- Michael Eric Dysonvisiting professor of African American studies at Columbia University. He spoke last Friday at the opening plenary of the Socialist Scholars Conference.
Hundreds of thousands of low-income people across the United States have lost their health insurance as a consequence of President Clinton’s 1996 Welfare Reform Act, according to federal and state officials and health policy experts. Many people on the welfare-to-work programs have lost Medicaid and are now uninsured, even though, under the 1996 law, they should have been able to keep their benefits.
This comes as thousands of senior citizens across the country are sinking into poverty and swelling the bread lines, as they are unable to meet their most basic needs on Social Security checks alone. A study conducted a few years ago by the Urban Institute found that 2 million elderly Americans routinely face the choice between paying rent or buying food, or between buying food or medicines. Experts say those numbers have been increasing in the last few years.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, joined by the parents of Amadou Diallo, kicked off a 16-city tour this weekend of the U.S. to highlight police brutality against communities of color. Diallo was the unarmed Guinean immigrant who was killed in a hail of 41 bullets fired by four white police officers who now face second-degree murder charges.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we conclude today’s show with the speech of professor Michael Eric Dyson, who is now a visiting professor at Columbia University on African American studies. He spoke Friday night at the opening plenary of the Socialist Scholars Conference, dealing with the issues of race, class and freedom.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: In the 15 minutes I have, going to talk about freedom, mainly in the via negativa, that is to suggest, by talking about those folk who ain’t free, and then perhaps talk about what freedom means in that implicit and an inductive sense. First of all, the poor are not free. When we think about the global reality of capitalism and when we think about the deep and pervasive problem of poverty in the world, it is made all the worse because of the great concentration of wealth throughout the world, and especially in a nation like the United States. The reality is that 225 of the richest people in the world have a combined wealth of $1 trillion. And that is equal to the combined income of the poorest 47% of the world’s 2.5 billion population. That means then that 25% of the super rich, which is about 60 people, live right here in the United States with a combined wealth of over $300 billion. The world’s three richest people have total assets worth more than the total gross domestic product of the 48 poorest countries in the world. Now, it would only take another $40 billion per year to provide access to food, to safe water, to education, to healthcare, to women’s reproductive healthcare and to sanitation for all the world’s people.
So it’s clear that the poor are not free, because they don’t have economic self-determination. They do not have the capacity to be able to get up every day and to feed themselves or to feed their families. They do not have the freedom to engage in the sort of health maintenance that allows them to police the progression of disease in their bodies or to prevent its arise in — rising in the first place. The mass of people throughout the globe who are poor are not free, because their children are not educated. Not only are they underschooled, but the schools that they attend continue to leverage its authority against their best interests and, as a result of that, refuses to allow them a critical pedagogy, a style of learning that would allow them to examine, to interrogate and to scrutinize the very propositions, the very principles, the very preoccupations of the state, of the city, of the government, that continues to make their lives a living hell. The poor are not free, because of the advancement of technology, large transnational corporations and mergers, the increasing glut of products and competition for markets, the unrestrained, if you will, speculation and deregulation — excuse me, devastation and devaluation of money, the accelerating race to the bottom, if you will, in wages for working people, the destabilization of the middle class, and the extraordinary intensification of the political attack on the most vulnerable. The poor are not free, because they don’t have not only economic and material resources, but because they are not allowed to gather what we might term their moral or their spiritual forces in defense of themselves, either. It is not that the state regulates ethical principles or moral practices. It is that we cannot expect the requisite moral behavior of people who live in oppressive conditions without understanding what constrains them.
Dorothy Day said, “I want to work toward a world in which it’s possible for people to behave decently.” And so, when we have these narratives of criminality, when we have these ideologies of stigmatizing and victimizing the victim, what we should pay attention to is how people are allowed to behave decently and how decent behavior is not predicated upon material wealth or upon economic wherewithal, but it is intimately linked to them, and we must be cautious and careful about those links.
