(Most definitely NOT Bonnie & Clyde / Laurie Skrivan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
In addition to the disproportionate number of deaths by police, Black Americans suffer from the racial disparity in addiction treatment and cultural misrepresentation in the mass media.
In 2009, it was easy for Hua Hsu to say in his article for The Atlantic, “The End of White America?” that “Whiteness is no longer a precondition for entry into the highest levels of public office”. It was easy because the United States had just elected Barack Obama to be our first African American president and, suddenly, our country’s idea of race had turned “post-racial”. This concept seemed so believable that Hsu highlighted the counterintuitive idea of White anxiety. “What will it mean to be White after “Whiteness” no longer defines the mainstream?” he asked rhetorically. He quoted a sociology professor, Matt Wray, on the concept of fleeing whiteness: “We’re going through a period where Whites are really trying to figure out: Who are we?”. Hsu spoke to this white anxiety because America was becoming increasingly multicultural. Having never been oppressed, White Americans were never forced to create a culture so they created subcultures to harness the feeling of something they’d lost and nurture a new culture. It was compelling and I bought it to some degree- that attending concerts like “Burning Man” that are primarily attended by White people- is a way for White people to deal with a feeling of becoming a new minority. But this is a myth.
Oscar Grant’s murder at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California, happened the very month Barack Obama would be taking the oath of office as our nation’s president. What none of us could have predicted, particularly with a “post-racial” reality proposed by Hsu and others like him, was the excessive force of police ending the lives of Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Eric Harris, Michael Brown, Eric Garner- the list goes on and on. Charleston saw their town terrorized by White supremacist Dylan Roof who murdered nine inside of an Episcopal church. Instead of America turning post-racial, racial tensions were mounting. Years later the nation elected Donald J. Trump, who notably accused President Obama of being a foreign citizen because of his name and whose family’s real estate company deliberately avoided renting homes to African Americans. This meant the nation had embraced a leader who was not going to help fix the system that continues to oppress African Americans but instead strengthened it.
That our country is not yet post-racial is demonstrated by two phenomena that began in the post-Civil War/Post Soul era and continued to flourish under Obama and Trump: 1.) the social exclusion of African Americans from opioid addiction treatment, and 2.) cultural misrepresentation in the mass media. These are distinct issues that continue to persist and challenge Hsu’s idea of a post-racial reality.
In the 1960’s, the heroin crisis split users into racial categories: the White user and the Black user, who was portrayed in the media to be “destitute and engaged in repetitive petty crimes to feed his or her habit”. In their research article, “Opioid Crisis: Another Mechanism Used to Perpetuate American Racism”, Carl L. Hart and Malakai Z. Hart highlight the racial disparities which have persisted over time. The crack epidemic of the 1980’s showed a pattern of disproportionate drug-possession arrests and imprisonment of African Americans. We are seeing this pattern again during the rural and urban opioid crisis today. The Harts’ research shows that most drug users generally buy from within their community. Most opioid users are White and most drug dealers are White, yet the Harts state, “If past drug law enforcement action is predictive of future behavior, most of those convicted of opioid-related crimes will be Black and Brown”. The old narrative that drugs are sold by African Americans to White people exploits White fear and in turn, continues to strengthen the racial disparity in addiction treatment. The most punitive measures are reserved for African American users while methadone clinics and other treatment facilities are reserved for White users. How can we pull African American users into the conversation? How can the government see African Americans equally as sick as their fellow White users? The Harts suggest creating more hospital environments for all users instead of encouraging the unrealistic expectation that society eliminate recreational drug use altogether as it “invariably leads to rampant racial discrimination and bulging prison populations”.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Black filmmakers like Spike Lee were leaving a mark on cinema with films like She’s Gotta Have It, which, according to Greg Tate’s, “Cult Nats Meet Freaky-Deke” pushed “an uncompromisingly Black vision to Blacks through mainstream distribution, exhibition, and media channels”. By using semiotics codes and Black-in jokes, Lee was able to create a film that felt unapologetically Black both in its approach to storytelling and use of an entirely Black cast. It seemed that with filmmakers like Lee, Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle) and John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) creating films about the black experience in the late 20th century, Hollywood would take note of this going into the 21st century by including more Black voices and support the new Black aesthetic. However, according to a recent study for the Perception Institute, African American men continue to be “disproportionately portrayed as criminals, while White people are more often shown as the victims of crime.” Similar to the findings of the Harts’ opioid research that suggests drug buying and selling happens within races although it’s conveyed as Black selling to poor White addicts, the Perception Institute found a similar pattern. It also found that crime is more common within race yet the media continues to convey Black-on-White crime through film, television, and advertisements. While there is the occasional representation in the mainstream in which Black characters are portrayed as heroes with blockbuster films like 2018’s The Black Panther, African Americans continue to be characterized as people to fear.
Hsu’s article about White anxiety and the move toward an increasingly post-racial reality was an illusion. Yes, there was White anxiety because a Black man rose to the highest office in the land, yet police brutality flourished, racial imprisonment disparity for drug crimes increased and no new body of legislation emerged to ease the burden of the African American.