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Professor john a. powell says we can’t understand class issues and the experience of poverty without race, and that the underrepresentation of black people in the U.S. remains a significant problem

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

We’re continuing our coverage of Ferguson, Missouri, where the body of Michael Brown was just laid to rest. The unarmed black 18-year-old was killed by police officer Darren Wilson two weeks ago.

Now joining us from San Francisco to get his take on the recent events is john a. powell. John is a professor of law and professor of African-American studies and ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Professor powell is also the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

Thank you for joining us, john.


DESVARIEUX: So, john, what do you make of what’s going on in Ferguson? What do you think has been missing from the mainstream conversation about the shooting of Michael Brown?

POWELL: Well, there’s been a lot written and a lot not written. So one of the things that’s not talked about is that our criminal justice system has long been part of, an extension of how we deal with race. You think about at the end of the Civil War there were black codes that were propagated all throughout the South. There were new rules put in place, like anti-loitering laws, that allowed people to sort of arrest the freed slaves and bring them back to the plantations. There was examples of sheriff departments and police departments all across the South arresting people and then leasing them out to private companies and working them to death. And that process went on until the 1940s. So the way we [think of (?)] criminalization in this country has been long tied to the way of sort of racializing and policing black people.

And to most Americans, and certainly most white Americans, this is simply not in their view. They’re not aware of this. They think if you people get arrested, they must be criminals, they must do something wrong.

And we sort of had a hiatus in the civil rights movement. And then, after the civil rights movement, one of the responses to the civil rights movement was again a deep criminalization of black people. Nixon ran under a theme of law and order, and we had an explosion under Reagan in the sense of people incarcerated, disproportionately black and brown. So we really have a very systematic problem, and the criminal justice system is just one extreme expression of that.

DESVARIEUX: I’m glad that you mentioned the civil rights movement, because if you look at specific examples like–let’s take Jackson, Mississippi. An armed tank was brought into the city to confront members of SNCC, which is the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, during their Freedom Summer campaign in 1964. So this issue of militarization isn’t new, john. And some people can even argue that we should almost expect this militarization coming out of the government, especially when it comes to policing black people.

POWELL: And you can think of something like Little Rock Nine, which was the effort to integrate the schools in Little Rock. And the governor called in the National Guard to stop the integration, and Eisenhower called in federal troops. So these issues are really fought with policing, with the military itself. And, of course, a lot of the tanks and stuff that are being used now [incompr.] homeland security, that was really designed to deal with terrorism, and the fact that we have this community grieving for the loss of this young man’s life, who was ready to go to college, and our response is to send in tanks.

We saw the same thing in New Orleans, where we had people, again, grieving and suffering, disproportionately black, and the country’s response–not the entire country, ’cause there were some positive responses as well, but immediately we militarized it. We send in tanks, we send in people with guns loaded, pointing at U.S. citizens. And it wasn’t until General Honoré came in and said, put the guns down, these people are hurting.

So I think that there’s this overreaction any time two or three more black people get together. There’s this overreaction from a large segment of our society that’s just really disturbing and debilitating.

DESVARIEUX: Well, the response from the people in Ferguson has been to really protest the killing of Michael Brown. And this has sparked a nationwide conversation about race in the United States.

We wanted to bring up an argument that we feel–that has been missing from the conversation, and that’s specifically to talk about class. A famous basketball player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he recently wrote an article entitled “The Coming Race War Won’t Be about Race”, and he argues that the events in Ferguson need to be understood primarily as a class issue and in terms of how America’s poor are systematically held back. So, john, I want to get your take. What role does class and poverty play in this conversation?

POWELL: Well, it’s actually interesting. And this has been a long debate in the United States, and I’ve written a long article on the relationship between race and class. And most people–and I love Kareem, I think he’s obviously a great basketball player, but he’s wrong on this issue. In fact, we can’t understand class in the United States without understanding race. We think we can understand race through class. It’s actually the opposite. We understand class through race.

So why is it the United States has such a weak social welfare program and we’re dismantling it? And a number of economists have looked at at that and decided that it’s really–the anxiety and function of race has actually structured how we actually deal with class. It affects everybody. So it’s not that it will only affect blacks, only affect blacks and Latinos, but it it’s the anxiety about race that actually structures much of what we do in this country, including how we deal with poor whites.

The other thing is that the–Gunnar Myrdal in 1944 wrote a book called An American Dilemma. And he noted then, he said there was something fundamentally different about the experiences of poor whites and poor blacks in America. They’re both poor, they both have hard life, but it’s not the same thing.

