By Charles Bell
Edited by Allison T. McFarlane
The Status Quo: Structural Oppression in America
Being black in America is difficult! As racial discrimination is less explicit, many people argue that the minority experience in America has changed considerably. I insist that systemic racism still haunts us, and that the stress associated with navigating the murky waters of discrimination continues to have profound physical and psychological effects on blacks. Naturally, I reflect on the daily struggle that people of color endure in America as we are ceaselessly met with formidable barriers in education, the criminal justice system, housing, health care, and even obtaining auto insurance. It appears that by the very nature of design, there is no safe place being black in America. Through sharing some of my experiences here, I intend to cast a light on the challenges black people experience and the structural elements that contribute to these challenges.
Can a Black Boy Dream?
Growing up as a boy in Detroit, Michigan, I always dreamt of becoming a doctor. Throughout early childhood my parents taught me to approach academics with the mindset that success in school was the only way to create a better life for my myself and my family. In the midst of rampant crime and violence, it was clear that I had to pursue education wholeheartedly. I had no idea how persistent society would be in working against me but it didn’t take long for me to understand that America never saw me – a young black male in Detroit as a potential scholar but instead, saw me as a poor black kid who was immediately perceived as a threat and a potential criminal. The system uses these perceptions and stereotypes to justify the propaganda behind discrimination.
Running: Out of Space and Time
In the wealthiest country in the world, there is no reason any K-12 educational institution should be underfunded. Yet, throughout my public school education I recall receiving outdated textbooks and inoperable science equipment. In the midst of all the chaos in my environment, I initially believed that education would be the tool that set me free, but again I soon realized that the education system for most people like myself was not enough to cultivate dreams of a better life, and it would never be enough. The education I received in Detroit was not on par with the education my white counterparts received in relatively better school districts such as Bloomfield Hills or Grosse Pointe. The structural barriers that kept me confined to a life of poverty were too great, and I could not overcome them with a sub-par education. Additionally, the manifestation of the school to prison pipeline had a tremendous impact on my life.
I recall being suspended in elementary school simply because I completed my work ahead of the class and then whispered to a classmate. The fact that my school removed me from the academic environment instead of instilling discipline and providing schoolwork, conveyed a chilling message to my parents. Finding themselves quickly frustrated by my elementary school experiences, my parents were eager to try something new as I transitioned into middle school. I enrolled in a charter school, and while my academics improved slightly, my experience with law enforcement quickly transpired.
One day while running throughout the neighborhood practicing for the track team, several Detroit police officers approached me and asked me, “why I was not in school.” I immediately stopped running and politely informed them that I attended a charter school, and that our schedule was different from the neighborhood public school. They accepted my response, but to my surprise these officers made it their priority to harass me when I was outdoors practicing. Repeatedly, they would call me over and question my whereabouts during a particular time, and would justify their probing by stating that I “fit the description of a known criminal.” At that time, I wasn’t aware that officers associated a black kid wearing sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt with being a criminal. All I knew was that I wanted to be the best sprinter I could be. Reflecting on my interactions with law enforcement, I realized that as I was preparing for athletics and scholarships, the system was already preparing for my incarceration.
Lack of Movement, Lack of Life
Suddenly, the structural barriers began to unfold, and I saw how they actively work against blacks, in my case particularly in Detroit. In my community there was one grocery store, two gas stations, and a party store. There were a few businesses in the greater Detroit area that could offer any employment opportunity but many of those opportunities were in the suburbs, which is almost inaccessible to people without a vehicle due to a lack of transportation. Public transportation in Detroit only travels throughout the city, therefore limiting options for commuters who seek employment in other cities.
If you are fortunate enough to own a vehicle, there is a high chance that you can’t afford the auto insurance. Detroit has the highest auto insurance premiums in the nation, with many drivers paying between $3,600 and $6,000 per year. In a city where the average household income is about $25,000 and over one-third of the residents are unemployed, insurance redlining creates a serious barrier preventing many residents from accessing the resources necessary to create better lives. I experienced this firsthand.
After leaving home during my senior year in high school I found an apartment on Detroit’s east side and I began attending college at Wayne State University. After walking for years in extremely cold temperatures, in 2006 I decided to finance a small 2003 Dodge Neon. While I was able to finance the vehicle with a very affordable payment, the auto insurance was an immediate problem. Specifically, my car note was $150 per month but my car insurance was over $400 per month primarily because of the zip code in which I resided. As a college student, this forced me to work 70 hours a week while attending school full-time to pay my auto insurance in attempt to rectify these challenges.
This is an unfortunate reality that many Detroit residents face regardless of their age and driving record. Recently my grandmother experienced a similar increase in her auto insurance that left her with the daunting decision of whether to purchase groceries or pay her auto insurance. Despite her near perfect credit, spotless driving record, and impeccable payment history, my sixty-eight-year-old grandmother was paying over $300 a month for auto insurance while otherwise relying solely on her social security income. These burdens targeting people of color are overwhelming, leaving many people in despair and wanting to give up fighting completely. It seems nearly impossible to gain access to better schools, employment, and life’s simple perks when your society is working against you.
The Criminal Factor
After considering all the unfavorable circumstances gnawing at me, something became very clear; if I did not reach beyond what was given to me, I would die in my neighborhood or end up in prison. The very profitable school to prison pipeline targets black youth, and conveniently only a few policymakers are willing to discuss any real change. The relationship between blacks and the criminal justice system is steeped in conflict, largely because blackness is criminalized in America. Not only did my yearning for a better life for me and my family seem distant, but my aspirations of becoming a doctor was so strongly contested by each one of these barriers. How would I survive this? I would soon find out.
A Teacher’s Silence Gave Me Answers
As I transitioned into Denby High School, I noticed that it was relatively normal for armed guards to stop and frisk students, as well as make them walk through metal detectors. Students were harassed by a Detroit Police Unit called the “Gang Squad”, and regardless of attire, young black men that walked together were always considered a “gang”. Consequently, I felt a sense of hopelessness towards the school staff, the same hopelessness that they consciously or subconsciously projected onto students. It was as if no one expected us to progress.
On the first day of high school I entered my geometry class ready to learn, but the instructor had neither the intent nor the desire to teach. As we sat in our seats, the teacher looked around the room at each of us and proceeded to read his novel every day for the entire semester. I will always remember how deeply the teacher’s lack of interest in educating a room full of black kids resonated. In his eyes we were worthless and already doomed to a life of poverty, and no amount of teaching on his behalf could save us from the tragic outcomes society had in store for us. Perhaps some of us would go to prison, others would get shot, and none of us would graduate on time. After accepting that I couldn’t afford to place my future in the hands of any educator in that school, I borrowed a geometry textbook from class. I taught myself everything I needed to know, and this is how I’d survive.
Not only did I grow up poor and black in America, I believed that I was born into a lifelong war. Stories like mine and countless others make it apparent that our desires to be worthy and productive citizens of this country is in complete opposition with America’s blueprint. I desperately hope that the sparks of current discourse ignite into a flaming and ongoing movement that threatens this status quo indefinitely.
**Charles Bell is a Detroit native and a PhD Candidate at Wayne State University in the Sociology Department. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wayne State University in 2008 and his master’s degree in school psychology from Michigan State in 2009. Currently, he is teaching social justice courses at Eastern Michigan University and writing his doctoral dissertation. Charles’ research focuses on the school to prison pipeline, mass incarceration, academic achievement, and other manifestations of inequality.