I received a frantic phone call late one night from my son-in-law asking me to come to his home quickly.
Inside the small Carrboro apartment, my grandchildren were screaming. Outside red, white and blue lights were flashing. The children’s father had just been forcibly removed from his home and from his children. As I rushed toward the building I saw him pressed up against a police car being handcuffed.
All the while the children were screaming. Save one. The 3-year-old, my middle grandchild, was sitting in a corner staring into the space of the hallway, looking at the police officers … just staring.
As I began to gather my grandchildren, a familiar pain, an ancient pain, rose up inside me. My questions to the police officers quickly turned to frustration, then to anger, then to total despair and I began to scream at them: “ We matter! We matter! My family and my children matter!”
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Earlier that evening, my son-in-law had been standing outside of his apartment when the police approached him and asked him for his name. When he asked why they needed to know his name they followed him and asked if they could search his apartment because they believed they smelled marijuana in his vicinity. When he refused, stating his right to have a search warrant, they left, only to return a few hours later violently kicking the front door and aggressively entering the apartment and arresting him on charges of “failure to give an officer information on request.” He was put into the police car and taken to Hillsborough while his frightened, confused children cried.
I am writing this to share with you, the general public, what it’s like to be poor and African American in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. I can’t tell you how many times my family, friends and I have been followed by the police when leaving a grocery store, picking up children from school, returning from choir rehearsal. We’ve learned that they’re usually running our tags to check for lapsed insurance or some other regulatory issue that can justify a stop, a citation, a request to search the vehicle – a phenomenon I call “driving while black and poor.”
Recent data collected by the N.C. Department of Justice over the last decade showed that black motorists stopped by Chapel Hill police were 148 percent more likely to have their car searched than white motorists. In Carrboro black motorists were 233 percent more likely to be searched. Few of these searches were based on any evidence that a crime had been committed, yet even citations for small violations (failure to use a turn signal, failure to wear a seat belt, lapsed insurance) can lead to a cascading set of consequences for people who are poor.
“The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander documents how the criminal justice system is decimating communities of color. Walk into the Orange County Courthouse any day of the week and you will be see working class African Americans and Latinos lining the hallways and the pews. Not only would you get the idea that it’s only People of Color who break the law, you also would start to see just how much revenue is generated by pulling people over for regulatory matters. It’s truly a “cash cow.”
The root causes of this poverty – achievement gaps, the lack of living wages, generations of internalized oppression and generations of legislated white affirmative action – all work to preserve a goal that was woven into the institutional fabric of our country from its beginning: an economic model that makes white wealth and well being a priority by exploiting and oppressing the poor intentionally by race. This may not be the conscious goals of our police officers, elected officials and you and I who are reading this letter, but if we choose to ignore data, and choose to remain ignorant about how institutional racism is creating inequities and refuse to acknowledge our own personal responsibility in holding the instutions that we work and interact with accountable, then we maintain inequity, oppression and despair by default.
Poor People of Color don’t wake up every day, look in the mirror and say, “I want to be poor.” They want the same respect and consideration that any other person would get. For much of my life, I believed the way out was making more money, getting a college education and moving to a nicer neighborhood. And while all of these things are good and do allow for greater individual and familial security, this strategy has not been able to collectively address the economic and social woes that 400 years of hidden and blatant oppression and white affirmative action have inflicted on the masses of People of Color. We are still living under a legacy of poverty and demoralizing dehumanization.If you can read this letter, finish your cup of coffee and go about like “business as usual” then this is the very mindset that I am speaking to.
What will it take for you to understand and acknowledge the realities and the impacts of being poor and black in an environment designed for the benefit of white people? What will it take for you to realize that people are not poor solely based on individual behaviors and bad decisions? What will it take for you to realize that what affects me affects you?
My traumatized, frightened grandchild today is our worst nightmare tomorrow. Spiritually, literally and figuratively we are all one. Let us re-member this truth so that we can begin to be, do, and create from a place of unity and humanity for all.
Stephanie Perry is a member of Justice United, a broad based, community power organization, dedicated to making change on social justice issues that affect the lives of those who live, work, and worship in Orange County.