The Blacker the Berry Race and the Devaluation of Black Lives in America

Today, the black civil rights movements of the United States are still actively battling against some of the primary issues that their forebears were concerned with: the apparent expendability of black bodies and the representation of black people as criminals. There is a consistency in goals and challenges that has remained present through the struggle against slavery, the civil rights movements of the 1960s, and Black Lives Matter today. Although significant progress has been made in relation to racial discourse in America, some aspects of anti-black oppression have remained constant overtime or merely evolved to take on new forms more practicable in modern society.

The end result is a racial justice movement in 2019 that, in many important ways, is still seeking to answer the same questions of framing and tactics as those of previous generations. The deaths of African Americans at the hands of predominantly white law enforcement officials nationwide constitutes a form of ‘legalized lynching’ that has been noticeably on the rise—or, at least, increasingly well-documented. The usual attacks on the victims’ characters as delinquents, violent, aggressive and stubborn faithfully echo the justifications given for anti-black violence in previous generations. Despite graphic evidence of these killings, the situation has continued unabated in a manner difficult to imagine had the victims been white citizens. The representation of black victims as violent continues to prove deadly, and the pro-black movements of the day are still fighting to counter this public perception.

Separate, but still related, is the concept of respectability politics. Respectability politics characterized American race relations as far back as the nineteenth century, and still rears its head in contemporary discourse on interracial interactions. Respectability politics refers to the idea that non-white minority groups need to exemplify good behaviour and economic ability in order to be taken seriously by the white majority. Debates around respectability politics were common in the early black liberation movements, and the idea was central to some pivotal decisions. One example was the rallying around Rosa Parks’ case for the Montgomery Bus Boycotts rather than other women who were more easily vilified by a white audience. This debate continues today. For instance, Black Lives Matter rejects respectability politics, noting that victims with chequered pasts are no less deserving of justice and fairness. Nonetheless, there is still tremendous pressure, from White and Black Americans, for black people to behave correctly in order to have their basic needs met. This is most recently evident in the media reaction to several black girls who have stepped forward with testimonies about their sexual exploitation by an internationally acclaimed R&B singer, R. Kelly. Despite numerous allegations of child pornography and sexual misconduct over the years against the perpetrator and cries for help by the victims’ families, these girls face shame and dismissal for not being ‘respectable’ black victims and their families, rather than the alleged perpetrator, are heavily castigated.

So, what is to be made of the continuity of certain themes in centuries of black liberation movements in the United States? It is obvious that despite progress in several areas, negative representations of blackness in the American consciousness continue to be a problem. However, three books on the social construct of blackness and whiteness in modern American society explain not only the past, but also the conceptions of black criminality and expendability that are very much present today. The three books are At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance by Danielle McGuire; Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home: Racial Violence in Florida by Tameka Bradley Hobbs; and From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton. From these sources, it is obvious that the racial oppression of black people will likely continue for generations to come so long as American perceptions of black inferiority persist unrestrained.

At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance: A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power – Danielle McGuire. Alfred A. Knopf. 2010.

With At the Dark End of the Street, Danielle McGuire does a phenomenal job highlighting the role of African American women as the unsung heroes behind the success of the American Civil Rights movement. McGuire makes the patriarchy surrounding racial discourse evident, so much so that it cannot be denied or overlooked even by the staunchest anti-feminist critic. The dominance of male figures and the relegation of the women who initiated the movement to less-vocal, behind-the-scenes roles characterized the crusade. According to McGuire, the author recognized the need to tell this story when she realized how silent existing history was on the issue. She wrote: ‘…black women had been enduring, resisting and testifying about interracial sexual violence for years…these crucial and revealing moments had never made their way into the history of the civil rights movement.’

McGuire’s work helped further highlight the reality of intersectionality especially as it applies to women of colour. Originally defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality refers to the overlapping realities of multiple identities and the layers of oppression that the doubly-marginalized could experience even within a marginalized group. The term was developed in an attempt to explain the multiple facets of oppression African-American women face. In the US, intersectionality is now at the forefront of national conversations about racial justice, identity politics, and policing—and, over the years, has helped shape legal discussions.

