Tag: The Legacy of Race

New Book Explores Stories of Early African American Activists in Birmingham

Segregation in the New South: Birmingham, Alabama, 1871-1901 (Louisiana State University Press, 2023) by Carl V. Harris

Birmingham is known around the world as a place where African Americans fought and sometimes died to secure their rights as citizens and dismantle Jim Crow segregation. But Jim Crow did not spring up fully formed, nor was it a system that had always existed. It was the product of a long and tortuous push and pull between blacks seeking justice and whites seeking control.

At its birth in 1871, Birmingham was a Reconstruction-era city, and Birmingham came of age in a time when white Southerners and African American Southerners, many only a few years removed from enslavement, were struggling to find their places in a new post-war racial order. This is the story, and the stories of early African American activists who are largely unknown today, that Carl V. Harris tells in his new book Segregation in the New South: Birmingham, Alabama, 1871-1901.

Harris, who taught history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, died before completing this book. His colleague, W. Elliott Brownlee, edited and finished the manuscript. Harris’ earlier book, Political Power in Birmingham, 1871-1921 (University of Tennessee Press, 1977), was the first scholarly book on Birmingham’s history and it is still indispensable for anyone wanting to understand the political dynamics of Birmingham’s early decades. Read more.

U.S. Steel used convict labor in Birmingham. Has it reckoned with its past?

A century ago, U.S. Steel was one of the companies involved in Alabama’s convict lease system. The steelmaker has a mixed record on acknowledging that history. Read more.

BirminghamWatch looked at the history of convict leasing in Alabama as party of its Legacy of Race kickoff story, Vestiges of Segregation Remain. America Is Fighting Over Them Today.

A Lack of Hate or Lack of Reporting?: Alabama Has Reported Zero Hate Crimes in the Past Two Years

On April 9, 2020, the Etz Chayim Synagogue in Huntsville was defaced with antisemitic graffiti. The following day, the Chabad of Huntsville was vandalized with similar hate speech. Security footage taken from both scenes indicates the same perpetrator committed both crimes. Given that they took place on the first night of the Jewish holiday Passover, the crimes are thought to be meticulously planned and executed with one purpose: to send a message of hate to the Jewish community.

Mayor Tommy Battle released a statement to the public saying “the city of Huntsville condemns antisemitism in the strongest possible terms” and emphasized Huntsville as a city of inclusivity and acceptance. “Any offense against one is an offense against all,” Battle said.

The case has since been handed over to the FBI, and no perpetrator has been caught.

Despite these attacks against the Jewish community the state of Alabama has reported zero hate crimes to the FBI’s annual Unified Crime Report for the past two years in a row. It is the only state in the country that has reported zero hate crimes. 

“It is highly implausible that in 2019 or 2018, no hate crimes were committed in Alabama. Of the over 417 law enforcement agencies in the state, only two actually participated in the 2019 reporting process to the FBI, which is deeply troubling and undoubtedly means that many hate crimes have gone unreported,” said Dr. Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Southern Division. Read more.

Lady Justice Is Not Wearing a Blindfold

In 1996, Jerald Sanders, a Black man and resident of Alabama, used his pocket knife to tear a hole in a front porch screen so he could steal a bicycle stored inside.

When apprehended a few weeks later, Sanders was charged with burglary in the first degree, a Class C felony.

Because Sanders had multiple prior offenses on his record, his sentence was pushed to life in prison without parole. A Class C felony often results in a fine or minimal jail time.

Sanders’ story is not rare. Black men are sentenced to prison time that reflects not only the crime for which they are being sentenced, but for their entire criminal history. According to statistics from the Sentencing Project, Blacks are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. Read more.

Better Basics Is Working to Erase Education Gaps Resulting from Racial, Ethnic and Socioeconomic Lines

In this digital age, reading, comprehending text, performing basic math and problem-solving are just some of the skills students have to master to be college and career ready. 

But a 2019 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) on student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that black, Hispanic and American Indian youngsters are falling behind in some of those critical skills.

Take reading, for example. NCES reported that among American fourth graders, the average 2019 reading scores were 237 for Asian and Pacific Islander students and 230 for whites. But the scores averaged 204 for blacks and American Indian students, and 209 for Hispanics.

And studies show that if a child cannot read at a proficient level by the end of third grade, he or she is more likely to struggle and even drop out of school before earning a high school diploma.

While the NCES report paints a dim picture of the academic achievement gap in America, an Alabama nonprofit called Better Basics Inc. is working to shrink the gap for underserved students in the Birmingham metro area and beyond.
Read more.

