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Racism Pervades Our Institutions, Yet All Are ‘Innocent’

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Racism Pervades Our Institutions, Yet All Are ‘Innocent’

A woman talks on her cell phone as she passes a mural of the late Freddie Gray in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

We will get to Baltimore in a moment. First, let’s talk about innocence.

That’s the unlikely ideal two great polemicists, writing over half a century apart, both invoked to describe America’s racial dynamic. It’s a coincidence that feels significant and not particularly coincidental.

In 1963’s “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin writes, “… and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. … But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

In 2015’s “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates muses about the possibility of being killed under color of authority: “And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of ‘race,’ imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment.”

It simplifies only slightly to say that what both men were describing is the phenomenon sometimes called institutional, structural or systemic racism.

Which brings us to Baltimore and a scathing new Justice Department report on its police department. The government found that the city’s police have a long pattern of harassing African-Americans and that oversight and accountability have been virtually nonexistent.

Indeed, the Constitution must have been looking the other way when an officer struck in the face a restrained youth who was in a hospital awaiting mental evaluation, when police arrested people who were doing nothing more sinister than talking on a public sidewalk, when they tasered people who were handcuffed. Not to mention the time a cop strip-searched a teenager on the street as his girlfriend looked on and, after the boy filed a complaint, threw him against a wall and repeated the humiliation, this time cupping his genitals for good measure.

It’s all outrageous stuff. But to understand the deeper outrage, you must realize that this happened in a city where 63 percent of the people — and 42 percent of the police — are African-American.

You will seldom see a sharper picture, then, of systemic bias. If the term confuses you, ask yourself: Who is responsible for this? Who gave the order that let it happen?

No name suggests itself, of course, and that’s the point. The assumption that black people are less educable, loan-worthy or deserving of their constitutional rights is baked into our systems of education, banking and policing. If you’re a teacher, a banker, a cop — even a black one — you swiftly learn that there are ways this institution treats African-Americans, and that if you want to thrive, you will conform.

There is no longer a Bull Connor or Strom Thurmond preaching this, nor any need for them. Somehow, the racism just … happens. Somehow, it just … is.

Changing the way it is will require more than good intentions; it will require sustained and purposeful action. But the alternative is a world where a cop feels free to grope a bare-butt black boy on a public street. Yes, the cop is guilty of the groping, but who stands accountable for his sense of freedom to do so? On that point, many of us grow tellingly mute.

“The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed,” writes Coates.

But Baldwin was right. It is, indeed, the innocence that constitutes the crime.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

Photo: A woman talks on her cell phone as she passes a mural of the late Freddie Gray in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., July 27, 2016.  REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. Dominick Vila August 14, 2016

    Much has changed since the pre-Civil Rights era, but let’s not pretend that racism no longer exists. It is evident in our social policies, our judicial system, our political discourse, in the actions we condone and try to justify, and in the allegations we make.
    Racism is not as prevalent and pervasive as it use to be, and it is diminishing, but it never disappeared. The difference is that it has become more sophisticated, and more difficult to blame since the days when Ronald Reagan told us about the welfare Queen that drove her Cadillac to collect her handout. That subliminal message did not fall on deaf ears. Today, we are dealing with cops exercising brutal force, our judicial system letting them off the hook using the pretense that the victims were heinous criminals – with Ninja powers, determined to harm our innocent law enforcement officers. Add to that the discourse of a presidential candidate that considers Latinos criminals and rapists, the efforts by the far right to legitimize that discourse by pointing out that a Latino, among 11 million illegal immigrants, killed a white woman, and the relentless attacks directed at our first African American President, and I think it is fair to say that racism in America is alive and well.

    1. marriea August 14, 2016

      Of course you are 100% correct in your assessement.
      I have always asked myself why this is, where this this come from?
      In numerious books I have read, it seems that man’s tribalism have never ceased to be.
      In our country, because we have deemed ourselves to be more evolved in many senses than others, it is even more pronounced.
      Racism is very prevasive in this country and until things change in the manner about which folks in general think about life in general and their lives in particular, it will always be
      And to top it off, there are these old mankind faults written about ages ago that is constantly within that people unwittingly practice. I’m talking about greed, envy, gluttony, coveting. Governments capitalize on those querks in human nature.
      Our government, and perhaps all ‘governments’ in the world have tapped into mankinds hatred and contempt for the others or others.
      So they create laws that favor one over the other.
      But sadly, folks only see what’s directly in front of them.
      There are reasons why snakes slither.