Black women faced double marginalization as blacks and as women. Not only was the black woman’s body public property available to white men for their pleasure, it was also regularly subjected to a highly politicized and patriarchal justice system whenever a victim attempted to seek redress. In an attempt to ‘reclaim’ their bodies, black women utilized their voices as weapons, to create awareness of the injustice they had faced for decades. This was seen in the case of Fannie Lou Hamer, who spoke out and became an activist after she was sterilized without her consent and physically assaulted in a police station in June 1963.

Respectability politics, however, greatly determined the extent to which these women and the African American community as a whole could fight their cause. According to Frances White, respectability politics are ‘attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference’. Notwithstanding, McGuire draws our attention to the fact that as time went on there was a change in attitude from a focus on the politics of respectability to the newfound thirst for equality and justice, regardless of personal history as was exemplified in Joan Little’s case. This development among others such as the organization and execution of the Bus Boycott of 1955/56 signalled the development of a sense of ‘somebodiness’ and community among black people as they battled against the ‘thingification’ of their humanity.

Under the weight of respectability politics, Black people felt the need to constantly prove themselves to White people before they could be integrated into society. This has stemmed from the predominantly white ruling class domination of a racially diverse society coupled with the imposing of their worldviews as the accepted social norms. In actuality, these worldviews and ideologies are merely social constructs developed to serve the ruling class and control power relations. Unfortunately, the ideology behind respectability politics persists today in many discourses around the rights of Black Americans and particularly as a reaction to black women who are victims of physical and sexual violence.

Significant economic, political and social change over the years coupled with the increasing number of vocal victims has contributed to greater awareness and a considerable reduction in the abilities of white men to sexually assault black women without consequence in America. But much more still needs to be done to see it is completely eradicated, along with what the book describes as the ‘mammyfication’ of the black woman. Historically, in America, Black women were often subjected to tend to white families at the expense of their own children who had to grow up without a mother. As aptly put by Cydney Renee, mammyfication is ‘the stripping away of the many layers of black women, and making it a commodity of which black women contribute to entirely, but in no way benefit from without pushback from society’.

These key ideas in McGuire’s work present a new dynamic in understanding a history that has become taken for granted, and makes one realize the need to be willing to go beyond the status quo, exploring unconventional lines of inquiry in the search for truth.

Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home: Racial Violence in Florida – Tameka Bradley Hobbs. University Press of Florida. 2015.

Hobbs’ Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home highlights an equally significant problem that pervaded US race relations: the lynching violence in Florida and other southern states and how it placed the US in a precarious position, especially in relation to its stance on the world stage. Although lynching had once been a prominent act in the US up until the early twentieth century, it reduced considerably in other parts of the nation but was still assiduously practiced in the South, largely due to the dominant ideology of what Hobbs calls the ‘black rapist beast’.

Hobbs points out that despite its persistence, the nature of lynching evolved overtime, as it served the broad social purpose of maintaining white supremacy in the economic, social and political spheres. This is seen clearly in the increasing number of African American deaths by police brutality in contemporary America. According to the National Police Violence Map, police in the United States killed 1,147 people in 2017, of which 25 per cent were black. This is despite the fact that only 13 percent of the United States is black. African Americans are often subjected to the death penalty whenever they engage in what should be routine police encounters. With breadwinners of families and future generations being razed down by the day, the economic and psychological effects are bound to be felt for generations to come.

As Hobbs points out, the failure of the Florida State Government to contain the lynching situation in the late twentieth century made the state a national pariah. This is because it showcased America’s double standard to other nations that were closely following these events, and contradicted America’s democratic stance at a time when national image was of utmost importance. Ultimately, the lynching of African Americans was a mark against America’s supposed moral authority to criticize communist systems, a fact that the USSR rarely neglected to point out.

