind of explicit racism that simply excludes black people from hospitals as patients.

Making Britain Better:

When Labour health minister Nye Bevan opened one of the world’s first and most comprehensive health services to the British people on July 5, 1948, it was the realisation of a socialist dream. The new National Health Service (NHS) was the cornerstone of the post-war Labour government’s commitment to build a new Jerusalem in an impoverished Britain, painfully recovering from six years of war.

Bevan had fought tooth and nail to ensure all the people of Britain could receive the best medical care available whether they were a banker or a miner, free at the point of use.

Overnight, the patchwork provision of medical services, which left millions of people with little or no reliable health care, was swept away. But the establishment of the new health service was strongly opposed by the Conservative Party and by the Doctor’s professional body, the British Medical Association (BMA).

For Black History Month 2008, NHS Choices celebrated the contribution of the ‘Windrush generation’ (Caribbean immigrants who arrived in 1948-69) and others of African and Caribbean origin who have contributed to the success of the NHS and the health and wellbeing of others.

The Impact of Hospital Integration on Black-White Differences in

The South was a deeply segregated society in the 1950s and early 1960s. This separation of the races extended to all areas of life, including the provision of health care in hospitals. When in need of hospital treatment a sick or injured African-American would have to find a “Blacks-only” facility, or face very limited accommodations in “Whites-only” institutions. The color line in hospital care was so rigid that even medical emergencies did not blur it. There is abundant anecdotal evidence that White hospitals refused outright to provide emergency care, or provided only a limited amount of care, to African-Americans in need (see below). This situation changed, however, in the mid-1960s when hospitals became racially integrated with the passage of Medicare at the federal level.
The passage of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964 prohibited discrimination and segregation in any institution receiving federal funds. Second, hospital eligibility for payments under the new Medicare program (begun on July 1, 1966) was conditioned on the elimination of the racially discriminatory practices that were common at the time.

If an American Bevan had proposed a national health service for the US in 1945, he would not merely have had to battle conservative doctors but would have had to integrate hospitals – over a decade before black kids who were going to previously all-white schools had to be escorted in by armed soldiers. Any healthcare system which proposed to treat every American exactly alike depending on their needs without regard to the colour of their skin would have met with violent resistance.

Healthcare costs create poverty:

Millions of American families are being financially crippled by health care costs. The U.S. health care system is deeply, deeply broken and Obamacare is going to make things even worse. Health care is one of the top reasons why American families get pushed into poverty. Most of us are just one major illness or disease from becoming financially wrecked. Just ask anyone that has gone through it. The health insurance companies do not care about you and they will try to wiggle out of their obligations at the time when you need them the most. If you talk to people that have been through bankruptcy, most of them will tell you that medical bills were at least partially responsible.

At Question Time on Thursday night, Colleen Graffy said repeatedly that abortion was a “scare tactic” – it sounded rather as if she were claiming that the many Republican politicians who have come out with anti-choice messages about forcing raped women to have babies were saying this to scare women off voting for them, but in context of her support for Mitt Romney I’m pretty certain she meant that their Democratic opponents are talking up what Republicans have said about abortion as a “scare tactic”. She did not discuss the actual instances of legislation to make it more difficult and more expensive for women in the US to get abortions, consistently supported by the Republican party as well as by individual Republicans, but in a sense she was right; anti-choice campaigning has been running since the early 1980s as a scare tactic to get the evangelical vote on the side of the Republicans, even though evangelicals tend otherwise to support Democratic policies. Where ranting about the evils of women wanting abortion fails (since a substantial number of women voters have had an abortion or know someone who has), ranting about the evils of mixed-race marriagesorry, gay marriage – normally makes up for it.

When white Republicans talk about being “pro-life”, they mean campaigning to criminalise abortion. They don’t mean they want to do anything to reverse the relatively-high maternal death rate for black women in the US:

From a 2011 report from the California Department of Public Health:

The mortality rate for black women was 46 deaths for every 100,000 live births from 2006 to 2008, while the rates for Asian, white and Hispanic women in the same period ranged from 9 to 13 deaths per 100,000 births.

The study’s numbers showed that African-American women in California have a maternal-mortality risk comparable to rates in Kazakhstan and Syria, according to World Health Organization data.

Nationwide, in 2010, the maternal death rate in the US is 21 deaths per 100,000 live births: the death rate for black women is three times higher than for white women. (The maternal death rate in the UK is 12 per 100,000 live births: Sweden has 4 per 100,000.)

