The Fifty Nifty United States: Delaware

This is the eighth (8/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

Delaware's nickname, "The First State," recognizes the fact that the small Mid Atlantic outpost was the first of the original United States colonies to ratify the Constitution. A somewhat less distinguished distinction, Delaware was one of the last three states to abolish slavery. Slavery began in Delaware in the 1600s, when Swedish settlers enslaved Native people. The practice of chattel slavery ballooned under Dutch colonial control, and by the time of the American Revolution, almost a quarter of all Delaware residents were enslaved people of African descent, a higher proportion than in any Northern state. When the state finally - and officially - apologized for slavery earlier this year (2016), the state's legislature acknowledged the broad sweep of institutionalized dehumanization:



Though Delaware lives beside New Jersey and Pennsylvania, its culture straddles North and South. Documented lynchings continued in Delaware into the twentieth century, and recent instances of violence against Black citizens in Dover have raised questions about contemporary extralegal executions. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a handful of White Supremacist organizations maintain chapters in Delaware, including the Ku Klux Klan, which may explain racist leaflets that circulated in Dover in December of 2011.

Newark, DE

Newark, DE

Identifying, and condemning, racist violence is not controversial. Sometimes, though, racism takes subtler, more bureaucratic forms, as Black leaders in Delaware alleged at the end of 2015:

Many black men and women employed by the state of Delaware do not feel comfortable in the workplace environment, religious and community leaders allege. They claim a culture of discrimination exists, where black employees are sometimes unfairly passed over for promotions, where they must endure racial insults, and where they are punished if they report improper treatment. To that end, leaders from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Interdenominational Ministers Alliance and Interdenominational Ministers Action Council have formed a committee to hear complaints of racism from state workers.

The NAACP of Delaware, in partnership with local pastors, conducted a more significant investigation of the state government, and the results offer a glimpse into how "diversity" is an important, but insufficient lens through which to consider workplace misconduct. Racial discrimination can take many forms, and the impact of such mistreatment is exacerbated when practiced by the state. State employees who are Black reported being passed over for promotions and subjected to racist taunts. Employees at the department of labor even described being assigned to racially divided work crews.

After the report was publicized, local leaders in the Black community applied pressure to the state. Earlier this fall, Governor Jack Markell announced a plan to address the complaints, including a massive overhaul of the state's approach to diversity and inclusion. These recent events in Delaware remind us that, while it's easy to condemn police when they practice violence against unarmed citizens, there are quotidian forms of bureaucratic racism that take places under our noses everyday.


"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:

From the inaugural entry:

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.

The Fifty Nifty United States: Connecticut

This is the seventh (7/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

For some Americans, Connecticut represents the quintessential quaintness of liberal New England. Even its nickname - "The Nutmeg State" - evokes a homespun familiarity. Like much of New England, however, Connecticut is far from the progressive utopia of its projected self-image. While southern states practiced de jure segregation throughout most of the twentieth century, Connecticut used extra-legal means of enforcing racial separation. As James Loewen catalogued in Sundown Towns, communities in the North, like Darien, Connecticut, used intimidation, paramilitary enforcement, and signage to exclude non-White people from civic life. The title of Loewen's book comes from one particular sort of sign that appeared in northern towns, which urged non-White individuals to abscond themselves before dark; with non-compliance came an implied threat of violence. The only existing physical example of a sundown sign sits at the Tubman African American History Museum in Georgia. It was found in Connecticut.

While the sign is an historical artifact, White supremacy lives on in The Nutmeg State. The state's most famous cultural institution, Yale University, recently refused to rename John C. Calhoun "Residential College," which carries the handle of one of American history's most notorious White supremacists. There are campaigns to remove Confederate iconography throughout the South, but the North has racist roots as well.

While contemporary racism sometimes comes to the surface in Connecticut, like when an all-White audience in Hartford threw racist taunts at Dave Chapelle, menace brews below the radar. The Anti-Defamation League maintains a running list of practicing local White supremacist groups, which includes the Ku Klux Klan and the Council of Conservative Citizens. The New Haven Register covered some of the subtler tactics of those terrorist organizations, which include leaflet advertising and the forming of "neighborhood watch" groups.