Despite this development, records show that none of the perpetrators of the lynching violence in America was penalized. In a similar manner, the failure of the justice system to convict police officers who engage in the indiscriminate killing of black people in present day America has made it clear internationally that not much has changed. The communities and families of the victims of extrajudicial violence have endured various forms of loss for generations. Hobbs shows how they are often still plagued by fear, loss of familial ties and were never economically compensated. This has contributed to the ‘broken down’ state of many black families today. Oral tradition is extremely important to African Americans and has been the primary way of keeping the truth about these lynchings alive for generations.

In summary, Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home successfully draws attention to the long-lasting effects of lynching violence which, Hobbs argues, transcends generations. Moreover, Bradley-Hobbs points out the necessity to acknowledge and analyse this violence in order to better understand African Americans’ sceptical view of the American justice system to date.

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America – Elizabeth Hinton. Harvard University Press. 2016.

In a similar vein, Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime sheds light on the gradual transformation of the American justice system. The book emphasizes the importance of understanding this transformation as, Hinton argues, it provides useful insight into the current state of the American penal system and serves as evidence of the American cultural hegemony. The book’s spotlight on the racial underpinnings of several policies developed over the years makes one understand why certain races are more prominent in prisons and other detention facilities. Hinton’s observation of the role played by research ‘data’ and flawed statistics in further propagating age old racial stereotypes and biased understandings of crime is instrumental as it shows that institutional racism is still rife till date. The policies developed in the 1970s failed to prevent crime and public safety, but rather heightened it as many African Americans reacted to the injustice they were constantly subjected to by the very people and government that were supposed to protect them.

While some American heads of state implemented policies detrimental to racial minorities from ignorance driven by their own socialization as well as pressure from national advisors and the scientific community, others like Richard Nixon were more intentional and recognized the detrimental impact such policies would have on these minority communities for generations to come. The policies, framed as being for the greater good of these minority populations, were actually designed to ‘keep them in their place’ and to ensure a maintenance of the racial hierarchy while perpetuating socioeconomic problems. The inequalities that have come about as a result of these policies have created a fissure in the African American community and will take consistent and prolonged intentional effort to reverse.

Also, the obvious decriminalization of white youth and portrayal of black youth as delinquents in the years that led up to the establishment of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act in 1974 indicated a greater underlying problem. Although policymakers came to recognize incarceration as an ineffective crime prevention method, they still pushed for higher incarceration rates of certain groups of ‘offenders’. Of significant importance to note is the law enforcement’s increased and pre-emptive interactions with black youth, which led to the increase in the likelihood of being charged with a crime. As the reverse was and still is the case in wealthier white neighbourhoods, white youth’s possibility of having a criminal record was considerably low.

The first attempt to work on socioeconomic problems in order to solve urban unrest was attributed to the Kerner Commission during the Johnson administration (November 1963 – January 1969). In March 1968, for the first time the commission identified white racism and not black anger as the primary cause of urban American turmoil. Newsweek, a preeminent American political magazine, also carried out extensive research and came about with a similar conclusion along with possible solutions to racial inequality. However, these more accurate findings and advice were overlooked by policymakers and the vicious cycle continued.

In From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime Hinton successfully traces the origins of the American prison problem to the Johnson administration. Her historical analysis, in particular, brought a lot of previously overlooked elements to light. For example, while the US Republican Party is unpopular with African Americans and American conservatism is associated with stoking racism, Hinton shows that mass incarceration actually started during a Democratic administration. Moreover, that since the Johnson administration, mass incarceration has grown out of control.

A Netflix original documentary, The 13th, is a must watch and an instrumental piece that makes cogent contributions to understanding the development and current state of mass incarceration in America. The 13th amendment is symbolic of the way slavery has evolved and become more institutionalized. When the amendment was initially passed, it was a glimmer of hope and was regarded as a blow to a major pillar of white supremacy i.e. the ability to legally own slaves. However, a clause in the amendment states ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or place subject to their jurisdiction’. In other words, as long as one is found guilty of a crime, they can be legally re-enslaved. As a result, as Jim Crow went down, prison populations increased. Before the amendment was passed, the prison system had more white people than black, but with the presentation of this loophole, the tables were swiftly turned. Offences committed by white people were decriminalized while a lesser or equivalent offence committed by black people was severely punished. With black people being more economically disadvantaged than their white counterparts, they were unable to pay the necessary fines and served prolonged sentences. This ultimately led to the development of a prison industry, a new form of inhumane exploitation in which prisoners labour was sold for a pittance to corporations who required them.

