“The People and the Police: Oakland” (1974)

This documentary originally aired in 1974. It was produced by KRON as part of their “Assignment Four” series. It’s narrated by Paul Ryan and was written, produced, and directed by Ira Eisenberg.


The fundamental assumption of our criminal justice system is that (at least most of) the people who find themselves in it are criminals deserving of their punishment. Relying on our notions of free will (they chose to commit a crime) and egoism (I haven’t struggled to NOT commit a crime so they shouldn’t have had a hard time either), we have faith that the broad contours of the system work, at least at the task of apprehending and incarcerating criminals.

What we often don’t consider is how our “individual decisions” are framed by a context–one that shapes not only motivation and possibility, but literally what our individual decisions mean.

Drug and alcohol addiction do not present themselves in higher rates in poor communities of color. Rich whites and poor Blacks and Latinos are as likely to be addicted as are poor whites and Asians, and rich Blacks and Latinos, and so on. A near avalanche of studies shows this. Addiction presents itself in society the way you would expect when you consider it a disease.

So, Americans tend to misuse illegal drugs at a rate equivalent to their share of the overall population. Yet African Americans and Latinos are far more likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses than whites. In the case of African Americans, they are 13 times as likely.

A complex convergence of policies and societal forces work together to constitute this disparity. Penalties for more expensive drugs (like cocaine) are less severe than penalties for cheaper drugs (like crack); whites are more likely than others to be offered mandated treatment as their sentence rather than prison time; studies show charges for the same drug offenses are brought more frequently and with harsher consequences for men of color; and so on.

But I’m not just trying to get you to think about racial inequality in the charging and sentencing of drug offenders.

The recent NAACP report “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate” presents the scope of the problem. There are currently 2.3 million people in the US who are incarcerated. Most of them (6 out of 10) are people of color.

The total imprisoned population in the US is 25% of the world total population of prisoners. Though the US represents only 5% of the world’s population we house 25% of its prisoners.

As the report suggests, we have created a prison system that is essentially “warehousing” addicts and people with mental health issues.  We are spending a disproportionate amount of money to imprison a small percentage of our overall population that comes from a small handful of communities as well.  As the report shows, prison rates are highest in a small handful of communities where populations of color predominate and education resources atrophy.  We are seemingly comfortable with the fact that it is more likely for a young black or Latino male living today to end up in prison than in a 4-year college.

If you believe that everyone who is in prison is there as a result of an equitable system that is controlled only by their free choice, then you have to account for your fundamental assumption that men of color are more dangerous than white men.  (and, in case you’re not feeling racist yet, there is not substantiated research to show that they are.)

The NACCP report can be accessed by CLICKING HERE.

Monday Blues (01.03.11)

Happy New Year! I wanted to kick this year off by thanking each of every one of you for your support of Latino Like Me. Whether you visit my blog on a regular basis, or subscribe, or just stumble upon here from time to time, I appreciate your time and consideration. I hope from time to time I fill it with a little something entertaining, maybe even thought-provoking.

I’m feeling like I’m going to keep on going with my “Monday Blues” feature, if for no other reason than it’s a good way for me to kick off my work week.

To inaugurate 2011, we return to Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thorton, the mistress of blues who kicked this feature off for us last year. This time she’s singing “I’m Feelin’ Alright” from her 1966 album “Big Mama Thorton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band.”

Black Women and HIV/AIDS

A discussion of HIV/AIDS and communities of color on the June 22, 2010 episode of The View is causing controversy for its spread of misinformation relating to the cause of Black women’s HIV/AIDS rates.

On the episode, Sherri Shepherd–who is a regular host of the show–along with comic D.L. Hughley–who was a guest–were discussing the FDA ban on blood donations from gay & bisexual men, when talk turned to men living on the “down low”–men who live straight lives but engage in homosexual sex.  Here’s the exchange:

Hughley: When you look at the prevalence of HIV in the African American Community, it’s primarily young women who are getting it from men who are on the down low.  That’s the thing.

Shepherd: The down low is black men who’ve been going out. They are having sex with men and they’re not telling their girlfriends or their wives that they’re gay and their husbands, as well. And it’s very prevalent with African American women because they come home and have sex with their wives or their girlfriends. And they’re not telling them that they’re gay.

