Police strangling a black man at Watts riot

Police arrest a man during the Watts Riots. Image marked as August 12.

Responses to recent police killings of Black men show just how deep the racial divide is in this country. There is an “us” versus “them” mentality at play. The “enemy,” according to some, are the Black Lives Matter protestors who are challenging the continued assault on the lives of Black people by the police. The police are being undermined by criticisms of their behavior and unable to do their job of protecting the public. If we accept what Donald Trump is shouting and tweeting at us, we live in a country overwhelmed by crime and violence, and we need to return to the good old days when America was great and safe. Well, Donald Trump and I share a common birth year and skin color but very little else – even the America that we both grew up in.

Since Ferguson, Missouri, killings of Black men by police have raised round after round of shock and anger, but these incidents are nothing new. Nor is violence against Black Americans now or in the past just coming from the police. When I was young, TV news was filled with white violence against Blacks, from murders of civil rights workers to bombings, like the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls, as well as police violence against Blacks, especially civil rights activists. All my life I have been a witness to white racist violence. I truly cannot understand how what I have seen is so alien to far too many white Americans. We don’t have to live another person’s life in order to appreciate it or to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes. Why is empathy in such short supply right now? Is it really that hard to take the blinders off?

So let me tell you a little about my 70 years in America the war zone. My first memory of violence against Black Americans was a picture that an uncle showed me when I was about ten of a lynching that took place in Marion, Indiana in August of 1930 – only 16 years before I was born. Years later I would come across that picture again as the cover on a book, A Lynching in the Heartland by James H. Madison. It was just as shocking to see as an adult as it was when I was a child. I don’t know how my uncle came to have that photo. He would have only been about 12 when it happened, and he and my father were living with their parents – my grandparents – about 40 miles away in Huntington, Indiana. But as far as I know, he kept that photo all his life, occasionally pulling it out to show people, including my wife once when we visited him late in his life. It was clearly a prized possession for him.

Because of a job for my father, my parents moved the 20 miles from Huntington to Wabash, when I was about two, and we lived there for the next ten years. I hardly saw anyone who was not white during those years in that small town on the banks of the Wabash River. Segregation may not have had the force of law in the north, but it certainly was the practice. We lived at the top a hill; down below along the banks of the river was where the local Black population was allowed to live. Even our two movie theaters were segregated.

My real awareness of the racial divide started in college. It must have been sometime in 1966, during my sophomore or junior year at the University of Illinois when the college newspaper ran a story on a Black man who was shot dead by a cop, apparently just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to the news report, the cop thought the man was running after stealing from a neighborhood house. The reality was that this Black man, who worked for the University, was jogging in his own neighborhood.

On some holiday breaks, I used to ride between Champaign and Rockford, Illinois with a friend who had a car. The trip took us along US 51 in the days before an interstate highway connected the two cities. We passed through a lot of small towns and villages, one of which was El Paso, Illinois – one of those towns where, if you blinked as you passed through, you’d miss it. El Paso was a “sundown town:” a town with a large billboard at the edge of town spelling out who could not be in town after the sun set. If you’re not familiar with sundown towns, take a look at James Loewen’s Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. It’s been close to 50 years since I last passed through El Paso, so I hope that billboard is long gone.

One of my professors at the University of Illinois loved jazz music and spent time in clubs that were mostly Black. During a raid one night on of these clubs, he was beaten by the police because, as a white man, he was the wrong color to be in there. When I graduated in 1968, he still had a law suit going against the Champaign police but eventually lost it.

In 1970, I left graduate school and moved to New York City. My first job there was working for a halfway house for adolescents leaving the reformatory on Rikers Island. The prisons there were pretty bad then, but apparently are even worse now. My first visit to Rikers Island was an education, to say the least. This was at the beginning of the War on Drugs and a decade before mass incarceration exploded during the Reagan presidency. The impact of race and ethnicity on who was in prison was quite obvious and stunning, even then for inmates on remand or incarcerated for drug and drug-related offenses. The reformatory was so crowded that many of the juveniles had to be housed in the adult facility on the island. Some 60% were Black, 30% Latino, and 10% white. As a product of the ‘60s, I can guarantee you that that does NOT reflect who was using drugs – just who got busted and put away.

While living in NYC, I took a graduate course at the City University of New York on the psychology of police behavior. One of my assignments was to visit a precinct house and interview some cops about how they felt about their jobs and the neighborhoods they worked in. I visited a precinct in the Bronx, in the area then known as “Fort Apache,” and was amazed at how fearful the police were of the neighborhood. This was an area where I had a girlfriend and spent a lot of time, including at night. The cops I talked to were unwilling even to go out for coffee without at least one partner. Complaints of police brutality were common in NYC, including that precinct. Yet it didn’t seem to occur to the police working there that maybe their behavior was at least part of the problem. Unlike the cops I talked to, I didn’t feel any more unsafe in this area than I did where I lived on the Upper West Side. This was during the same time when Trump was accused of discriminating against Black people for rentals in his properties.

A year later I was living on Pierce St. in San Francisco, where I could stand on the corner of Pierce and Haight and watch the police harass young Black men, while largely ignoring young white men like me. The only difference I could see in who got stopped, frisked, and harrassed was skin color.