For some American white communities, the “solution” is to exclude black people entirely:

It is common knowledge that African Americans are not allowed to live in Anna, except for residents of the state mental hospital and transients at its two motels. African Americans who find themselves in Anna and Jonesboro after dark—the majority-black basketball team from Cairo, for example—have sometimes been treated badly by residents of the towns, and by fans and students of Anna-Jonesboro High School. Towns such as Anna and Jonesboro are often called “sundown towns,” owing to the signs that many of them formerly sported at their corporate limits—signs that usually said “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in __.” Anna-Jonesboro had such signs on Highway 127 as recently as the 1970s. These communities were also known as “sunset towns” or, in the Ozarks, “gray towns.”

James W. Loewen, writing in Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism found that probably a majority of incorporated townships in the US are “sundown towns” – deliberately excluding black residents.

Enthusiastically declaring that you want a Cinnabon can get you banned from a mall for ten yearsif you’re black.

Throwing a tantrum in kindergarten at the age of six can get you arrested, handcuffed, taken to a police station and charged with assault – if you’re black.

Being shot at by a police officer can mean he then charges you with assault and you spend four months in jail – if you’re black.

But white students hanging three nooses in a tree at Jena high school, a symbolic lynching of black students who had sat under the tree in a space reserved for white students, was regarded as a “youthful prank” and when black students protested:

The principal called an assembly where the local district attorney, Reed Walters, told them “See this pen? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen.” The black students say when he said it he was looking at them; Walters denies it.

In an unsolved arson case a wing of the school was burned down. A few days later, Justin Sloan, a white man, attacked black students who tried to go to a white party in town. Sloan was charged with battery and put on probation. A few days after that another white boy pulled a gun on three black students in a convenience store. The black student wrestled the gun from him and took it home. The black student was charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student who produced the gun was not charged.

On December 4 a group of black students attacked a white student, Justin Barker, after they heard him bragging about a racial assault his friend had made. Barker, 17, had concussion and his eye was swollen shut. He spent a few hours in hospital and, on his release, went to a party where friends described him as “his usual smiling self”.

The six black students were then arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder. Such a charge requires use of a deadly weapon. Walters argued that the trainers used to kick Barker were indeed deadly weapons. Mychal Bell, 17, became the first of what are now known as the Jena Six to be convicted on reduced charges by an all-white jury and faced up to 22 years in jail.

Two weeks ago, Jamel Mims wrote – facing a two-year sentence for a 10-minute protest against “Stop and Frisk”:

A year ago, those who had no first-hand experience of the humiliation of being illegally searched barely knew the practice occurred. Those who got stopped and frisked thought there was nothing one could do about it. Now, the stop-and-frisk policy and the horrors it inflicts are going viral in mainstream society. Copwatch and videos of NYPD stops garner thousands of views. Nearly every day there are articles or opinion pieces about stop-and-frisk. Potential mayoral candidates have even had to confront this, as politicians line up to claim their opposition to the policy, or express their desire to reform or modify it in the ongoing dialogue of public opinion.

In this watershed moment, when stop-and-frisk is opening a window onto the daily plight of thousands, the very people who put their bodies on the line to put this issue into the spotlight and openly call out for its abolition are vigorously prosecuted and threatened with incarceration. I refuse to accept this. It’s unthinkable that the Queens District Attorney, who couldn’t make a case against the cops who murdered Sean Bell, is now throwing the book at nonviolent civil disobedience protesters.

In this light, the intended effect of this prosecution is insidiously transparent: to send a chilling effect through the movement against mass incarceration, and dampen the spirit of resistance it has ignited. To put it quite simply: don’t speak up and certainly, don’t fight back.

The great universities of the US are profoundly exclusionary, privileging the children and grandchildren of former students and donors:

With the proportion of those in America who believe “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard” at its lowest point since the question was first put, in 1994, it is a shame that some would target minorities as the cause of their exclusion, even as others who are far more powerful maintain their privileges. As Daniel Saracino, the assistant provost for admissions at the University of Notre Dame, told Golden, “the poor schmuck who has to get in on his own has to walk on water.”

With a retired police officer for a father and a secretary for a mother, Gratz was one of those “schmucks”. Those schmucks are the footsoldiers against affirmative action: too bad they cannot see that minority applicants are not their enemies but their potential allies. Too bad they cannot see that their material interests lie not in hampering the push for greater racial equality, but in challenging the entrenched practice of class inequality.

Of course, there’s a British elephant, too.

Black people are 30 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by police in England and Wales, according to new analysis which reveals that “racial profiling” has increased over the past year.

Researchers say the findings, based on government statistics, represent the worst international record of discrimination involving stop and search.

Despite reductions in recent years, Black Caribbean pupils are still four times as likely to be permanently excluded from school as White British pupils. By contrast, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi children are all less likely to be permanently excluded from school than White British pupils.

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