The Men of Bronze

The 369th Infantry Regiment was an all-African American and Puerto Rican regiment of the U.S. Army that served with distinction in both World Wars. Prior to its formation, any black man wishing to fight in the First World War had to enlist in the French or Canadian armies; indeed, despite the disproportionately high turnout of African Americans to recruitment centers – many of whom wished to prove themselves to a nation that little of them, at best – the U.S. initially rejected them. But as the war grinded on and the Allies found themselves facing a shortage of manpower, the U.S. relented and formed a new regiment to be specially comprised of blacks and Puerto Ricans.

However, because many white Americans refused to fight alongside blacks and Hispanics, and often harassed and denigrated serviceman of color, the U.S. Army decided to assign the regiment to the exhausted and decimated French Army – albeit with a warning to the French that African Americans were inferior and prone to rape. Continue reading

Mexico’s Unknown African Heritage

The first known successful and self-governing black community in the Americas was the town of San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo, which was established in Mexico in the 17th century by Gaspar Yanga, a leader of a slave rebellion. A former member of the royal family of Gabon, he successfully led a band of revolting slaves near Veracruz around 1570, fleeing to the difficult terrain of the highlands, where they built a small colony. The community grew for more than 30 years as a haven for other fugitive slaves, surviving off the land and by raiding caravans.

In 1609, the Spanish colonial government tried to retake the territory, but despite its superior numbers and weapons, failed in the face of the maroons’ effective guerrilla tactics and superior knowledge of the area. After seven years of stalemate, the Spanish agreed to Yanga’s terms: the community would remain part of the empire but be subject to self-rule, just as any other municipality. An independent community of blacks — let alone one of former slaves — was virtually unheard of at the time. This unique town was fully established by 1630, and remains to this day under the name of its founder, Yanga.

This wouldn’t be the last time that blacks played a prominent role in Mexican history. Several of the country’s revolutionary leaders and founding fathers, such as José María Morelos, were of African (and for that matter indigenous) descent. One of them, Vicente Guerrero, would actually serve as one of Mexico’s earliest presidents, and one of the Western Hemisphere’s first black heads of state. Though his term was brief, he managed to rebuff Spain’s efforts to reconquer Mexico, and issued a proclamation abolishing slavery on September 16, 1829.

To learn more about Mexico’s unique black heritage (and for that matter Peru’s), check out the following excellent documentary series from PBS:

Factsheet on Racial Inequality in U.S. Justice System

Incarceration Trends in America 

  • From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people
  • Today, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners.
  • Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, 1 in ever y 31 adults, or 3.2 percent of the population is under some form of correctional control

Racial Disparities in Incarceration

  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
  • According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
  • One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
  • 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
  • Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).

Drug Sentencing Disparities

  • About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug
  • 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
  • African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). (Sentencing Project)

Contributing Factors

  • Inner city crime prompted by social and economic isolation
  • Crime/drug arrest rates: African Americans represent 12% of monthly drug users, but comprise 32% of persons arrested for drug possession
  • “Get tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies
  • Mandatory minimum sentencing, especially disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine possession
  • In 2002, blacks constituted more than 80% of the people sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws and served substantially more time in prison for drug offenses than did whites, despite that fact that more than 2/3 of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic
  • “Three Strikes”/habitual offender policies
  • Zero Tolerance policies as a result of perceived problems of school violence; adverse affect on black children.
  • 35% of black children grades 7-12 have been suspended or expelled at some point in their school careers compared to 20% of Hispanics and 15% of whites

Effects of Incarceration

  • Jail reduces work time of young people over the next decade by 25-30 percent when compared with arrested youths who were not incarcerated
  • Jails and prisons are recognized as settings where society’s infectious diseases are highly concentrated
  • Prison has not been proven as a rehabilitation for behavior, as two-thirds of prisoners will reoffend

Exorbitant Cost of Incarceration: Is it Worth It?

  • About $70 billion dollars are spent on corrections yearly
  • Prisons and jails consume a growing portion of the nearly $200 billion we spend annually on public safety

Source: NAACP

Are Black Names “Weird”?

From Jamelle Bouie of The Daily Beast

Of course, there are plenty of African Americans who give their kids Anglo names. The idea that they don’t—that all black parents use the same naming convention—is ridiculous. And popular culture notwithstanding, these distinctive names aren’t especially common. The most popular African American baby names—Aaliyah, Gabrielle, Kiara, Cameron, Jordan, and Nathan—are perfectly ordinary.

If there is a question worth asking about race and naming, it’s not “why do black people use these names?” it’s “why do we only focus on black people in these conversations?” Indeed, there’s a whole universe of (hacky) jokes premised on the assumed absurdity of so-called “ghetto” names. Derision for these names—and often, the people who have them—is culturally acceptable.

But black children aren’t the only ones with unusual names. It’s not hard to find white kids with names like Braelyn and Declyn. And while it’s tempting to chalk this up to poverty—in the Reddit thread, there was wide agreement that this was a phenomenon of poor blacks and poor whites—the wealthy are no strangers to unique names. The popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black, written by a Jenji Kohan (a white woman), was based on the experiences of a Piper Kerman (also a white woman). And in last year’s presidential election, nearly 61 million people voted for a Willard Mitt Romney, at the same time that the current head of the Republican National Committee was (and is) a Reince Priebus.

On Twitter, riffing off of the Reddit thread, I mused on this double standard with a comment and a joke. “Seriously, I will take your ‘questions’ about ‘weird’ black names seriously when you make fun of Reince Priebus and Rand Paul,” followed by “White people giving their kids names like Saxby Chambliss and Tagg Romney is a clear sign of cultural pathology.” If names like “DeShawn” and “Shanice” are fair targets for ridicule, then the same should be true for “Saxby” and “Tagg.”

Most of my Twitter followers got what I was going for. But after it was retweeted by a widely followed conservative, I was deluged with angry complaints from a host of people—mostly white men—who didn’t get the punch line. “So, names like Jamelle, Mo’nique, [and] Trayvon are normal?” asked one self-proclaimed conservative. Likewise, another asked if “Jamelle, LaShonda, Trayvon, etc. are signs of advanced, successful, economically stable and crime free culture?”, which was followed by someone wondering if “names like LaShaniqua, Jamal, Porsche, Mercedes” would be our “future leaders.” Each illustrating my point that unusual black names are treated as evidence of cultural inferiority in a way that isn’t true of unusual white names.

But these responses are more than just the angry comments of Twitter racists. They underscore the extent to which our ideas of normality are tied closely to socioeconomic status. If we focus on “weird” African American names in jokes and conversation, it’s because blacks remain at the bottom of America’s racial caste system. “Hunter” is just as unusual as “Malik,” but it’s understood as “normal” because of its association with white men. It’s arbitrary, yes, but it reflects who holds power. Indeed, if the situation were reversed, odds are good there would be plenty of jokes about “dysfunctional” white people who name their children “Geoff.”

It should be said that this has material consequences in the real world. Research has consistently found that job applicants with “black-sounding” names are more likely to be rejected, regardless of qualifications. If races are our castes, then this makes sense, since—in a caste system—your status is mostly a function of your position. “Latoya” could be well-qualified for the law firm she applies to, but there’s a fair chance her “black” name marks her as undesirable.

It’s the modern version of an old dynamic, best captured by Malcolm X’s joke. “You know what they call a black person who earns a Ph.D.? A nigger.”