American prisons have been largely privatized and have witnessed a dwindle in rehabilitation efforts and security. Instead, authorities are more interested in the profitability of the prison which has become the guiding principle of these institutions. The possession of more prisoners presents opportunities for companies and states to make money without fear of moral consequences. In ‘The True History of America’s Private Prison Industry’ Shaun Bauer writes that private prison executives ‘convince themselves, with remarkable ease, that they are in the business of punishment because it makes the world better, not because it makes them rich.’

The mass recruitment of prisoners was cloaked in America’s longest and costliest war—the War on Drugs, which was created by Nixon and has since continued. Over the years, it has become obvious that the war was not against drugs but primarily against black people. The War on Drugs has served as a cynical political tool, which serves to further disenfranchise the black populace. In ‘The shocking story behind Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ that targeted blacks and anti-war activists’, Mark J. Perry explains that the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentences led to a tenfold increase in African American male incarceration rate between the 1970s and 2010. Extensive research has also shown that increased incarceration rates does not reduce crime but has more of a detrimental effect when social, health and behavioural effects are considered.

In all three books, negative representations of blackness are common. In At the Dark End of the Street, McGuire points to the fact that black men were given a permanent label in the South as ‘black beast rapists’ who were constantly trying to have sexual relations with white women. Even civil rights activists were accused of fighting for freedom primarily because they wanted to intermarry with white women and were often shut down and given the same label. The same was the case in Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home. Hobbs highlights the fact that nearly all the lynchings that took place in the South involved some form of sexual accusation and had this notion at its foundation, even though these accusations were almost always false. This was seen in the case of Jesse Payne, who had an altercation with his landlord but ended up almost paying for it with his life after the same narrative was wielded by his landlord to inspire blood lust in fellow men with similar ideologies. As Hobbs aptly put it, these ‘white men who would carry out lynching lived in a constant fear of their own creation.’ This construction of a beast rapist was used by the white perpetrators to justify murder, and the justice system often turned a blind eye to these events.

In From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, the narrative surrounding black men had evolved from that of the beast rapist to that of the uncontrollably violent criminal. Black pathology became the new order of the day as ignorance became backed with scientific ‘findings’, which argued the inferiority of the black race and their natural disposition to violence. White Supremacy and the structural causes of the state of black families were overlooked and this new construction which was more familiar and suited white people’s assumptions of the black race was quickly accepted. According to Hinton, even the figures presented to highlight crime rates in the country were highly flawed for a number of reasons including the representation of names of black people who had been initially arrested but not indicted. This led to the over representation of black people on criminal records and ultimately to the creation of further policies and programs detrimental to this group.

In addition to the black beast rapist narrative associated with black men, black women also had their own burden to bear as they had to live with the hypersexual/prostitute character imposed on them. This is seen in almost every case presented in At the Dark End of the Street, ranging from Recy Taylor to Joan Little. In contrast, white women were portrayed as pure beings who constantly needed protection. On numerous occasions, black women were denied justice for this very reason with Joan Little’s case being an exception to the rule. However, the white men who perpetrated these dastardly sexual acts were never represented in a negative light, but rather often praised each other and went on these hunts together.

The concept of miscegenation, interracial sexual relations, was the basis on which white supremacists contested integration. They strongly believed the black race to be genetically inferior, and even went as far as believing that black people are some kind of anomaly that didn’t complete the evolution process. Yet, white men sought sexual relations with black women behind the scenes, despite or, perhaps even, because of the taboo nature of such relations.

