Mapping the Militarization of Law Enforcement Across the Country

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have brought to light not only the systemic racial disparities inherent in the U.S. law enforcement and justice systems, but the now decade-long trend of creeping militarization of police forces across the nation.

While the Defense Department program that allows state and local police to freely obtain some military-style equipment has been around since the early 1990s, it has largely been since the September 11 attacks that the practice has intensified (notably, this is despite the precipitous decline in violent crime that started before the trend picked up and that has continued concurrently to this day).

The New York Times has helpfully provided a series of maps showing which countries have received guns, grenade launchers, vehicles, night vision or body armor through the program since 2006. The following map highlights those counties that have received at least one category of these items:

screenshot-by-nimbus (33)


If you visit the original article, you can click on any country to see a breakdown of what they have acquired. Although the portion of their gear coming from the program is relatively small (most of it is paid for through department budgets and federal grants), this data details just how widespread this militarization has been.

As Alex Kane of Moyers & Company (among otherspoints out, this trend is concerning for many reasons: from risking the likelihood of death and serious injury, to alienating the public from the public servants that are supposed to be protecting them, this needless practice will have dire consequences in a society where public trust is political and legal institutions is already at an all-time low.

The Problem With ‘White History Month’

As Americans enter February, which is Black History Month, many of us will inevitably hear (or consider for ourselves) why there’s a month dedicated to blacks (and for that matter women and Hispanics) but not to whites. Setting aside the fact that minority views are often underrepresented or marginalized in mainstream history and culture — hence the effort to highlight these perspectives with their own dedicated events and institutions — Mary-Alice Daniel of Salon offers another good reason, one which explores the U.S.’s unusual, complex, and largely unknown history of racial identity.

The very notion of whiteness is relatively recent in our human history, linked to the rise of European colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade in the 17th century as a way to distinguish the master from the slave. From its inception, “white” was not simply a separate race, but the superior race. “White people,” in opposition to non-whites or “colored” people, have constituted a meaningful social category for only a few hundred years, and the conception of who is included in that category has changed repeatedly. If you went back to even just the beginning of the last century, you’d witness a completely different racial configuration of whites and non-whites. The original white Americans — those from England, certain areas of Western Europe, and the Nordic States — excluded other European immigrants from that category to deny them jobs, social standing, and legal privileges. It’s not widely known in the U.S. that several ethnic groups, such as Germans, Italians, Russians and the Irish, were excluded from whiteness and considered non-white as recently as the early 20th century.

Members of these groups sometimes sued the state in order to be legally recognized as white, so they could access a variety of rights available only to whites — specifically American citizenship, which was then limited, by the U.S. Naturalization Law of 1790, to “free white persons” of “good character.” Attorney John Tehranian writes in the Yale Law Journal that petitioners could present a case based not on skin color, but on “religious practices, culture, education, intermarriage and [their] community’s role,” to try to secure their admission to this elite social group and its accompanying advantages.

More than color, it was class that defined race. For whiteness to maintain its superiority, membership had to be strictly controlled. The “gift” of whiteness was bestowed on those who could afford it, or when it was politically expedient. In his book “How the Irish Became White,”Noel Ignatiev argues that Irish immigrants were incorporated into whiteness in order to suppress the economic competitiveness of free black workers and undermine efforts to unite low-wage black and Irish Americans into an economic bloc bent on unionizing labor. The aspiration to whiteness was exploited to politically and socially divide groups that had more similarities than differences. It was an apple dangled in front of working-class immigrant groups, often as a reward for subjugating other groups.

A lack of awareness of these facts has lent credence to the erroneous belief that whiteness is inherent and has always existed, either as an actual biological difference or as a cohesive social grouping. Some still claim it is natural for whites to gravitate to their own and that humans are tribal and predisposed to congregate with their kind. It’s easy, simple and natural: White people have always been white people. Thinking about racial identity is for those other people.

Those who identify as white should start thinking about their inheritance of this identity and understand its implications. When what counts as your “own kind” changes so frequently and is so susceptible to contemporaneous political schemes, it becomes impossible to argue an innate explanation for white exclusion. Whiteness was never about skin color or a natural inclination to stand with one’s own; it was designed to racialize power and conveniently dehumanize outsiders and the enslaved. It has always been a calculated game with very real economic motivations and benefits.