But not only are the poor — not only are the poor not free, those who are imprisoned, obviously, are not free. And when we think about how we spend $25,000 a year on prisoners, much less than we spend per person or per child for going to college or even for schooling, the fastest-growing industry in America is the prison industry. We spend up to $101 billion each year for local, state and federal criminal justice agencies. Prison and security guards are one of the top 10 fastest-growing jobs in this country. The FBI is now developing 20 new prisons at the cost of $4.3 billon. And in California, more than 20 new prisons have opened since 1984, while only one new campus was added to California State in the same time. So, what the real deal is, is that higher education receives about 8.7% of the state’s general funding, while prisons receive 9.6% of the funding. More than one-and-a-half million people in this nation are in prison. Over 70% of those are people of color. More than 5 million people are under surveillance of the criminal justice system. In 1990, 58.2% of all people who were jailed were unemployed at the time of their arrest. Sixty-eight percent of them earned less than $15,000 a year.
The reality then is that in American society, that people who are imprisoned are not free, because they do not have the possibility of preventing, often, their going to prison by requisite healthcare, by requisite school, by requisite attempts to get jobs or by the possibility of reconstructing the very communities in which they live. The reality then is that those who are in prison are not free [inaudible], if you will, balance [inaudible], especially of Latino and African American youth. Overwhelmingly, those who are [inaudible] by the criminal justice system and stigmatized for the rest of their lives are young Black, Latino men and African American men and, increasingly, women, because our prisons are not simply being swollen by the masses of Black and Brown bodies who [inaudible] men; they are increasingly women, and women with healthcare problems and women with children. And as a result of that, those people are not free, because we live in the richest country in the world, with an inglorious concentration of wealth at the heart of this society, but with a heartless disregard for those people, and it ends up being racist and classist and sexist at the same time.
And we talk about, rightly so, about the hemorrhaging of industrial resources in a post-industrial urban complex and the move to the suburbs of, you know, jobs and how the transportation network goes out there and how 5 million jobs have been lost to manufacturing sectors in the last 20 years. The reality is, most — many of those jobs are now going behind prison walls. Motorola, IBM, Compact, TWA and Best Westerns are now paying prisoners anywhere from 30 cents to $2.15 an hour for jobs that used to be occupied by people making a so-called decent wage in the free working world. What is wrong with that picture? Not only are we imprisoning people at a disproportionate rate, stigmatizing them as a result of racial and class antagonism, but we are making prisoners of those for whom those jobs are taken. So, both those in prison are not free, and those who are imprisoned by capitalism’s operation outside are not free, as well.
And finally, my brothers and sisters, my comrades, the reality is that those who are subject to police brutality ain’t free. And that’s why many of us, especially here in New York, some thousand of us, went down to get arrested, and others protested against police brutality. And it seems that we would be way past police brutality by now. That’s like a 1950s issue, ain’t it? 1960s issue. That’s like some severe anachronism, isn’t it? That’s like an illogical kind of process. But yet here we are in 1999, and the reality is, is that police brutality continues to operate. And it doesn’t simply harm Black and Brown people, even though they are its immediate victims. It harms all of us. Can we really believe, can we really think, that if 10 young white men or women had been mowed down by police people in the United States of America, that there would not be an all-out pursuit of those people, even if they were in police uniforms, to make sure that they would never do that again?
And so, the reality is, is that we’ve got to then come to grips with the origins of police brutality and its lethal manifestation, the lethal limits it imposes upon the very ability of people to live. I have so many friends who say, when the cops stop them, they get out, and they challenge them, and they charge them, and they speak, you know, to them in a very powerful way. I don’t have that luxury. I want to live the next day to write some more books, to preach some more sermons, to talk to my children. So, the reality is, in American society, police brutality is vicious because it is the frontline assault not only of the American police state; it is the frontline assault of the concentration of capital in the hands of those who continue to regulate the lives of those who are poor and those who are most vulnerable.
And that is why even hip-hop culture is concerned about this. When we were listening in 1988 to “F— the police comin’ straight from the underground, a young nigger got it bad 'cause I'm Brown and not the other color. Some police think they have the authority to kill a minority.” This is why Tupac Shakur even said, “I got arrested the other day by some crooked cops. And to this day, those cops on the beat get major pay. But when I get my check, they takin’ tax out, so we payin’ the cop that knocks the Blacks out.”
So, that wasn’t a kind of Marxist or Weberian conception of social theodicy, right? That wasn’t no sophisticated analysis about the way in which the concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few undermines the lives of the many. But it was a powerful frontline report, a kind of informal ethnography about the effects of police brutality and why we must do away with this once and for all.
