Category: The Legacy of Race
Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Certainly not Johnnie Johnson Jr., who as a West Precinct captain in the Birmingham Police Department in 1987 turned police dogs that were known for attacking civil right protestors into pups you could pet.
“We had them retrained and the trainers retrained,” Johnson recalled. “The dogs were taught that, as long as there was no aggressiveness on the part of the suspect, a dog would sit by. The dog would only attack if the suspect was aggressive or running.” Read more.
Retired Birmingham Police Chief Johnnie Johnson Jr. is a fan of the 1960s TV show “High Chaparral.” He recalls an episode in which someone was paying people to kill Indians.
“One day, they said, ‘We’re gonna have to kill Cannon,’” Johnson said, referring to the white lead character who starred in the show. “The guy said, ‘No, no. No way, bruh. Shooting an Indian is one thing but killing a man is something else.’”
In that sense, Birmingham was the High Chaparral for police in their dealings with Blacks at the time. Johnson, one of the first Black officers in the Birmingham Police Department and the first Black chief of the department when he was appointed in 1991, said police treated Blacks differently from how they treated whites.
Recent protests and clashes grew from the attitudes and events during those days in the 1960s and even earlier. Across the country, there have been incidents of Blacks being killed at the hands of law enforcement officers. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are just two examples of Blacks who have lost their lives in this manner this year.
As multiracial protestors have taken to the streets, police in some places have taken aggressive action to squelch calls for indictments and defunding of law enforcement.
For Birmingham, the most pronounced time of friction between the Black community and police was decades ago. Read more.
Who Says You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?
As part of The Legacy of Race project, BirminghamWatch is looking at policing in the Birmingham area. In coming days, we’ll be presenting stories about the continuing need to rebuild trust and threat from racist attitudes, new policing practices aimed at reducing the risk of bias on the job, the local debate over “defunding” the police and high incarceration rates among Blacks.
“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” – Carter G. Woodson
Eighteen-year-old Delphia McGraw of Tuscaloosa says she loves history. But, growing up, she received little instruction on the history of people who looked like her.
“I went to a private school during my middle school years, and I didn’t have any Black history taught to me,” McGraw said. She said she knew she wanted in when her teacher at Tuscaloosa’s Central High School told her about an elective course at Central the following year.
Its teacher was University of Alabama professor John Giggie, Ph.D. He directs UA’s Summersell Center for the Study of the South. He taught a year-long Black history course called History of Us with UA graduate student Margaret Lawson.
History of Us is touted as the first Black history course of its kind taught in the Tuscaloosa public school system. The course asks students to be historians by researching major themes in Black history and framing those themes locally, to Tuscaloosa County. Students are asked to examine how their own voices, their families and their communities fit in the progress of history, Giggie said.
“We chose the name History of Us because we wanted students to think about several things,” he said. “First of all, there’s always been a tendency in educational circles to separate African-American from American history, and we wanted to show them that, actually, we have to integrate those vigorously to show the ways in which each of them informs the other.”
“But more importantly, (we) wanted to demonstrate that the most important themes in Black history are also the most important themes in American history. And, the History of Us is also meant to be personal. It’s about all of us in history trying to find our place, our narratives, our stories.” Read more.
Let’s say two boys in an Alabama school get in trouble for doing the same thing. One is named DeAndre. The other is named Jake.
DeAndre, who is black, is more than three times as likely as Jake, who is white, to end up suspended or expelled or in the custody of the police.
That’s what statistics have shown over time, leading to DeAndre – or any black student – being far more likely to be tracked onto what education experts have described as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“The school-to-prison pipeline deprives students of color of their futures by pushing them out of school and its pathway to college and careers and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems,” the National Education Association says in a report. Read more.
“You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good.”
Candidate Donald Trump, 2016
In a campaign speech in August 2016, the future president of the United States outlined his stark perception of the economic status of African Americans and particularly the state of Black schools. It was a statement many saw as oversimplified and glib — he bookended it with “What do you have to lose?” — and reflective of a view that “your schools” meant anything but “our schools.”
The ugly fact is that the schools that serve mostly children of color have never been on a completely level playing field with schools that serve mostly white children. Separate and unequal schools have always been the American reality, even when the law mandates otherwise.
“We just have to be honest with ourselves. We don’t have a uniform public education system in this country. I don’t think we ever had a uniform public education system in this country. We have very good schools and we have very bad schools. We have a lot in between those two poles,” said Dr. Derryn Moten, acting chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Alabama State University.
As a rule, the most persistent metric by which those educational inequalities can be measured remains skin color. Read more.
Vestiges of segregation still thread through the systems and processes with which we engage throughout our lives, influencing Black Alabamians in large and small ways, including economic opportunities and lifetime wealth, relationship with law enforcement, health care and even projected lifespan. BirminghamWatch has an ongoing effort to analyze how these sometimes unrecognized vestiges of segregation are playing out in people’s lives today. Read stories in The Legacy of Race series.
The economic downturn in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered many Birmingham businesses for good. But in the 4th Avenue and Civil Rights commercial districts, none of the 56 black-owned businesses that work with Urban Impact, an economic development organization for those districts, have gone out of business.
Urban Impact Strategic Growth Manager Elijah Davis said that unusual success “is a true testament to their spirit.”
“We are always resilient and innovative people,” Davis said.
That resilience is needed for entrepreneurs of color. Both in Birmingham and nationwide, black-owned businesses are less common and less successful, on average, than white-owned businesses. Read more.
More on The Legacy of Race: Economic Barriers
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
— The Declaration of Independence
The founding fathers artfully crafted the phrasing that among the unalienable rights due all men is the pursuit of happiness. Part of that pursuit comes in one’s ability to get a job, develop a career, build wealth through an honest wage and establish a home. Many Black Americans have found that pursuit stymied by forces often beyond their control.
According to an article published by The Hamilton Project of Brookings Institute, the net worth of a typical white family was $171,000 in 2016, nearly 10 times the $17,150 net worth of a Black family.
The report said that gaps in wealth between Black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception. Read more.
Children’s inheritance from their parents includes so much more than just a monetary bequest in a will. It can also encompass the gift of a college education, support starting a business or buying a home, financial know-how or a family business.
That inheritance starts at birth. Black families, which on average accumulate less wealth in the U.S. than white families, often have less to pass down to the next generation.
The Institute for Policy Studies reported in 2019 that the median Black family in America owns $3,600, about 2% of the $147,000 owned by the median white family. After adjusting for inflation, “the median Black family saw their wealth drop by more than half” from 1983 to 2016, while the median white family’s wealth accumulation increased by a third, according to the study.
“When you think about how wealth is built over time, typically the way wealth has been built is through property ownership,” REV Birmingham Director of Recruitment and Business Growth Taylor Clark Jacobson said. “That is a ladder to privilege and access.” Read more.
As part of The Legacy of Race series, BirminghamWatch looked into how race affects health and health care. What we found turned into a series of stories on its own.
Historically Black neighborhoods have some of the lowest life expectancies and highest rates of disabilities and infant mortality in Jefferson County, in line with national trends. Poorer health is a result of several factors.
Rural and poorer areas across the state lack easy access to healthy foods and to adequate health care facilities. People who live there may lack the money, insurance or transportation to seek health care when illnesses are manageable. When they do get to the doctor, most of those doctors are white and from completely different cultural backgrounds, making it hard to build trust.
When added to other factors such as poorer areas also having more environmental pollution, fewer sidewalks and fewer parks to encourage exercise, the result is more health problems and lower life expectancy rates.
Revisit the BirminghamWatch stories that explored these areas: