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From Selma to Ferguson

The film “Selma” has received its share of criticism, as do all films. I don’t want to go into all the criticisms, but the reader should consult a recent review by Brittney Cooper who challenges New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s “clueless white gaze”. Dowd was especially critical of the film’s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant supporter of African American civil rights (and the fact of the matter that he was, as were most other white politicians).

The film was one of the best I had seen all year; it was riveting and emotional. But it was the central issue that was important to me, namely, the right to vote. This right is maybe one of the most important of all our rights, for it allows us to participate in the democratic process. While it may be merely symbolic, since the elections are often a waste of time and are controlled by the wealthy, it is important since African Americans and Latinos overwhelmingly vote Democratic. And this can make a huge difference in both local and national elections.

But there is another reason why the film is important, specifically its current relevance. As the old saying goes, “the past is prologue.” What happened in Selma is happening today. There has been a concerted effort to reduce or in some cases eliminate the African American vote. While in the days of Selma it was the “poll tax” and making them answer silly questions that virtually no white person could answer (like in the movie where an African American woman – played by Oprah Winfrey – was asked to name every judge in Alabama), today it is “voter ID.” Indeed, as the Brennan Center for Justice recently notes, ever “since the 2010 elections, 22 states, almost all controlled by Republicans, have passed laws restricting the right to vote.”

Furthermore, back then these policies were part of a long history of “Jim Crow.” Today Jim Crow has made a comeback, not only with voter ID laws but the daily operations of the criminal justice system. This includes the high incarceration rate for African Americans as illustrated in a recent book by Michelle Alexander, in addition to the recent police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere. Hip--hop artist T-Dubb-O sums up the current feelings of African American males in the St. Louis area, who “know how old they are from the tone of the police” as follows: “ When you're 8 or 9, it's, 'yo, where are you going?' and when it's 'get down on the ground,' you know you've turned 15."

The blatant mistreatment of African Americans, by the criminal justice system, was visually illustrated in the movie, but also in the news coverage of the event as it took place 50 years ago. And such treatment resulted in widespread demonstrations and violent uprisings, both then and now. In a recent blog I quoted the following statement made by someone during the Watts riots in 1967: “This is the hate that hate produced.” As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Rioting is the language of the unheard.”

Despite the proclamations by some politicians (including Republicans like Mitt Romney) poverty is a fact of life for most African American children, as noted in a recent study. The analysis found that in 21 states “children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches were a majority of the students in 2013.” The study noted that the states with the highest rates were concentrated in the South.The blatant discrimination illustrated by such a high rate of poverty is directly connected to the criminal justice system and especially the “school to prison pipeline” which starts in the early years of a child’s life.

So Selma is Ferguson and Ferguson is Selma and all towns and cities in between. Whether you call it the “new Jim Crow,” “a new American apartheid,” “internal colonies” or “Sundown Towns,” it’s not a good scenario for the majority of African Americans, let alone America’s criminal justice system.

Keywords: media, police practices, race, racial disparities, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog

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