Sometimes terrorists dispense with subtlety altogether. That's what happened in 2010 when the leaders of a violent White supremacist group called the "White Wolves" were indicted for trying to sell weapons to an out-of-state terror organization. The Connecticut Post reported:

According to the indictment, a cooperating witness claiming to be a member of an out-of-state white supremist [sic] group, met with [Kenneth] Zrallack on numerous occasions between November 2009 and the end of January 2010 to discuss purchasing bulletproof vests, firearms and grenades. And in fact, the indictment states, the witness did end up purchasing a .22-caliber rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun from [Alexander] DeFelice and [Edwin] Westmoreland ... On Jan. 23, the indictment states that DeFelice and Westmoreland worked at DeFelice's Milford home emptying the gun powder out of shotgun shells for use in making grenades. The cooperating witness later paid them for three nearly completed grenades and DeFelice called Zrallack and told him he was going to deliver money to him from the transaction. DeFelice ended the call to Zrallack with the words "eighty eight," which is code for Heil Hitler, the indictment states. After completing the grenades DeFelice packed them into a box marked with a Swastika and gave it to the witness.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking the White Wolves since the early 2000s, and since the trial the group goes by a new handle, "Battalion 14." The court acquitted two of the defendants, while a third was sentenced to ten years in prison. The proliferation of White supremacist terror organizations throughout the country is a dangerous trend, made all the more threatening by the president-elect's explicit embrace of their rhetoric and tactics. The violent presence of this kind of organization is a reminder that even the bluest states contain a deep streak of racist hate. Wherever you live, it is important to familiarize yourself with the groups that masquerade as guarantors of safety, but whose real motives are terrorism and upholding White supremacy.


"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:

From the inaugural entry:

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.

The Fifty Nifty United States: Colorado

This is the sixth (6/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

The territorial ambitions of the United States in the nineteenth century demanded westward expansion, and Colorado was at the literal and metaphorical crossroads of that venture. Manifest Destiny collided with the existence of Native American peoples and their traditions. While much of the young United States was engaged in Civil War, settlers in Colorado battled with a confederation of Native peoples, at times with shocking brutality. While American settlers displaced Native people, Chinese-American immigrants received little in return for their hard labor in building the newly Americanized continent. The 1880 Hop Alley/Chinese Riot was the first race riot in the young city of Denver, fueled by the devastating living conditions available to the city's Asian-American residents.

Photo credit - Eric Lerum.

Photo credit - Eric Lerum.

While contemporary Colorado is a place of outdoor wonders fueled by its libertarian hipster mystique, the state still suffers a legacy of hardboiled American racism. The Ku Klux Klan had allies in the Colorado governor's mansion through the 1920s, and as the state's Latino population has expanded, exclusionary attitudes towards immigrants have percolated. Earlier this year Denver Public Schools conducted as audit of its practices and discovered systemic inequalities and institutional racism throughout the school system; many consumers of social media will remember the "super racist" Red Cross pool poster from earlier this year.

One of the most troubling instances of contemporary racism in Colorado, however, comes from one of its more "progressive" achievements: the legalization of marijuana. As Amanda Chicago Lewis of BuzzFeed reported in May:

Black and Latino adolescents in Colorado are being arrested for marijuana offenses at more disproportionate rates than they were before the state legalized recreational use of the drug, according to a new report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety. The report, released in March, found a striking racial disparity in how adolescents aged 10–17 are being arrested: White juvenile marijuana arrests decreased by 8% between 2012 and 2014, while black juvenile arrests increased by 58% and Latino juvenile arrests increased 29%. Colorado voters passed an initiative legalizing recreational marijuana use in 2012 — the year is used in the report to represent pre-legalization. The first full year that the state’s 21-and-older recreational marijuana market was operational was 2014.