This revelation should not function as an excuse for those in groups recently accepted as white to claim to understand racism, to absolve themselves of white privilege or to deny that their forefathers, while not considered white, were still, in the hierarchy created by whites, responsible in turn for oppressing those “lower” on the racial scale. During the Civil War, Irish immigrants were responsible for some of the most violent attacks against freedmen in the North, such as the wave of lynchings during the 1863 Draft Riots, in which “the majority of participants were Irish,” according to Eric Foner’s book “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877”and various other sources.  According to historian Dominic Pacyga, Polish Americans groups in Chicago and Detroit “worked to prevent the integration of blacks into their communities by implementing rigid housing segregation” out of a fear that black people would “leap over them into a higher social status position.”

Behind every racial conversation is a complex history that extends to present-day interactions and policies, and we get nowhere fast if large swaths of our population have a limited frame of reference. An understanding of whiteness might have prevented the utter incapability of some Americans to realize that “Hispanic” is not a race — that white Hispanics do exist, George Zimmerman among them. This knowledge might have lessened the cries that Trayvon Martin’s murder could not have been racially motivated and might have led to, if not a just verdict, a less painfully ignorant response from many white Americans.

As for how all this ties into why a white history month would be wrongheaded and besides the point:

If students are taught that whiteness is based on a history of exclusion, they might easily see that there is nothing in the designation as “white” to be proud of. Being proud of being white doesn’t mean finding your pale skin pretty or your Swedish history fascinating. It means being proud of the violent disenfranchisement of those barred from this category. Being proud of being black means being proud of surviving this ostracism. Be proud to be Scottish, Norwegian or French, but not white.

Above all, such an education might help answer the question of whose problem modern racism really is. The current divide is a white construction, and it is up to white people to do the necessary work to dismantle the system borne from the slave trade, instead of ignoring it or telling people of color to “get over” its extant legacy. Critics of white studies have claimed that this kind of inquiry leads only to self-hatred and guilt. Leaving aside that avoiding self-reflection out of fear of bad feelings is the direct enemy of personal and intellectual growth, I agree that such an outcome should be resisted, because guilt is an unproductive emotion, and merely feeling guilty is satisfying enough for some. My hope in writing this is that white Americans will discover how it is they came to be set apart from non-whites and decide what they plan to do about it.

What do you think?

DNA Tests Reveal Ancient Europeans To Be Dark-Skinned

We’re accustomed to seeing portrayals of early humans (aka cavemen) as slightly tanned but otherwise mostly European-looking. But a recent study reported in NBC challenges that assumption, finding that as fairly recently as 7,000 years ago, Europeans were dark-skinned as Africans.

A 7,000-year-old European man from a transitional time known as the Mesolithic Period (from 10,000 to 5,000 years ago) whose bones were left behind in a Spanish cave had the dark skin of an African, but the blue eyes of a Scandinavian. He was a hunter-gatherer who ate a low-starch diet and couldn’t digest milk well — which meshes with the lifestyle that predated the rise of agriculture. But his immune system was already starting to adapt to a new lifestyle.

Researchers found all this out not from medical records, or from a study of the man’s actual skin or eyes, but from an analysis of the DNA extracted from his tooth.

The remains of the Mesolithic male, dubbed La Braña 1, were found in 2006 in the La Braña-Arintero cave complex in northwest Spain. In the Nature paper, the researchers describe how they isolated the ancient DNA, sequenced the genome and looked at key regions linked to physical traits — including lactose intolerance, starch digestion and immune response.

The biggest surprise was that the genes linked to skin pigmentation reflected African rather than modern European variations. That indicates that the man had dark skin, “although we cannot know the exact shade,” Carles Lalueza-Fox, a member of the research team from the Spanish National Research Council, said in a news release.

Meanwhile, The Guardian gets to another big, social implication:

Another surprise finding was that the man had blue eyes. That was unexpected, said Lalueza-Fox, because the mutation for blue eyes was thought to have arisen more recently than the mutations that cause lighter skin colour. The results suggest that blue eye colour came first in Europe, with the transition to lighter skin ongoing through Mesolithic times.