Predictable Prejudice: Predictive Policing Software Promises Unbiased Crime-Fighting, but Can It Deliver?

When a Homewood Police Department officer starts his shift, the laptop in his police cruiser is fed data from a program called PredPol. The data fills a city map with boxes where PredPol forecasts that property crimes are most likely to occur, and the officer is expected to give those areas extra attention during his shift.

Predictive policing software programs such as PredPol have grown in popularity among law enforcement agencies over the past decade, including adoption by the Homewood Police Department and Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office in 2016 and Birmingham Police Department in 2019.

These programs promise high-tech, efficient policing and reduced crime rates based on cold, hard data and algorithms. Amid renewed national attention on racism and bias in police departments, the seeming color-blindness of decisions made based on computer code sounds all the more alluring.

But many opponents of predictive policing say the technology isn’t as objective as it appears and is simply perpetuating discrimination in a new way. Read more.

De-Escalation and Implicit Bias Training for Police Pushed, but Effectiveness Can Be Limited

If practice really does make perfect, can the right kind of officer training make police shootings and excessive force less common?
Some advocacy groups and politicians believe it can. Reforming training, particularly with the addition of de-escalation or implicit bias programs, is a popular proposal in the ongoing national conversations about police use of force.

Appropriate force is especially pertinent in Alabama right now. The ACLU has reported that there were 13 officer shootings in the state as of June 30, 2020, an increase of more than 60% from the 2015-2019 average of 8.2 shootings in the same months.

The national campaign 8 Can’t Wait’s eight police reform policies includes requirements for officers to de-escalate situations when possible and to try all alternative actions before using deadly force. President Donald Trump’s “Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities” in June included “scenario-driven de-escalation techniques” among its proposed federal programs for improving policing.

The Alabama Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which sets the standards for police training statewide, is also planning to add a new implicit bias course to its police academy curriculum, according to Law Enforcement Academy-Tuscaloosa Director Randy Vaughn.

On paper, de-escalation, implicit bias and similar training programs reduce violent encounters between civilians and police by giving officers tools to change internal prejudices and resolve situations peacefully.

But there is little uniformity among police departments on what this training includes and how it is implemented. Groups such as the ACLU of Alabama also say that, at the end of the day, a training seminar is not likely to change mindsets enough to make a real difference in the use of force.

“Those (types of training) are not what is going to fundamentally shift the culture of policing and interacting in our communities,” ACLU of Alabama policy analyst Dillon Nettles said. Read more.

This is the third piece in a package on policing in the Birmingham area. In coming days, we’ll be presenting stories about the local debate over “defunding” the police and high incarceration rates among Blacks. Previously in the The Legacy of Race: Policing

Police Brutality Brought Early Alabama Reckoning. Nation Faces Similar Questions Now.
Dogs, Firehoses Were a Precursor to Today’s Violent Protests

Police Brutality Brought Early Alabama Reckoning. Nation Faces Similar Questions Now.

The Alabama of the 1960s enters the history books represented by police officers such as Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor, a segregationist who directed violence toward blacks in 1963, and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, overseer of beatings of marchers during Bloody Sunday in1965 Selma.

In 2020, the broader nation finds itself reckoning with protests rooted in mistrust of police officers, and controversy seems relatively quieter close to home. Nationwide, some departments and officers are cracking down on demonstrators. The president has wanted to mobilize the U.S. Army to meet marchers. Evidence has surfacing that some American police officers are connected to white supremacist organizations.

There were some protests and arrests locally. For example, fewer than 30 people were arrested May 31 after a series of disturbances in downtown Birmingham with no fatalities. That’s smaller than the scale of protests in other parts of the country, and no present-day equivalents of Connor or Clark lead official resistance. The way things differ in the Birmingham area today partly stands as a legacy of racial conflicts in Alabama’s past.

“I think what you’ve seen is there was a concerted effort across multiple chiefs of police in Birmingham and multiple mayors across time in Birmingham,” said Dr. Jeff Walker, chairman of the criminal justice department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“The police chiefs, the mayors, the citizens, the culture, everything — it was like, ‘We have to overcome this. We can’t keep doing this.’ And they worked very, very, very hard to change the culture of the police in Birmingham, particularly in (the city of) Birmingham and in Jefferson County, … to be more … understanding of people and to try to treat everybody with a level of dignity and a level of police professionalism that you’re not seeing in other places,” Walker said. Read more.

With sidebar: Police Can Be Targets of Extremists

This is the second piece in a package on policing in the Birmingham area. In coming days, we’ll be presenting stories about 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.
Previously in the The Legacy of Race: Policing

Dogs, Firehoses Were a Precursor to Today’s Violent Protests