And so there’s an interaction between race and class, and I don’t think we need to choose one over the other, but I think it’s a false assumption that we can understand American history, understand Americans’ current situation, just through the lens of class. We simply can’t do it.

DESVARIEUX: So, john, I want to get your take on what you think will be the outcome of the grand jury that’s been called to investigate Darren Wilson and the shooting of Michael Brown. What do you think is going to come out of it?

POWELL: Well, first of all look at the composition of the grand jury. This is happening in Missouri. [Six] white men, three white women, two black women, and one black man. Now, I don’t know how they were selected, but in virtually every part of the United States there are more women than men. Women vote at a higher rate than men. So I’m curious: how do we get six white men on the grand jury? And I don’t know who these people are. They may all be upstanding citizens. We do know that about 87 percent of white Americans carry implicit–meaning unconscious–bias toward black people. That’s really shocking to most people. And the good thing about it: it’s empirical. We don’t have to ask people, ’cause people say, I don’t notice race, I don’t care about race. We can now, through social science, measure what’s happening in terms of people’s unconscious impressions based on race–not just race, but gender and other things as well. And 87 percent. So we carry this with us, and in part it’s been reflected from what’s happening in the larger environment.

So I’m concerned. You know, I hope the right thing is done. I think partially it will depend on how the evidence is presented, what evidence we have, and most of us won’t know that. We know bits and pieces, what we get from the press.

But there’s something quite disturbing. And when you look at Missouri, not just the criminal justice system, not just the prosecutor, but the overall system, it’s a system fraught with problems. And it’s not just true of Missouri; it’s true of many parts of the country.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s turn the corner a little bit. I mean, there is so many calls for justice for Michael Brown’s shooter, Darren Wilson, to face justice. But others are saying that there need to be other demands outside of this as well, and some community members have spoke to that as well. How can the black community in Ferguson seek to empower themselves?

POWELL: Well, there are many ways. First of all, I think that blacks in Ferguson represent about 70 percent of the population. They represented about 12 percent of the voters in the last election. You look at every major elected body and it’s overwhelmingly white. The mayor’s white. Only one councilmember is black. Only one school board member is black. And it’s not saying that–I don’t know who these white people are that are getting elected. I’m not saying they can’t be sensitive to the black community. But the fact that there are so few people black people represented–. We look at the police department. Fifty-three people on the police department, three of them black. Look at the way the court system is run in Ferguson. It’s really run, in a way, in terms of stripping resources from the black community. The black community’s being policed. There’s a sense–I think, with some validity–that they’re being harassed, that they’re not cared about, they’re not seen as fully human. And, again, this is not a problem that’s unique to Ferguson, and when we look at it, we see it throughout many parts of the country, especially what’s called the Old South. It’s really a systematic problem.

So the black community in Ferguson can get more active in terms of voting, but it’s a problem that’s really a national problem. They can’t fix it by themselves. They really need to think about what’s happening in Missouri and what’s happening in the larger national context.

DESVARIEUX: John, I can hear critics kind of saying, even if you elect a body that looks more like you, you elect officials that are black, they sort of become part of this elite and can sometimes be disconnected from the community. So how do you really ensure that there will be some progress, even just because you get people in office that look like you?

POWELL: Well, you don’t necessarily solve the problem by just having people who are visually similar, but it is more likely that black people have had similar experiences. We still live in a very segregated society. There was a poll done recently with black men about how many had ever had negative contact with the police. The vast majority had. Many white people don’t believe that. It’s like, well, no, the police would never do anything unless a person was a criminal. But the vast majority of black men, whether they’re professionals, whether they’re professors like I am, and even policemen, will have had a negative experience. So it does matter. It doesn’t solve the problem. And, of course, we need to do training. But I think, frankly, white America would be very uncomfortable if all the police policing the white community were black.

And then we hear things coming out, videotapes and others, that it’s not just white people that–some of the white people on the police department are clearly, if not hostile, at least insensitive to the black community. Many of them don’t live where the black people live, so they don’t have the day-to-day experience. It looks like an occupying force. And when you back that up with National Guard coming in with tanks, it’s even more extreme.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. John powell, joining us from San Francisco.

Thank you so much for being with us.

POWELL: Thanks for having me.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Professor john a. powell is Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society (HIFIS) and the Robert D. Haas Chancellor's Chair in Equity and Inclusion at the University of California, Berkeley. Formerly, he directed the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University and the Institute for Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. He led the development of an "opportunity-based" model that connects affordable housing to racialized spaces in education, health, health care, and employment. He is the author of Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.