As NPR's Ben Markus reports, many of those arrests have been "complaint driven." Lewis's reporting elsewhere has captured the startling hypocrisy of marijuana legalization. Whereas the "War on Drugs" resulted in the over-incarceration of Black and Latino men for non-violent drug offenses, the legal marijuana industry is exploding to the benefit of early-adopter entrepreneurs, most of whom are White. There is extensive documentation of racial disparities in criminalizing the sale and possession of marijuana, and that criminalization is having the effect of locking non-White populations out of a growing industry. As more states pursue the legalization of marijuana, it becomes less and less important whether some Americans have moral objections to decriminalization, which is a valid political perspective. What becomes more important, however, is to ensure both that the downstream of effects of legalization do not lead to unjust enforcement, and that an entirely new corner of the private sector is not erected on a foundation of racial exclusion. Early indications from Colorado do not bode well for either predicament.


"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:

From the inaugural entry:

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.

The Fifty Nifty United States: California

This is the fifth (5/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

The fraught racial history of the state of California has been the subject of national fascination for decades. As an adolescent I, like millions of other Americans, watched the brutal beating of Rodney King, perpetrated by a gang of police officers. The subsequent trial kept the country in rapt attention, and the video of the incident provided incontrovertible evidence that police brutality was a real phenomenon. The unrest in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of the police was symbolic of how disconnected most Americans were from the real conditions of our most vulnerable communities, as most White Americans had no idea that what had happened to Rodney King was a part of a pattern.

The Los Angeles uprising of the 1990s was hard to separate from similar events in the 1960s. Watts, like many of America's predominantly Black communities, had experienced extraordinary tension with law enforcement, which came to a head in August of 1965, after an altercation between a police officer and a Black motorist. The unrest that followed previewed the dramatic events of 1968, when similar tensions boiled over in cities throughout the country.

It is important to view contemporary events through this lens of history. Today, because of the proliferation of video recording devices, we know far more about the relationship between police and communities of color than we ever knew in the 1990s and the 1960s, not to mention the 1920s and 1880s. In 2016 we know that, in the aftermath of police violence, the official law enforcement account of the incident is almost never true. We know this because of the unwitting sacrifices of Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, and many others. In each of those cases, the official report of the police was a fabrication. This dissonance should force us to wonder whether we can trust the police reports of the 1990s and 1960s, when, by all accounts, racism was even more vicious and prevalent than it is today.

This shameful history should inform our interpretations of contemporary revelations about the San Francisco police department:

Police Chief Gregory P. Suhr on Friday announced that all officers on the San Francisco force would be required to complete anti-bias training as he released nine pages of racist text messages between three officers that further tarnished the image of a department under federal investigation ... The text messages released Friday use crude and strongly disparaging language against blacks and other minorities and were discovered as part of an investigation into a rape charge against one of the officers. They come a year after a scandal involving 14 officers who also exchanged racist messages. An attempt to fire some of the 14 was rejected by a Superior Court judge, who said the statute of limitation had expired.

Psychological research demonstrates that humans tend to harbor unconscious biases, but the police force in San Francisco is full of officers who wear their conscious prejudices on their blue sleeves. The documents related to this case, which have been made public, reveal grotesque levels of racial animus on the San Francisco police force. While that kind of prejudice constitutes an ugly problem when found in any person, police officers are empowered by the state to wield violent power over citizens. "Prejudice plus power" is the technical definition of racism, and the racism on the San Francisco police force fits into a clear pattern of historical prejudice in California law enforcement.


"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:

From the inaugural entry:

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.

The Fifty Nifty United States: Arkansas

This is the fourth (4/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

This week marks the anniversary of the integration of Little Rock High School in Arkansas, an event that endures in the American imagination as one of the most potent symbols of the mid-twentieth century struggle for Civil Rights. While the school district of Little Rock agreed to desegregate in 1957, in compliance with the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the segregationist Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, deployed the National Guard to prevent the school's integration. After a monthlong standoff, President Dwight Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to nationalize the Arkansas National Guard on September 24, clearing the way for the "Little Rock Nine" to integrate the school.