      1. Oddworld August 14, 2016

        We must have read from a lot of the same sources. All these scholars explain how tribalism and racism are intrinsically connected, it was a means of survival but nobody can adequately explain why people are still racist in modern times. In a rather sick way it would seem many people can’t function wholly without conjuring up enemies to vent their frustrations on. It’s more horrible when the enemy becomes an entire culture of people who had nothing to do with the aggrieved.

        1. Esthermpollack4 August 15, 2016

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        2. marriea August 15, 2016

          During the Brexit ‘crisis’, they were interviewing people as to why they voted pro Brexit.
          One woman stood out when when said he hated the Negros, but had no idea why.
          I read a book called White Man’s Burden’s once, and it seem to suggest that many of the bigoted ideology were based on the thought that blacks were inferior to them because they had never seen someone with that type of dark skin and since they lived in Africa, they associated those people with the animals of Africa.
          Now that was in the 1500’s.
          Now imagine that generation after generation it is passed on to their children.
          Legions and fables has more lasing power than truth.
          People are programed to believe what they believe, even if the truth of that programing in clearly within their eyesight.
          Then to substantiate those bigoted view, one pass laws, as in the U S, to prove those bigoted point.
          I remember reading that in the south especially, blacks were prohitibited from learning how to read under the threat of death. Now bear in mind that many slaves owners probably didn’t know how to read themselves, so they had to find a way for those ignorant, none/un teachable colored from doing so also.
          Just think these, ‘ignorant’ people’, who came from another society, spoke a different language, go on to learn how to do something, in many cases better than you, but you are calling them ignorant.
          That had to be a terrible blow to one’s ego and own sense of worth.
          These ignorant folks built your homes, manned your fields, cooked your food, even nursed you infants, but yet they are inferior. Yeah right.
          In latter years, the school system for blacks were made inferior to whites and blacks were prohibuted from attending these white schools.
          Why, because even then, they knew that blacks would and could possible excel in them.
          Housing were substandard, food was substandard, yet many of the products now on dinner tables was because those ignorants people developed ways to turn into something, what was once nothing.
          White America has capitalized on many of the techiques invented by those ignorant people. They got pattons on those things and claimed it as their own.
          They passed this theory of whiteness being equal to ‘better than’ and if you are a white with nothing, you are still ‘better than’ because you are white.
          Now as for my black brothers and sisters.
          It galls me so completely the things that we do to each other all for the love of the American dollar. We kill each other directly by selling poison to our fellow man and help white America by killing each other over some non existant ‘turf’ or because some stupid slight.
          Why are they doing the police’s work with no pay for doing it.
          Do they really like cops that much?
          They must, because they end up willing to spend time in jail to do what cops have a legal system to back them up when they do so.
          Our criminal ‘justice’ system is already rigged against blacks and for that matter, the poor.
          If one wants to change a system, you have to do so within. That means going to inferior schools and learning their inferior system, but one also has to engage in studying things outside what they are taught.
          Blacks have died for the right to vote, yet we don’t go to the poll to vote ‘
          because it won’t do any good and there is nothing in it for me’, meaning money.
          In any society, the parent of such policy change never sees much of the work they fight for. Maybe those changes are not for the parent to see but for the benefit of future generations. If one is open minded enough, one lives on through future generations.
          The only thing that gives me reasons for hope is this.
          Whites have lied to their kids, now they are feeling and seeing the affects of those lies. The truth is coming out of the woodworks now in the fact that many white kids are now dying from things that we are ‘told’ that only affect ‘the others’. Those things are now called ‘diseases’ White kids are now known to commit crimes, however thy are now calling it youthful teenage stuff, and their brains are still growing so they don’t know any better. Things that their ‘experts’ said the opposites about with black kids.
          I try not to let it bother me. My kids are adults and I now have grandkids, but just as I taught my kids to not fall into the traps of deciet, I am also schooling my grandkids to stay away from the potholes also.
          We should all teach our kids that whereas there is such a thing as that tribal system, it only works if we are all on the same page and work for the same goals.