Well, then, what is freedom? Freedom is the ability to get up every day regardless of your sex, regardless of your race, regardless of your class, and be able to talk to your children, to love your husband or wives or partners, or your dogs or your cats or your — or whatever else you’ve accumulated to engage in reciprocal affection — this microphone, that chair, whatever floats your boat; the freedom to be able to celebrate one’s life in the fullness and vigor of one’s own body without having disease interpenetrate with the process of living, so that you’re not living next to a dump because of your class or gender or race, and that you are not subject to the tyranny of male supremacy in an American society and globally that refuses to acknowledge the centrality of women’s bodies. This is what freedom means to us. And so, freedom means deeply being human without the lethal impositions of the state and without the unfair regulation of our ability to love and speak to one another.
If you don’t mind, I’m going to end then with one of these old little Baptist stories. I’ll just tell one of these little Baptist preacher stories. You know, there was a man who was busy, and his daughter was bothering him, and he wanted to get rid of her, so he gave her a little game to play. And she came back in five minutes, and it was over, and he still didn’t have enough time. So he said, “OK, I’ll think of something else.” So he gave her a puzzle to solve, and she came back, and the puzzle was solved. He says, “I know what I’ll do.” He looked over, and he saw a picture of the world. And he cut it up into like 60 or 70 different parts. He said, “I know what. She’ll — I’ll give her this puzzle to put back together, and then tear the world up like I’m doing here and cut it up, and then it’ll be at least four or five hours before she puts this thing together.” So he carved it up, way before Balkanization went down. He carved it up, way before issues and ideologies of white supremacy versus other forms of ethnic cleansing came up. He carved the world up, before the rise of certain vicious ideologies that privilege uncritically the celebration of people’s own lives, whether they were men or whether they were rich or whether they were older. The reality is, is that he carved it up, and then he carved this world up, and he gave it to her. And she came back in five minutes with the world put together. He said, “My god! How did you — how did you do this? How did you get this world back together so fast?” She said, “Oh, Daddy, that’s simple. On the back of that map that you cut up, on the back of that world was a picture of a human being’s face. And when I put that human being’s face together, my world came together.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but the bottom line for me is that that’s what freedom is about: the ability of all of us to celebrate the dignity of our human identities, no matter how they are manifest. And when we can acknowledge that, when we can get the human face together, when we can get our human community together, when we can get our human relationships together, when we are allowed to live and engage one another as full, equal human beings in the process of living, then the world can come together. Then, in the final analysis, we will be able to celebrate one another. We will be able to stamp out the ills of the world, at least keep them at bay, and at the same time be able to prevent others from eroding the freedom of others.
Mark Twain said that it’s because of God’s graciousness that we had three unshakable realities: the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, and, he said, thirdly was the prudence not to exercise either. Well, I’m not sure, but I think we should have the improper, if you will, authority, given to us not by on high, but given to us by the permission of human beings. That is living in community to exercise those freedoms. If we do not exercise the freedom to speak, the freedom to talk, the freedom to think, the freedom to walk, the freedom to engage in loving and living, then we will not be free, because none of us will be free. In the final analysis, we are not only in the same boat, we are in the same stream. And if that stream is poisoned, if that environment is torn down, if that ecology is polluted with bigotry and bias, then none of us will be able to breathe the air of freedom.
Until that time, let us continue to oppose the vicious bigotries that continue to blind us. Let us take down the walls that continue to divide us. And let us build up the possibility of destroying the factors that destroy those people who are poor, those people who do not have the wherewithal to make sure that they can live in this nation or in this world, in this world, without the nasty, devastating imposition from the state or from nature on their lives. Comrades, let us keep up the struggle.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Eric Dyson, speaking at the Socialist Scholars Conference in New York City at the City University of New York. He is author of books on gangsta rap and Malcolm X, minister and visiting professor of African American studies at Columbia University.
If you’d like to order a cassette copy of today’s program, that includes the discussion between Edward Said and Noam Chomsky on Kosovo, the dissenting views from Said and Chomsky, of Bogdan Denitch and Ian Williams, and the speech of Michael Eric Dyson, you can call 1-800-735-0230. That’s 1-800-735-0230. Democracy Now! is produced by María Carrión and David Love. Our technical director is Errol Maitland. From the studios of WBAI in New York, I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening to another edition of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! Tomorrow on the program, Phil Berrigan.