More than a half century after the forced integration of Little Rock High School, the personal prejudice that undergirded institutional racism persists in some corners. The town of Harrison, Arkansas has appeared in the news for its strong Ku Klux Klan presence and unwelcoming billboards, one of which reads "Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White." Despite these overt signs of prejudice in the farther flung regions of the state, Little Rock still struggles with the same problem that haunted the city in the 1950s: segregation. Alana Semuels of The Atlantic revisited Little Rock High School earlier this year:

In the decades since the schools were first integrated, Little Rock has become a more residentially segregated city, with white residents in the northwest part of town and blacks in the southwest and south. Because the vast majority of children attend schools in their neighborhood, the schools have become re-segregated too. And those separate schools are not at all equal. For example, 58 percent of the students at Roberts Elementary, located in northwest Little Rock, are white, though the district as a whole is just 18 percent white ... What’s stunning about today’s methods of avoiding integration is that they are, by and large, legal, but they nevertheless leave black students stuck in schools that are separate and unequal.

The ways in which personal choices and policy decisions reinforce these divisions are myriad. White families move to the suburbs, start their own schools, and live in racially isolated parts of the city. The school system routinely spends more money on the upkeep of schools that serve White children. Real estate agents continue to steer people to racially homogenous neighborhoods, and the siting of public housing projects reinforces existing segregation patterns. Moreover, while charter schools in other states tend to serve higher proportions of students of color, many charters in Arkansas serve White families who are further segregating themselves from Black children, even though the traditional schools already are segregated.

The continued segregation of Little Rock, and its schools, indicates that public policy and personal preference continue to conspire to maintain segregation. These patterns also demonstrate the extent to which public schooling, housing, and transportation priorities engage in patterns of mutual reinforcement over time. While it would be unfair to declare that race relations in America have not changed since the 1950s, one cannot look at the data undergirding contemporary racial disparities and segregation without acknowledging the ephemerality of whatever progress we've made.


"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:

From the inaugural entry:

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.

The Fifty Nifty United States: Arizona

This is the third (3/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

It does not take long to dig up allegations of racism in the state of Arizona. Earlier this year a group of high school students spelled out a racist slur on their t-shirts, after which one of them claimed, "I am not a racist." The Maricopa County Sherriff, Joe Arpaio, does so many terrible things that there are web pages dedicated to cataloguing the various incidences of his alleged racism. Arizona was one of the last, and most reluctant, states to make MLK day a holiday, and barely a year goes by when the state's legislature doesn't attempt to pass some sort of discriminatory legislation.

That Arizona shares a border with Mexico, however, means that immigration is the perennial policy issue in which Arizona's institutional prejudice really shines. In 2010, the state of Arizona's legislature passed an immigration law, SB 1070, that prompted immediate criticism:

The law was to take effect 90 days after the legislative session ends, meaning by August. Court challenges were expected immediately. Hispanics, in particular, who were not long ago courted by the Republican Party as a swing voting bloc, railed against the law as a recipe for racial and ethnic profiling. “Governor Brewer caved to the radical fringe,” a statement by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said, predicting that the law would create “a spiral of pervasive fear, community distrust, increased crime and costly litigation, with nationwide repercussions.”

The law, among other stipulations, made it a crime to be in the state without possessing - on one's person - immigration documents, while making it easier for law enforcement to arrest and detain "suspicious" individuals. While Governor Brewer insisted that the law had no racial underpinnings, the media and federal government were skeptical. United States Attorney General Eric Holder repudiated the law as having racial undertones, and although he backed off his initial accusations that the law was explicitly "racist," he remained critical and eventually brought suit against the state. The Supreme Court struck down some of the most egregious parts of the law in 2012.

The debate over whether or not the law was explicitly "racist" explains a great deal about how racism is enforced in this country. The law's most avid sponsor in the Arizona legislature had a history of support for White supremacist causes and institutions. Legal analysts described the various ways in which the enforcement of the law was bound to have a disproportionate impact on the state's Latino population, and the law fit a pattern of statutory and regulatory discrimination against Black and Brown people. The law, however, said nothing about oppression, nor did it explain the ways in which the law would lead to the unjust imprisonment or prosecution of Latino and Black citizens. That's never how racist policies work, though. Jim Crow relied on draconian interpretations of personal liberties, housing discrimination depended on byzantine descriptions of property values, and schools segregation relies on the interconnectedness of property taxes and school zoning. Racist laws never begin with a preamble declaring their prejudiced intent.


"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:

From the inaugural entry:

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.