          1. Oddworld August 15, 2016

            I can identify with everything you said. I’m
            a white male who grew up in predominately white town of 23,000. Most of the kids I grew up with have broken the law more than a few times, drank as minors and did drugs(including myself) sold by white drug dealers. Some of the drug dealers got caught and went to prison but none of the teens who broke the law ever spent one day behind bars. I myself had been arrested
            7-8 times between the ages of 15-19 and managed to escape jail time. Unfortunately I didn’t realize at the time how many social factors were at play. We did have some black families living in our town, their kids
            were the smart ones, they kept out of trouble, played sports, got excellent grades, went to college and I hope are doing very well for themselves.

            Up until recently I never grasped just how institutionalized America’s racism actually is. A few months ago while listening to NPR the discussion was about that very topic. In the discussion it pointed out that the National Highway System was intentionally designed to bypass black neighborhoods all across the U.S. with the intention of robbing black neighborhoods the chance at economic growth and good schools.

            I think (hope) things are beginning to change, white kids are indeed opening up to the realities. More white kids have black friends, they enjoy Hip Hop and Rap, they idolize black athletes and performers. It may not sound like much but it is a start. Racism will probably be with humanity in one form or another for all time but systemic racism may soon be a thing of the past. Good luck and good will.

  2. idamag August 14, 2016

    Those that say racism no longer exists are not the victims of racism. Our community had a candlelight vigil for Trayvon Martin. I was standing next to a lady who had a son the same age as Trayvon Martin. She was explaining the cautions she had to give her son. That should not have to happen in a civilized country. We should not have to have citizens who are afraid of law enforcement. We do not have overt racism in our community. There are those backward people who are racist, but it isn’t active. However, we did have an incident. Several years ago, a rock band came to Idaho Falls and tickets were sold to their concert. They stayed in a motel. They crossed the street to a fast food place to get something to eat and the proprietor called the police. He thought they were a gang.

    1. Joan August 14, 2016

      Nobody can deny racism when it takes mere minutes for that unarmed young black man shot dead in the streets to become a thug and a menace. It happened to Tamar Rice, who was a pre teen, playing in a park.
      There are young people who are stoped by authorities 20+ times a year with no citation given or arrest made. There is no way to know what promise we threw away, because it was contained in a body with too much melanin. Each of us must confront the racist inside our head.

  3. 123dave August 14, 2016

    Wow! racist doj who only investigates crimes where blacks are involved says there are problems in baltimore. Well ok, that’s right and the problem is the thugs, looters, arsonists, gangers and murders who—-just always happen to be only blacks. A race sadly that will never amount to anything but that, because everything is someone else’s fault. Just listen to obama, lynch, sharpton, jackson and pitted. Those who are accountable and take responsibility for their own lives seem to do very well and aren’t involved in this criminal activity. But as long as their are apologists the situation will never change. Time is coming when the authorities who do NOTHING to stop their violence, as they never have, for fear of being called racist, will find the rest of us will step up to the plate to terminate it. If it’s going to be a free for all-let it begin.

    1. Sand_Cat August 18, 2016

      Well, we know the article isn’t about you. Your post makes it clear you are by no means innocent of racism.

    2. rhetoric_phobic August 19, 2016

      What is the excuse for white boys who create mayhem, set fires, loot and damage cars after sporting events?
      Is that just a boys will be boys blowing off steam situation?
      After the vast number and high dollar amounts of settlements over decades, made to victims or their families as a result of police abuse of power just in Baltimore City and now the DOJ report vindicating the many people who have been victimized for decades by the police , you can still spout your same racist venom? There are many people of color who escape where they came from but it almost always requires a hand up. It starts with decent schools, job opportunities and a ray of hope. The money paid out by the city as a result of decades of bad behavior from the police could have been used for better purposes.
      So you are itching for another civil war. I guarantee you’ll lose that one too. There are enough people who look just like you, who will be on the oppose side again.

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