On top of the scientific impact, artists might have to rethink their drawings of the people. “You see a lot of reconstructions of these people hunting and gathering and they look like modern Europeans with light skin. You never see a reconstruction of a mesolithic hunter-gatherer with dark skin and blue eye colour,” Lalueza-Fox said. Details of the study are published in the journal, Nature.

It’s no secret (though perhaps underplayed) that modern humans originate from Africa, and thus would have had similar pigmentation and physiology to indigenous African (although note that Sub-Saharan Africa is the most diverse area in the world, so there is no quintessential African look, and many different skin shades and phenotypes are represented). 

However, the revelation that Europeans were — fairly recently by evolutionary standards — once indistinguishable from many modern Africans challenges popular attitudes towards race and human identity. We have a tendency to apply our modern biases to historical retrospection, and to over-emphasize physical differences that are superficial and ultimately artificial. Notions of race, nationhood, and what constitutes “European” or “African” are all social constructs of our very recent making.

Granted, this doesn’t mean that such concepts are worthless or negative, per se — although, needless to say, the potential for harm is great — but it does cloud up the facts about humanity’s origins and history, and overlooks how fundamentally arbitrary and transient our racial and national identities are.

What Martin Luther King Jr. Stood For

Martin Luther King Jr. remains one of the most enduring and popular figures in American history, and rightfully so: his brilliant oratory, moral integrity, and steadfast dedication to social justice make him a timeless role model for people across the world.

But like most prominent figures, especially those who promoted such ambitious goals, many have come to challenge King’s contributions; namely, whether his goals were ultimately achieved. Given the persistence of racial inequality — highlighted by disproportional rates of poverty, imprisonment, and the like — it’s easy, if not understandable, to consider King’s dream a failure (or at least a work in progress).

While I sadly don’t have the time to share my own thoughts on the matter, I’ve found a great piece on DailyKos that more or less echoes my views as well. I recommend you read the whole article, but the following excerpt represents the crux of it:

So yes, Dr. King had many other goals, many other more transcendent, non-racial, policy goals, goals that apply to white people too, like ending poverty, reducing the war-like aspects of our foreign policy, promoting the New Deal goal of universal employment, and so on. But his main accomplishment was ending 200 years of racial terrorism, by getting black people to confront their fears. So please don’t tell me that Martin Luther King’s dream has not been achieved, unless you knew what racial terrorism was like back then and can make a convincing case you still feel it today. If you did not go through that transition, you’re not qualified to say that the dream was not accomplished.

That is what Dr. King did—not march, not give good speeches. He crisscrossed the south organizing people, helping them not be afraid, and encouraging them, like Gandhi did in India, to take the beating that they had been trying to avoid all their lives.

Once the beating was over, we were free.

It wasn’t the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act or the Fair Housing Act that freed us. It was taking the beating and thereafter not being afraid. So, sorry Mrs. Clinton, as much as I admire you, you were wrong on this one. Our people freed ourselves and those Acts, as important as they were, were only white people officially recognizing what we had done.

What are your thoughts?

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.”


“Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action is a reasonable place to investigate the policy implications of framing black women as uniquely aggressive. Moynihan’s report designated black matriarchy as the principal cause of a culture of pathology that kept black people from achieving equality. Moynihan’s research predated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but instead of identifying the structural barriers facing African American communities, he reported on the assumed deviance of Negro families. This deviance was clear and obvious, he opined, because black families were led by women who seemed to be their households’ primary decision makers. Moynihan’s conclusions granted two generations of conservative policy makers permission to imagine poor black women as domineering household managers whose unfeminine insistence on control both emasculated potential male partners and destroyed their children’s future opportunities. The Moynihan report encouraged the state not to assist black mothers as women doing their best in tough circumstances but instead to blame them as unrelenting cheats who unfairly demanded assistance from the system. ‘This practice of widespread cultural projection reveals what is so dangerous about the ‘Angry Black Woman’ stereotype: it holds Black women responsible for power they do not possess, power that is, in fact, being utilized in very real ways by members of other social groups who can claim emotional innocence as they hide behind, and persecute, the ‘Black Bitches’ of our cultural imaginations.’”

— Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen

“Daniel Patrick…

I Only Have Two Minutes — A Speech By Philip Agnew

The following speech was intended for 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington,  where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Phillip Agnew , who was invited to speak on behalf of the Dream Defenders, was unfortunately cut from the program at the last minute before he could share the following:

BY THE time we finish, another Black boy will lay bleeding in the streets of Chicago, and as we rest our heads tonight, 300,000 of our veterans lay homeless, and I would love to explain how the hate we spread abroad is the reason that hatred washes on our shores–but I only have two minutes.