Shepherd: It’s so big in the Black community with women because they’re having unprotected sex with men who have been having sex with… with men.

Indeed, as this story with Dr. Kevin Fenton (Director of the CDC’s’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention) reports, Black women comprise 61% of new HIV infection cases among women.  According to recent research, 80% of those cases are coming from women engaging in heterosexual sex.  This data is but the tip of an epidemic iceberg for African American women.  As the above piece states,

At 61 percent, Black women have an infection rate nearly 15 times higher than White women. Latina[s] represent 17 percent of all new HIV cases among women. White women are only 15 percent.

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, and these figures trend to perhaps the most startling of them all: AIDS is the leading cause of death among Black women between the ages of 25 and 34.

The things is, recent research disproves the “down low” phenomenon as the cause of these high rates.  As Dr. Fenton described: “In fact, we have looked to see what proportion of infections is coming from male partners who are bisexual and found there are actually relatively few. More are male partners who are having female partners and are injecting drugs or using drugs or have some other risks that may put those female partners at risk of acquiring HIV.”

In short, the rates are high largely because of unprotected “straight” sex.

Shepherd and Hughley were undoubtedly reporting what they thought they knew, something akin to contemporary “common sense” knowledge of HIV/AIDS and communities of color.  It is, in part, the result of various campaigns in the 90s to spread awareness of the virus and disease within these same communities, campaigns which largely promoted increased use of condoms.  At the time, HIV/AIDS prevention efforts often targeted segments of these communities which they viewed as “high risk.”  “Straight” men living on the “down low” was one such target.

I recall some HIV/AIDS prevention materials being disseminated throughout San Francisco’s Mission District at the time which were specifically targeted to such men.  From literature in bars and community centers, to large billboards in the heart of the barrio, there was a clear message being spread.  The same kinds of materials were common in my home across the bay, Oakland.  There I saw the results of campaigns directed at both Latinos and African Americans.

Science–and the HIV/AIDS prevention community–knows better now.  This will hopefully make for more effective efforts to stem the spread of the virus.  It certainly needs to find greater purchase within the campaigns that are now being developed to target communities of color.

Yet the effect of these educational efforts of the past–when considered against a sociocultural context that continues to be disproportionately disconnected to current scientific information, as well as far too often nurturing of homophobia–will mean “common sense” understandings like Shepherd’s and Hughley’s will continue to spread within these communities.

The response of GLAAD to this episode (while perhaps lacking in empathy of the larger context) is important.  All organizations who care about these issues–and this should include far more than those who identify as queer organizations–need to confront misinformation with the truth, and do so in a vigilant manner.  More importantly, organizations which already have an authoritative voice within our communities need to step up to the plate and  begin to take a greater interest in the problems that are slowly killing us from the inside out.

For more information visit:

Black AIDS Institute: http://www.blackaids.org/
My Sistahs: http://www.mysistahs.org/
Office of Minority Health: http://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/
National Minority AIDS Council: http://www.nmac.org/home/

A Wake Up Call for “White Americans”

Earlier this month, I came across the article “What happened to post-racial America?” by Politico’s Roger Simon. You can find it here.

I’ve been reading the article a bit here and a bit there for the past week or so, finding it useful to a small project I’m writing for a foreign audience. At first read, I found it to be reflective of the kinds of thinking that (I feel) predominate in mainstream, liberal, political discourse. It was naïve, but clear about how some of that naïveté was constituted. It was focused on a simplistic measure of “racial reconciliation,” but also a simplistic measure of the facts of its nonexistence.

It wasn’t until tonight that I thought it might also be read as a small step for one political Liberal in his course of individual liberation from what was famously termed by one author as “personal whiteness.” Roger Simon writes the following in reference to the famous July 2008 cover of the New Yorker:

The cover succeeded (at least to me) in being so absurd that it poked fun of the people who believed the Obamas were dangerous, traitorous or foreign. As David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, said at that time, the cover “combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are.”

Today, those “obvious distortions” plus new ones get serious hearings on talk radio and cable TV. Today, posters mysteriously appear on the streets of Los Angeles depicting Obama as the white-faced Joker from Batman with the single word “socialism” beneath his face.