The Fifty Nifty United States: Alaska

This is the second (2/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

The state of Alaska has a unique place in the American imagination. Alaska gained statehood in 1959, meaning that many living Americans remember its territorial birthright. The state seems foreign, as Alaskans refer to the continental United States as the "lower forty-eight," or more simply as "down there in America." The state is unlike any other in the country, as its existence is a healthy blend of contradictions. On the one hand, its rugged terrain and distance from the "lower forty-eight" make it a land ripe for libertarian self-sufficiency; on the other hand, the state's reliance on oil revenue to support its citizenry makes it the closest thing the United States has to an intra-country socialist republic.

Where Alaska does resemble the rest of the country, though, is in its inequitable disbursal of criminal justice, which has roots in the racist treatment of Native Americans:

Unlike the South, there has never been much of a African-American population within [Alaska], and therefore no real discrimination against them at the governmental level.  Alaska Natives have been the victims, despite being a majority of the population for much of the pre-statehood period.  Often they were not served by restaurants and movie theaters, or were forced to sit in segregated sections.  Following the grant of US citizenship to native peoples by Congress in 1924, Alaska passed a literacy test law to limit Native voting.  Native rights organizations caused general concern among some whites that natives would take over the state politically.  Schools also remained segregated, with whites attending different schools from natives.

Discrimination against Alaska Natives remains prevalent in the criminal justice system, many Alaskan schools are segregated between Whites and Alaska Natives, and through the 1940s you could find signs on the doors of Alaskan businesses reading, “No dogs, No Natives." According to the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center:

Members of two minority groups, American Indian or Alaska Native and Black or African Americans, were in custody at levels disproportionate to their percentages in the general population. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, American Indians or Alaska Natives comprised about 15–19 percent of Alaska’s general population, and Black or African Americans were 3–5 percent. In contrast, almost 37 percent of the [prison] population in 2014 was American Indian or Alaska Native, and nearly 10 percent was Black or African American.

For eighteen years, four Alaska Native men - Eugene Vent, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts - were held in those prisons for a murder they did not commit. In October of 1997, a White Alaskan named John Hartman was beaten to death outside of a wedding reception. The four young men - who came to be known as "The Fairbanks Four" - were taken into custody for the crime. They were released in 2015, after a campaign to prove their innocence, as Newsweek outlined earlier this year:

The Fairbanks Four became a major civil rights cause for many in the state. Don Honea, the ceremonial chief of over 40 villages from interior Alaska, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in 2008 that “those boys were railroaded,” and he added that Natives feel like they never get a fair shot from cops and courts in Alaska, where the Native population has faced a long history of discrimination ... At the time of the Hartman murder there was also “a lot of racial tension” between Fairbanks’s poorer and mostly Native neighborhoods, and the rest of the city, says University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism associate professor Brian O’Donoghue ...

The facts of the case are documented in remarkable detail on the blog "Free the Fairbanks Four," and The Daily Beast summarized some of the nastier bits. The prosecutorial misconduct in the case is astounding: the police fed lines to witnesses, there was no physical evidence linking the defendants to the murder, and the prosecutor in the case routinely suggested that defense witnesses were lying to protect their fellow Alaska Natives. A professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks opened an independent investigation of the case in 2001, and after a long series disputing the outcome of the case appeared in the News Miner, a major newspaper in Alaska's interior, The Alaska Innocence Project intervened. At the end of the last year, all four men were released from prison.

The case of The Fairbanks Four demonstrates how longstanding prejudices against Native American populations continue to affect the alleged impartiality of our criminal justice systems. The perpetuation of racism requires degrading the humanity of the oppressed, and the falsely accused men were never presumed innocent. It is both devastating and fascinating to see how the same patterns of oppression that affect Black Americans are reflected in Alaska's treatment of Native populations: decades of violence linked to territorial expansion, followed by statutory discrimination and a criminal justice system unhinged. Just as the Central Park Five continue to serve as a symbol of White America's obsession with the myth of Black criminality, so are The Fairbanks Four symbolic of White America's perpetual oppression of Native Americans.