And I could tell you that Philadelphia just closed 23 of its schools at the same time it makes way for a $400 million state-of-the-art prison, and that North Carolina and Florida continue to silence their citizens at the ballot box–but I only have two minutes.

I could tell you how as we celebrate Dr. King’s dream, over 400,000 of our immigrant brothers and sisters languish away in privately owned detention camps, and how we still find our queer brothers and sisters imprisoned in the shadows of closets–but I only have two minutes.

I’d tell you how our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters still earn less, have no control over their bodies, and are traded and trafficked like slaves, or that it’s easier for someone to buy a gun and put it to their head than it is to diagnose the illness within it–but I only have two minutes.

If there was time, I’d tell you that millions of young people and queer people and poor people and people of color are asking what we do with this anger, fear, disappointment and frustration, this mad that we feel? But, alas, I only have one more minute.

And with it, this last minute of our conversation, I’d like to tell you that, though it may seem that all is lost, that there is a generation of dreamers, fighters, defenders, lovers builders bubbling, bubbling, bubbling beneath the rubble.

And beneath your feet, you may feel a collective quaking, tremors of a sleeping giant awakening. Emanating from fault lines at the Arizona-Mexico border, and Raleigh and Austin, and Cleveland, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois, and Tallahassee, Florida.

And we’ve come here from every crack, crease and crevice of our country to our Capitol to say: For all whose cares have been our concern, we’re ready. We will not be co-opted, will not be bought. But we’re ready.

And for those that doubt our energy and discipline. We’re ready.

For those that believe that future fingers may fail the torch. Fear not. We’re ready.

For all those that believe in the power of nonviolence and love as unconquerable. We’re ready.

Fifty years ago, a man told us of a promised land. And for 50 years, we’ve wandered and wondered. “Where are the youth?” is a constant whisper in our ears.

And so we have come, asking neither permission nor questions, but to say that we are here. Believing indeed that we have a beautiful history, and that the one we will build in the future will astonish the world.

And we’re ready.

May the outcome always prosper over income. Peace over profit. Revolution over revenue and all peace and power to the people. For anyone who doesn’t believe us, just watch.

We’re ready.

Hat tip to my friend James for sharing this.

Wealth and Ethnic Disparities

According to the Economic Policy Institute, median wealth for black families in 2009 was a mere $2,200, compared to $97,900 for white families. With respect to median financial wealth (such as stocks), the EPI found that it was $200 for blacks, compared to $36,100 for whites — an indisputably massive disparity  (by comparison, overall median household wealth is around $50,000, due largely to there being multiple individuals working per household). 

The Pew Research Center reported slightly different, although still very unequal, median wealth: $5,677 for blacks versus $113,149 for whites.

To make matters worse, since the recession, the wealth of blacks and Hispanic families has dropped further, by 30 to 40 percent, compared to 11 percent for whites. So while all Americans are suffering, some clearly have it worse than others.

It’s also worth pointing out that the high median income for whites is partly the result of a small number of exceptionally wealthy (and overwhelmingly white) fraction of the population that skews the numbers upwards. Most whites are making far less than $97,000. 

Haiti and the Dominican Republic: Racial Histories Compared

This excellent hour-long video — part of a PBS series on race hosted by Professor Henry Louis Gates — explores the histories and societies of two small but culturally-outsized nations, particularly with regards to racial attitudes.

Watch Haiti & the Dominican Republic: An Island Divided and see more of the series Black in Latin America.

In the Dominican Republic, race has been socially constructed after centuries of intermarriage, and the country’s troubled history with Haiti has created unusual notions about racial classification. Gates also unravels the gripping story of the world’s first black republic, Haiti, and finds out how the slaves’s difficult fight for liberation became a mixed blessing that affects the nation to this day.

The narrative of each nation has implications well beyond their borders, speaking to similar racial attitudes and dynamics in other parts of the world (especially in the United States, Brazil, and other Latin American countries). As the comment section shows, this remains a difficult and contentious topic for many people (though that’s not surprising, given that issues of race and class are usually polarizing and personal).