Black Lives, Black Deaths, and American Social Inequality

Terence Crutcher’s death in Tulsa, Oklahoma is an example of American tragedy repeated ad nauseam. In this troubling event, we see the fears and prejudices of previous generations yet alive in our day, bearing ugly and strange fruit.

I’ve been writing about social and economic inequalities for more than three years. The slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 initially served as my inspiration to write. In the post-2008 wreck, pension savings vaporized, numerous jobs were lost, and some housing markets tanked leaving homeowners in the cold. People suffered.

But Wall Street recovered soon enough, and nobody from the big banks went to prison or took responsibility for the havoc brought upon the economy because of overextension and greed in the housing loan market. The very well-to-do didn’t suffer. As a matter of fact, in the eight years since the recession, 1 percenters – the term coined to describe the very well-to-do – have prospered fantastically compared to the rest of us.

What does this have to do with Terrence Crutcher – a forty year-old African-American father of four who attended community college and sang in a local church choir – whose car was either stalled or left in the middle of the road? Four police officers on the ground apprehended Crutcher as he walked from and to his car, and two other officers watched him from the sky in a helicopter. One of the officers on the ground shot Crutcher, and he was left to bleed while lying on the black asphalt of highway 36 in northeast Tulsa. Unattended for two full minutes, he later died. He was unarmed. The police officer who shot him is a white woman. Her husband, also an officer, happened to be in the helicopter hovering overhead. His partner in the helicopter initially described Crutcher as a “bad dude . . . who might be on something.” Even if he was on drugs (police claim there was a vial of angel dust in Crutcher’s car; Crutcher had spent four years in prison on drug charges) or somewhat uncooperative – his death was entirely unnecessary. This disturbing case isn’t one of Crutcher being apprehended for “driving while black,” but “car breaking down while black.” Even in our advanced and oh-so modern twenty-first century society, the great American tenant of presumption of innocence doesn’t apply to all. It especially doesn’t apply to American black men, who are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white American males.

Social inequalities naturally exist and contribute to the healthy functioning of a society. The incentives and rewards to advance one’s standing in a market-based economy properly boost social and economic mobility. But rampant and extreme social inequalities make for an unhealthy society. Extreme and chronic social inequalities are created and maintained by unequal opportunities and disproportionate rewards or punishments for people of differing ethnic, economic, or gender categories. The long list of black men and children recently killed by police officers – Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Tyre King are but a few – speaks of a type of social inequality abhorrent and out of control in the US.

Increasing economic inequality in the US – the rich getting richer, ongoing now for thirty-five years – has contributed significantly to social inequality. As Bill Bishop details in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Mariner, 2009), Americans have been steadily sorting themselves into more homogenous communities, neighborhoods, and social groups since the early 1980s. Social isolation and seclusion do not make for a stronger and more resilient society.

If you are white like me, I have a few questions: Do you have a personal relationship with anyone who is black? If so, have you discussed this issue – black lives and black deaths – with your black friend or acquaintance?

diversity_and_unity

Social problems have social solutions. What we need is more face to face time between the diverse collection of Americans – and less reinforcement of previously held opinions bolstered by hyper-partisans showcased on outlets like Fox News and MSNBC. What would our society be like if people replaced time spent watching Sean Hannity (Fox News) and Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC) with time spent talking and listening to fellow Americans who are in a different category socioeconomically or ethnically?

These conversations, I trust, would bear healthy and beneficial fruit for us today and our descendants in their tomorrows. These interactions can help us get to the place where we place less blame on others and work toward greater shared responsibility with others for the well-being of our society.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Octubre de 2016!

The Big Short

“The Big Short,” the film adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, explains the 2008 financial crisis by detailing the actions of four groups of investors who foresaw the burst of the housing market bubble. Lewis (Moneyball, The Blind Side, and Boomerang) is in very familiar territory depicting the dark side of Wall Street; his first book, Liar’s Poker, recounted his days as a Wall Street bond market manager in the mid-1980s “when a great nation lost its financial mind.” According to Lewis, not much changed in twenty-five years – save a few names and outlandish increases in the amounts of money bet and squandered on Wall Street.

big shortOur family has been doing a Christmas Day movie for the past few years. Our initial Christmas Day excursion was in 2007 when we took in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” The next year we saw what still rates as one of the best of the Christmas Day pics: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” “Up in the Air” (2009) and “Hugo” (2011) were good, but not memorable. “Anchorman II” (2013) was, predictably, funny in a juvenile type of way. “Les Miserables” (2012) had a great Sacha Baron Cohen as Thénardier, and . . . a whole lotta of singing.

“The Big Short” is well worth seeing. The movie title refers to the practice of short selling a stock or bond – betting that it will tank. The protagonists bet, correctly, that the housing market bubble would burst. The movie’s two hours plus run-time works continually to explain this and other components of the 2008 economic swoon to both those who have and haven’t delved into its causes. The movie’s narrative, including “breaking the fourth wall” explanations from Ryan Gosling’s character, and cameos from chef Anthony Bourdain, actress Margot Robbie, entertainer Selena Gomez, and economist Richard Thaler, help explain complex derivative trading, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and other roll-off-the-tongue market descriptors.

Neil Irwin, senior economics correspondent for The New York Times, reviews the movie favorably. He is critical, however, of the movie’s notion that no one – save the four groups of protagonists – foresaw the burst of the bubble. Irwin rightly claims that many other people suspected the bubble’s presence as early as 2005; the ferocity of the bubble’s burst is what caught so many by surprise. Subprime mortgage loans’ ability to corrode supposedly walled-off safer securities wiped out dreams on Main Street and Wall Street. American (and worldwide) common good took a beating: jobs and pension funds were lost; properties were squandered; and social and economic inequalities, on the rise for a generation, were exacerbated.

Steve Carell’s character, Mark Baum (Steve Eisman in real life) – haunted and obsessive – doggedly seeks out some sort of justice in the midst of the darkness. He’s a Wall Street player, undoubtedly, but the unmitigated fraud that imbues the financial side of the housing market won’t let him rest. His pursuit of what turns out to be contorted justice gives a glimmer of hope.

As 2016 approaches, we’re still a society that emphasizes fiscal over social policy. A balance between the two categories of policies would be an improvement. The lures of consumerism continue to take precedence over concern for and care of the environment. The realization and acceptance that we can’t continue to burn through unlimited amounts of oil and coal to fuel our desires of economic growth at all costs would be another improvement. And many yet believe that market activity, like a washing machine working a load of soiled clothing, somehow turns our collective greed into good. It doesn’t – and that’s the simple lesson of the 2008 crash well-told by “The Big Short.”

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Understanding the 2008 crash, which had much in common with the economic crash of 1929, is essential knowledge for citizens who care about their families, neighbors, and communities. “The Big Short” – book or movie – is a good place to start. If you would like to understand the larger panoramic view, I humbly suggest you read Just a Little Bit More. Until Brad Pitt contacts me (ha!) to make a movie version of JaLBM (he co-produced “The Big Short”), this linked YouTube short on JaLBM will have to suffice!

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.