Most of these narratives about black people, which white people have come to believe so strongly, have no valid origins and are usually fears sparked by racial tension and ignorance. Yet, belief in these narratives has had significant impacts on the black community as was demonstrated in the lynchings of Cellos Harrison, Claude O’neal among many others and the creation of detrimental policies as seen in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime.

Till date, some of these beliefs are still widely held and new generations are constantly taught to hold these ideologies as norms and truth. This was demonstrated in the 1959 Betty Jean Owens case, in which a boy as young as 16 was involved in her rape and assault. McGuire notes that the assailants failed to take the initial arrest seriously. This signified their confidence in the justice system to acquit them of any crime committed against an African American as this had been the precedence for decades. On a similar note in Hinton’s book, law enforcement officials and policymakers’ belief that they needed to be wary of even black minors below thirteen years of age, coupled with the criminalization and detention of black minors in adult penal facilities, goes to show that these foundational ideologies are still very relevant in the twenty-first century.

Furthermore, the portrayal of blacks as delinquents and of whites as troubled youth, which Hinton’s book highlights, largely influenced the kinds of social welfare programs that were made available to each group. More crime control programs flooded urban black neighbourhoods while rehabilitation facilities flooded white suburban neighbourhoods and prevented white kids from ending up in the penal system. The significance of the ‘dramatization of evil’ or labelling theory as highlighted by Frank Tannenbaum in Crime and Community, cannot be overemphasized. Tannenbaum identifies the social interaction involved in crime; how continuous representation and stereotyping of black youth as criminals and delinquents ultimately leads them to believe in this notion and act on it. This leads to the re-perpetuation of a vicious cycle.

These widely propagated and accepted narratives; men as black beast rapists, women as sexually uncontrollable prostitutes, and the race as a whole as feeble minded and pathologically unfortunate, have led to the systematic devaluation of black lives, particularly in America. Civil rights liberation movements today such as Black Lives Matter are engaged in a fight to reclaim this value (which their ancestors had prior to arriving in America, because they were denied dignity from the moment they were abducted from the continent).

Black women, as usual, receive the shorter end of the stick. In addition to forced sterilization, there has been a noticeable trend in America of ignoring or carelessly handling black women’s health. This devaluation of black women’s lives has evolved over time from the ‘fungibility’ of their flesh as noted by Riley Snorton, as chattel persons on white-owned plantations, to the objects of sexual terror and debasement and, now, as bodies undeserving of adequate medical and other forms of standard attention required to live a normal life.

Dalton Conley, a Professor of Sociology, highlights the fact that ‘wealth ownership is the socioeconomic measure that displays the single greatest racial disparity in America today’. Gross economic inequality has and still characterizes the American society today, as black people continue to be paid less than white people for executing the same job and this trend seems to be on the rise. Conley puts this in better perspective by claiming, ‘while young African Americans may have the opportunity to obtain the same education, income, and wealth as whites, in actuality they are on a slippery slope, for the discrimination their parents faced in the housing and credit markets sets the stage for perpetual economic disadvantage.’ In other words, African Americans will still experience this disadvantage perhaps for generations to come.

Not only are individual lives affected, but communal life is also affected. Neighbourhoods, from time immemorial, have been deemed less valuable when they have high numbers of black residents. Due to the decades of marginalization and oppression of black populations, their quality of life has been eroded and stripped of its full potential. According to the recently released Devaluation of Assets in Black Neighbourhoods report, ‘homes in neighbourhoods where the share of the population is 50 percent black are valued at roughly half the price as homes in neighbourhoods with no black residents.’ The problem the black residents who moved into Compton in the 1960s faced is still evident today.

It is, therefore, reasonable to say that racial socialization and the representation of black people over time as a result of American racism and white-centricity has led to a near irreversible devaluation of black lives and communities, and this devaluation will continue to be on an upward trajectory until the root matters are adequately attended to and mutually beneficial policies are implemented. The need for the United States to address these injustices is of immense importance. As a world power, the United States sets precedent for many other countries, and its achieving racial justice will ultimately have a ripple effect on how other countries address these issues