 

(Note: In an earlier version of this post I used the terms "Alaska Natives" and "Native Alaskans" interchangeably. I learned that the terms mean different things and have updated the piece accordingly.) 


"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:

From the inaugural entry:

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.

The Fifty Nifty United States: Alabama

Today I'm sharing the first installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series will focus on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

Last week Emma Brown at The Washington Post turned in a story of modern day secession. A group of White families in Alabama, whose children attend an interracial school district, want to take their toys and go home:

... the Gardendale Board of Education oversees no schools, employs no teachers and enrolls no students. City officials in this predominantly white town appointed the board in 2014 as part of a years-long effort to secede from surrounding Jefferson County — where there are more African American than white students — and form their own independent school system. Opponents argue that the secession effort is laced with racial overtones and amounts to a push for segregation. But supporters say that it has nothing to do with race and that they are motivated by a desire for local control of public education — and the tax money that pays for it. “It’s keeping our tax dollars here with our kids, rather than sharing them with kids all over Jefferson County,” said Stan Hogeland, mayor of Gardendale ..."

Gardendale, and the county in which is resides, is a textbook example of how communities take advantage of racial gerrymandering in schooling. The situation also demonstrates the pernicious intermingling of schooling, property values, taxation, race, and class. As EdBuild documented in its recent report on "hyper-segregating" school district borders, towns like Gardendale have a financial incentive to segregate themselves from towns with smaller tax bases. Because housing in this country is inextricably linked to a history of racial bias, the actions in Gardendale amount to an act of racial segregation, whether or not racial segregation is the intent of the community leaders.

Alabama has one of the most troubling racial histories of any state in the country, and the state's past is compounded by contemporary political and justice systems that reinforce racial discrimination. In a recent New Yorker profile of Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Jeffrey Toobin quantified the political disparities:

[Alabama is] the only death-penalty state in which judges routinely overrule juries that vote against imposing death sentences. (In their campaigns, judges boast about the number of death sentences they’ve imposed.) Alabama’s population is about twenty-seven-per-cent African-American. The nineteen appellate judges who review death sentences, including all the justices on the state Supreme Court, are white and Republican. Forty-one of the state’s forty-two elected district attorneys are white, and most are Republican.

Alabama was a slave state, and lawmakers in the state replaced slavery with an extraordinary array of Jim Crow statutes, including forced racial segregation of public spaces until the 1960s. Given this history, Alabama is an easy state to pick on when it comes to racial justice. Indeed, when I shared Emma Brown's article on twitter, I received this response:

Good journalism is an act of finding real stories that illuminate broader social issues, so I make no apologies for sharing a terrifically reported article that accomplishes this difficult task.

On the other hand, "Victim of Fate" on twitter is right: this does happen everywhere. As a child of the great state of New Jersey, I know what it feels like when one's home state is the target of relentless joke-making. In an effort to be more fair about the whole endeavor, I've decided to launch a new blog series today: "The Fifty Nifty United States."

"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a song that schools use to teach the names of the states to children. I never learned it, but my wife remembers the song verbatim, including the alphabetical rundown of all fifty states for which the song is famous. Alabama is the first state in alphabetical order, so rather than treat this recent bout of secessionist flirtation as an isolated incident, I thought it might be worthwhile to broaden the tent. Or, as the song joyfully proclaims:

Each individual state,
Contributes a quality that is great ...
Shout ‘em, scout ‘em, tell all about ‘em,
Until we have given a day,
To every state in the USA!”

In this new blog series - "The Fifty Nifty United States" - every state will have its day in the sun. No state in this country can avoid our country's dark history with racism, although there is a tendency to conflate racism with the former confederate states, and their defense of the institution of slavery. States and cities far from the confederacy, however, have used statute, personal prejudice, and power to enforce what amounts to a racial caste system, long after the Civil War ended. Because housing, schooling, and pubic safety are intertwined from a public policy standpoint, more often than not segregationist policies come back my two favorite topics: education and justice.

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power. In the case of Alabama, for example, the wealthier White families want to use their political and financial power to cause greater socioeconomic isolation and segregation. Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.

I hope that regular readers of this blog will help me to identify and tell these stories, as we cannot shy away from difficult topics. Next week, we travel to Alaska.