Simon’s reflection here is a good sign of progress. While he doesn’t demonstrate any profound measure of empathy—a form of critical thought that would have initially necessitated understanding, first, how others might have objected to the cover back in July 2008—he does show the same consequence. Here, as in other sections, he portrays race and racism in the U.S. as more complex than simple.

While his final measure of equality still revolves around the seductive “representation” (the problem that constitutes the very question he asks in the title to his piece) the fact of the limits of racial justice in the present moment could have a positive result was satisfying.

It’s sad people have to see what people of color have known for a long time; but it’s nice more people are once again seeing it.

Everyday violence and labor rights

In the United States, the mainstream culture tends to think of itself as free from major forms of violence. We may have murders, abuse, and other manifestations of the violent, but they hardly define the everyday experience of most Americans. In a wealthy nation with relative stability, we see these instances of violence as aberrations, departures from the norm.

One of the painful truths we must learn to confront is that this is not the experience of many people in this country. My own experience with daily life in this country had less to do with this negation of violence than the stark confrontation with it and its effects. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t grow up in a war zone. I didn’t see a dead person until my teens, and even that experience was powerful for its uncommonness.  I am talking about the kinds of everyday violence more appropriately thouht of as subliminal, like white noise.

This is the kind of violence we often ignore because its confrontation is too overwhelming to deal with.  But people do deal with it.  Its the violence of poverty, of struggle, of exclusion, of inadequate funding, of inequity, of uncertainty.  It’s the kind of violence that translates into frustration, anger, and physical violence for some, but emotional exhaustion and stress for many more (if not all).  Its the violence of not knowing if you will have enough money to feed yourself or your family.  For others, it might be the self-inflicted violence of alcohol or drugs used as an escape from this reality.

Lately, I’ve been thinking how the current economic crisis is offering more and more Americans an avenue into understanding this kind of trauma.  At the same time, government bailouts of corporations will, inevitably, lead to a declination in actual labor protections for workers.  Kind of perverse, when you think about it.


Marvin Gaye is Still Dead

But, oh, how I wish he weren’t.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest talents in all of rhythm & blues and soul.  Marvin Gaye died on April 1, 1984, shot dead by his father.  He was one day shy of his 45th birthday.  Had he lived, then, April 2 would have been Marvin’s 70th birthday.

I don’t have much to say about the spectacular life he lived–the radically conservative church of his youth; the music (ah! the music!); the cross-dressing (oh, yes!); and all the rest.  I hope today we will all be inundated with thoughtful and diverse recollections about the man in both the mainstream and alternative presses.  Motown–the recording studio he helped make famous–is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and even they have something special planned to mark what would have been his birthday.  I encourage you to learn more about the man if you are so inclined.

I do remember the day he died.  I don’t remember where we were that day, but it was somewhere in L.A. or in East L.A.  We had just gotten home to La Puente (about 12 miles east of E.L.A.) and turned on the late afternoon news.  I was shocked.  I was early into my musical maturing process, only 12 years old at the time, and I was shocked.  Marvin had already become one of my favorites.  Wasn’t he one of everybody’s?

I want to say two things about the man and his music, one from the perspective of a huge fan and the other from that of a young person of color growing up in Chicano southern California.

He was about as good as you get, and you could feel it.  Smokey Robinson said it well when he suggested “the driving force behind Marvin Gaye’s immense talent was his pain.”  Marvin felt it all, and he made you feel it to.  From the pop-based, post-doo-wop stuff of his early career; to the stellar duets and soul inspired solos in the mid and late sixties; to his socially-conscious turn in the late sixties and seventies; and to his dirty, make you feel all kinds of hot in his later years, Marvin had the gift that is the heart of soul music.  It was pain.  It was joy.  It was relief.  It was hope.  And it was always moving.  He even made the national anthem sexy!

Finally, he was always the “real deal.”  In the places I knew as a kid, and in the places I grew to know as an adult, Marvin Gaye was loved and respected.  Black folk, and even Mexican Americans, felt his authenticity.  I heard his oldies, but also those songs you don’t hear to much on the radio, always in groups where people visibly felt the thing it was he wanted us to feel.  I remember being in an Oakland bar once, around 1997, when a live version of one of his albums started playing during the intermission of a jumping band.  The vibe went from the dance hall to the bedroom in about 10 seconds flat.  That’s what Marvin could do.

