Many of us have been watching the explosive situation in Missouri as both a symptom of–and a healing opportunity for–the ongoing racism endemic to American life. And any discussion of race in the US must be tied to an economic system that has long allowed the few to flourish at the expense of the many. -Ed
“There are no jobs,” is the first reason Denzil Dean, a 57-year-old landscaper and small business owner in the St Louis area, gives me when I ask him why he has joined in protests in Ferguson. “You see a lot of frustration.”
Racial profiling and police brutality are tightly intertwined with a lack of equal access to jobs, say African Americans from all corners of the country who have congregated in and around St Louis, Missouri, for #FergusonOctober.
To protest the death of Michael Brown and stand up against police brutality, 22-year-old Tyler Edwards, a graduate law student, turned up to demonstrations in St Louis on Saturday in full professional attire: yellow and blue striped tie, navy blazer and suede shoes.
“I wanted to show people another side of us. Too often people forget black men can look like this too.”
A lack of jobs may not be the issue that first comes to mind when you think about Brown’s death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson in August. But many people at demonstrations last weekend – dubbed a “weekend of resistance” – spoke of the connection they see between police violence and a lack of economic opportunity.
“We want to get treated equally,” says Jerry Chapple, a 17-year-old high school student and Wendy’s fast food restaurant worker.
And that means treated equally at work and on the street, Chapple says. He says he is a regular target of racial profiling by police and harassment.
In 2012, the St Louis County unemployment rate was three times higher for black people than it was for white people. Nationally, it is double.
Marquis Jackson, a 26-year-old activist from Chicago, says the jobs that exist are more difficult to get if you are black.
He and his friends are acutely aware that being black will be a disadvantage to them when applying for a job, he says, no matter how good their qualifications.
The kind of basic racial discrimination in accessing the labor market described by Jackson has actually been the subject of academic studies.
In a landmark study published in 2002 named “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” Marianne Bertrand at the University of Chicago and Sendhil Mullainathan at MIT found that when sending in job applications to openings with very similar qualifications, white candidates were 50% more likely to get their calls returned than their black counterparts.
Feeling little recognition and diminished opportunities in the workplace, young people of color are feeling doubly antagonized by a system they feel is out to get them.
“[Black] youth are trying to develop some kind of community pride and they just can’t do that with the police force harassing them,” said Dean the landscaper, who carried a hand-written sign on Saturday, which read “stop human rights violations.”
Pedro Hall, a 33-year-old fine arts painter from Davenport, Iowa, has been trying hard to keep prejudice and negative expectations from defining him, but he suggests it has been a road full of obstacles.
“I did not want to give them the luxury of making me a statistic,” Hall says, referring to the disproportionately high number of black and brown people behind bars or with a criminal record. “But I have become one anyway.”
Hall, a military veteran suffering from PTSD, says there are many instances when police officers have drawn guns on him for “petty things”.
“I feel like Mike Brown,” Hall says. “That could have been me.”
Once, Hall says, he was driving to a gas station when a police car started following him. Hall had a warrant for his arrest associated with his number plate after he missed a court date for driving without a license – a misdemeanor offense.
By the time he reached the gas station and got out of his car, the police officer tailing him had drawn his gun and ordered him to the ground, ready to shoot.
After his gas station encounter, Hall was later stopped by police as he walked down the street and accused of minor drug possession, something he disputes. But he was forced into a plea bargain by his appointed lawyer who told him an all-white jury in Iowa would be unsympathetic to his case. Hall spent 32 days in jail.
“Now I am stopped all the time and I am treated like a drug dealer,” he says.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black people are 10 times more likely of being incarcerated on a drug charge, despite being less likely than white people to engage in such offenses.
Today, although Hall no longer has any warrants against him, he says he is now afraid of the police and his PTSD has only gotten worse. With a criminal record, Hall’s employment opportunities have been severely compromised.
Rhonda Wren, a 50-year-old software implementation specialist who lives outside St Louis says she sees cases like Hall’s all around her.
“[The police] will strap you with anything,” Wren says. “If they see a black person driving, they will run your plate.”
Wren says she avoids certain towns and areas – including Ferguson – because she knows police will target her as a black woman driving through: “It’s a way of making money for them.”
“They know we don’t have as much money, as much power. That’s why it’s happening in lower class communities,” said Lakeisha Garner, a retail manager based in Ferguson. “They don’t answer to anybody.”
Garner says she has been marching in protest of Brown’s death ever since his shooting on 9 August. “I go before work, I go after work.”
While income disparities place white families as earning roughly 50% more than black families in America, wealth disparities along racial lines are far greater. According to a study released last year by the Urban Institute, black families possess one sixth of the wealth white families do, a disparity that has gotten worse over time.
The persistent, stark difference can be explained by a number of historical factors such as housing discrimination practices – making black families less likely to be homeowners or inherit homes than their white counterparts – residential segregation, and equal access to quality education.
But there is one sector of the economy where people of color are being given space and theoretically coming out on top. Low-wage, low-skill industries – which often only offer part-time jobs with little to no benefits – have made disproportionate space for minorities and women, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Not much of a consolation prize.
“Every two weeks, I take home $370,” says Douglas Hunter, 53, a single father of one and McDonald’s employee in Chicago, who has been fighting to raise the minimum wage to $15 there. “My rent is $775. That leaves me with $35 to spend. I am a diabetic. I have to buy insulin. I have to buy all the supplies that I need, plus send my daughter to school.”
“How am I supposed to survive?”
Hunter, who travelled to Missouri for the protests, says corporations that underpay workers are draining communities of their vital, natural resources. Police harassment, criminalization and the threat of being shot by law enforcement are only the last nail in the coffin.
Chanel Mitchell, a 26-year-old social worker in St Louis says some community members feel like they have nothing to live for.
“We’re being kept in the same economic bracket. We can never get out of it, we can never move forward.”
“It’s hard to break a cycle when there’s nothing to look forward to in life.”
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