Another two years, and I was living in Scranton, Pennsylvania where I was working on a grant-based project at Marywood College. My second experience in prisons was at the state prison in Dallas, PA., where the population was about half white and half Black. Dallas was located in rural northeastern PA, far from the Philadelphia area home of most of the Black inmates. A prison psychologist I met there found out that I knew how to analyze quantitative data and hired me as a consultant to help him on a personal project. He was convinced that MMPI scores – a psychological measure of personality – would predict what kinds of crimes people committed and how long their sentences were. His idea turned out to be wrong. I had access to demographic data on the inmates as well and ran a regression analysis that found only three significant predictors of length of sentence (controlling for type of offense): race, height, and weight. Big Black men got longer sentences than anyone else. When I encouraged the psychologist to collaborate on an article with me, he suppressed the findings – apparently concerned that they would embarrass the Pennsylvania prison officials and maybe impact on his employment.

In the 1980s, after I came to Ohio State University, I was a consultant to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections for several years, in the early days of the mass incarceration era. When Ronald Reagan was elected president, there were 330,000 people in jails and prisons in this country. Because of the War on Drugs and politicians using fear of crime to get elected, our prison population gradually grew to the 2.2 million people it now is. Ohio was one of the leaders in these increases in incarceration, its prison population growing from 15,000 in 1978 to over 50,000 now. Black men – nationally and in Ohio where I still live – were dramatically affected by this massive prison expansion.

One of the leading figures in this racially biased growth was George Voinovich, who was elected governor in 1990. His family construction company the V Group made a fortune from the prisons they built during and following his tenure as governor. His anti-crime rhetoric may have been more tempered than that of Donald Trump in 2016, but Voinovich left behind a legacy of broken Black men, broken Black families, and broken Black communities. Violence is not only physical; poverty and despair are just as devastating forms of violence.

Voinovich added to his legacy of misery through his higher education policies. Twenty-five years earlier, Lyndon B. Johnson saw access to an affordable college education as an important pathway out of poverty, especially for people of color. While LBJ pried those ivy doors open a little through the Higher Education Act of 1965, Voinovich in Ohio and many others around the country grabbed hold of those same door handles but started pushing them closed by cutting state support for public colleges and universities. So let’s start by taking away opportunity and hope. When despair drives some into self-medication through illegal drugs, we’ll just lock them up. Beginning in the ‘80s but escalating through the ‘90s, these educational and criminalization policies shattered poor communities, especially those of color. As Michelle Alexander puts it, this is the latest version of Jim Crow.

We clearly live in a country that is on edge, just as much now as it was when I was in college in the ‘60s and working in NYC, San Francisco, and Pennsylvania in the ‘70s. During my 70 years, America has always been at war, on both the domestic and international fronts. I witnessed the cities on fire during the ‘60s – from Watts to Detroit and Newark. I’ve seen America’s wars in Latin America, Asia, and Africa – from Korea and the Cold War to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. That violence is contagious, not only in other countries but here at home. We see aggression on our highways where road rage is rampant. We see violence against women, against people of color, against non-Christians and especially Muslims. Cyber-bullying is common; just look at the anonymous comments to newspapers and web sites and the shaming and vicious attacks common on social media. That is the world of Donald Trump: one of hyper-aggression and bullying and blaming the victims for being the “haters.” But this is nothing new, even for Donald Trump who became judge and jury after the so-called “wilding” incident in New York’s Central Park in 1989. Following the brutal rape and beating of a white woman who was jogging in the park, Trump fanned the racial flames by taking out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for restoration of the death penalty. His vigilantism contributed to the wrongful arrests and convictions of five Black men – all of whom eventually exonerated but only following years in prison.

I have witnessed racially motivated violence and intimidation all of my life. It is often disguised as color blind by focusing on the poor and disenfranchised – those easy targets at the bottom of our society. For better or worse, we do live in a war zone but not the one imagined by Donald Trump. Rather, it is a war zone of misplaced white rage (as Carol Anderson calls it) against the convenient scapegoats of those who are different and vulnerable: people of color, women, LGBT, the poor, the wrong religion. That is also nothing new. As a child, I got beat up by so-called “Christians” because I was Catholic. But I didn’t get thrown into a camp as I would have been for being Jewish in Nazi Germany. Or as Japanese Americans in the U.S. were during World War II just for being of Japanese descent – not a lot different than Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims. Or involuntarily sterilized because of my inferiority; even in 1957 when I was 11 years old, 27 states still had such laws on the books. Or not allowed to marry across racial lines until 1967 when I turned 21 and could finally vote for the first time.

But now is the time for Americans – especially white Americans – to open their eyes to the reality of their present and their past in order to make a different future for us all. I have four young grandchildren who deserve to live in a just and fair society that is open and accepting, not one that rejects far too many people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability status and on and on. Those of us alive here and now are not responsible for the past, but we are responsible for the present and future. We must open our eyes and repudiate these bankrupt ideas. Donald Trump says “Make America Great Again” when he means “Make America White Again.” He and his supporters want a return to the 1950s. That’s not possible. Why is it so hard for so many to open their eyes? The time for justice is now.