Here are some of my favorite performances of him online.  (If you are ever looking for the definitive collection of his recorded materials, I would recommend Marvin Gaye’s The Master 1961-1984, a collection which brings together the songs you know and the songs you should.)

[NOTE: Marvin’s only Grammy Award was for this song, awarded to him at this ceremony.  He was dead one year later.]

Is Obama Black, White, or Biracial?

One of the consequences of Barack Obama’s election is “talk about race” in the United States.  From local diners, to bus stops, to classrooms, to offices, to the family dinner tables, Americans are starting to talk about race with a frequency perhaps unheard of since the climax of the Civil Rights Movement.

No matter what he does as president, Obama’s very high-profile position is beginning to force a reckoning with small elements of America’s racial past.  [I am being very deliberate in the language I am using here.  I do NOT believe that the election of Barack Obama is, in itself, racial healing, or proof of this nation “getting past” it’s history of racial oppression.  It can be, but I am less than optimistic that it will be.  That said, his election is–almost unavoidably–framing a process that can lead to something better.]  Obama just being Obama makes it difficult for “everyday Americans”  to ignore race, which is not only something we have become expert at doing but also (contrary to the skewed interpretation of MLK’s “colorblind society”) stands as one of the biggest problems we continue to face as a nation.

This segment from NPR is a wonderful demonstration of this process.  The topic of discussion is Obama’s choice to call himself an “African American” instead of a “biracial” person.  Reflective of the ways his mere presence picks at some of the long-held racial assumptions of our national culture, these kinds of discussions can be huge steps forward toward better understanding ourselves, each other, and our common social bonds.

This particular issue interrogates ideas which are so deeply engrained into our collective ways of knowing.  Namely, it helps to expose the inconsistencies between our traditional notions of race (as a fixed and biological “fact”) with the historical evidence of it (as a set of socially constructed meanings we encounter).  On more personal level, it also helps to frame an inquiry into the politics of naming–the choices people of color make for themselves in representing their experiences and identities as well as the ones “others” choose for us.

The end result of discussions like this one are not preordained.  We are actually far more likely to retreat into the dysfunctional belief systems of the past, preserving the current incarnation of global white supremacy because, like all dysfunctions, it is comfortable and familiar.  But, if we learn how to work at it, we could also be moving, collectively, to a brighter day with respct to race and equality.  We’ll see.

“The Racism and Politics of Planned Parenthood”

Stories like this one by Erika Andersen of HumanEvents.com usually flash on my computer screen for a minute, receive a garbled grumble of some kind from a tired and exasperated professor, and then zip away to never be thought of again…at least until another one comes along.

But this is actually the fourth time in the last seven days that an article relating abortion politics, racism, and Obama has found its way into my blog reader. Coincidence? I think not.

Just so you don’t have to help their advertising revenue by clicking the link above, here’s the full-text of the piece:

The dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. was more than desegregation. It was prosperity, life and liberty — Constitutional metrics for success — for every person of every color in every stage of life. King’s niece, Dr. Alveda King, now leads a movement pitted against Planned Parenthood for targeting the black community for abortion.

On Thursday, King joined other African-American leaders and pastors in a march at the Republican and Democratic National committee headquarters to urge legislators to reject the $10 million in funding PP has pledged to donate to influence the election.

Students for Life of America and the National Black Pro-Life Union have campaigned heavily against the federal funding of Planned Parenthood, who received $350 million in taxpayer funds last year alone.

“We are uniting civil rights and moral rights to fulfill the dream of what my uncle called ‘the beloved community,’” said King. “We start where life begins, with the babies, and we will march on until abortion, racism and all society’s ills bow to the truth that we are all one race.”

Last year, after a group of college students posed as phone donors specifying that their money be used to abort a black child, the racist undertones of Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger blazed forth. The fake donors were told their money would be marked for such delivery even after one caller said, “the less blacks out there, the better” and another noted that “there are definitely too many black people in Ohio.”

Planned Parenthoods across the nation are strategically placed in low-income, highly African-American populated areas — where poor women are more likely to have access. In fact, 62.5% of PP clinics are located in these communities and when you include Hispanic neighborhoods, the number increases to 70%. These same community leaders stood outside of a Washington, DC Planned Parenthood clinic in April, protesting the targeted placement.

Aside from aiming at African-Americans, PP’s activities across America are scandal-laced. In Kansas, a clinic is under criminal investigation for falsifying documents and performing illegal, late-term abortions. A California PP is accused of defrauding taxpayers up to $180 million and an employee of a Los Angeles PP was caught on video tape encouraging a minor girl to lie about her age in order to receive an abortion.

Pro-life activists fear that the $10 million PP has pledged to spend this election season will yield unfair influence over legislators to continue voting for federal funding of the organization. Taxpayers have no choice in what aspect of Planned Parenthood their dollars are channeled so individuals against abortion are forced to fund them.

“While we have a historic presidential election, with the first African-American candidate now the [Democratic] nominee, this racist agenda buy such a large organization cannot be ignored,” said Day Gardner, president of the National Black Pro-Life Union.

Sen. Barack Obama, though, possesses one of the most anti-life records in the Senate, having voted against the Induced Infant Liability Act, a bill that would have protected babies that survived late-term abortions.

Obama recently said he hoped his daughters wouldn’t be “punished” with a baby if they decided to have sex at an inappropriate age.

Planned Parenthood’s deliberate moves to situate themselves among a vulnerable population and use tactics — morals aside — to increase the group’s income deserves national attention and Congressional investigation. Gardner noted that donations received from PP are nothing more than “seed money.”

“It’s one hand watching the others money; it’s ‘you watch my back — I’ll watch your back’ money,” she said, adding that the pro-life agenda is not only a Republican platform item.

It doesn’t matter if your claim to fame is as a Democrat or a Republican…abortion is a plague among Americans — and an epidemic in the black community.”

The racist and anti-Semitic legacy of PP is rooted in the beliefs of its founder, Margaret Sanger, who often said that “we must exterminate the Negro population.” Now, more than 14 million black babies have been aborted by PP, in addition to 30 million babies of other races.

According to Ricardo Davis of Georgians for Life, Sanger even created a plan to stop the growth of the black community in response to request by “southern state public health officials.” Her magazine, Birth Control Review, published an article praising a book entitled, “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy.”

Pastor Stephen Broden of the Fair Park Bible Fellowship Church pinpointed the PP donations to the RNC and the DNC as a “conflict of interest” and called on both organizations to return such contributions.

“Planned Parenthood has since its inception targeted the black community to fulfill its eugenic philosophy of ridding society of the poor, unfit and uneducated,” he said. “It is outrageous that our government provides a sizeable percentage of our tax dollars to Planned Parenthood’s budget to exercise its philosophy of dysgenics among black Americans.”

There’s a lot that can be said here–not the least of which is the invoking of Dr. King and his memory by a conservative publication that once opposed his movement; the selective (mis)quoting of Barack Obama; and the asserting that one vote earned him “one of the most anti-life records in the Senate”

More importantly is the context they try to frame to win over supporters at the expense of poor women of color (while using other people of color to legitimate that stance). The correlations between reproduction and racism under the banner of “eugenics” are real, historically speaking. But they were hardly the norm, nor are they now. Even when considering the clear record of forced sterilizations (both in this nation and in others) the vast majority of these procedures went to women who were willing participants. [For a great if rather theoretical explanation of the complex sets of forces setting the stage for these battles in Puerto Rico–land of the rumored organized, government-sponsored campaign to sterilize the island’s women to curb population growth–see Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico by Laura Briggs.]

A conservative cause like the one above is so contradictory as to make me want to scream. They claim to be protecting poor women of color from a racist institution by building from the belief that they know what is best for them. They cover that foundation by using other people of color to legitimate and ground their belief. (If I told you I liked turkey sandwiches would you write how Chicanos love turkey?) Even worse, they claim to stand for “limited government and, above all, a staunch, unwavering defense of American freedom,” except when those limits include stopping a government from deciding what a woman can do to her womb or when those freedoms include the right for a woman to decide the same.

Yes, there are millions and millions of African Americans and Latinos who both oppose abortion and would be willing to say so in vote. I would guess that those numbers even border on the majority in both electorates. Then why haven’t they supported the broader conservative cause in the past thirty years? Could it be that they object to the varied and multiple other ways that same conservative movement stands in opposition to nearly every other struggle they face in this country?