In a 17-minute video, Phil Vischer, one of the creators of VeggieTales and the voice of Bob the Tomato, takes viewers through a U.S. history lesson that is uncomfortable at times. Seeking to explain why people feel the need to protest, are angry, and why the conversation around racial reconciliation has come up again following the death of George Floyd, Vischer says that even in 2020, there exists a massive and unjust disparity between African Americans and white Americans. What’s more, this disparity “didn’t happen by accident; it happened by policy.”
Vischer summarizes his well-researched argument in seven sentences:
We, the majority culture, told [black Americans] where they could live, and where they couldn’t. Then we moved most of the jobs to the places we told them they couldn’t live. When the predictable explosion of unemployment and poverty resulted in a predictable increase in drug use and crime, we criminalized the problem. We built $19 billion of new jails and sold grenade launchers to the police. As a result, a white boy born in America today has a one in 23 chance of going to prison in his lifetime. For a black boy, it’s one in four. And that is why people are angry.
Written by Phil and his brother, Rob, the video starts with a statistic comparing an average white household to an average black household. Black households have 60 percent of the income of white households, but only one-tenth of the household wealth. This is a big deal because household wealth “helps send kids to school, helps launch small businesses, stabilizes loss of income, and helps families survive catastrophic events like divorce or unemployment.”
It’s true that there are lots of wealthy African Americans: 75 percent of the NBA, 70 percent of the NFL, movie stars, pop stars, Oprah Winfrey, etc. Yet with all these extremely wealthy African Americans thrown into the statistics for the average black household, and with the extremely poor white people thrown into the white household stats, we still see this alarming disparity.
Why the Disparity?
Vischer goes back to just after the Civil War ended to explain how this disparity started. After slavery ended in the U.S., nine states enacted “Vagrancy Laws,” essentially making it illegal for African Americans to not have a job–the law was only applied to black men. Eight of those states allowed black prisoners–those who had been arrested for not having a job–to be hired out to plantation owners for little to no pay. In other words, “Men who had been freed from the plantations found themselves right back on the plantations.”
Additionally, Vischer implies, frivolous laws prohibited “mischief” and “insulting gestures” which only led to more black men being arrested and created “a huge market for convict leasing.” Working conditions while incarcerated, Vischer explains, could be worse than the conditions they experienced during slavery as the plantation owner leasing the black prisoner had no concern for the man’s longterm wellbeing.
Jim Crow Laws
By 1900, every state in the south had Jim Crow laws in place. Vischer described these as “social ostracism laws” that extended to schools, churches, housing, jobs, restaurants, hospitals, prisons, funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries. Vischer highlighted the way politicians strove to outdo one another by getting more and more specific with the laws, like one prohibiting interracial chess playing.
Not only did the state governments of the south perpetuate these laws, but in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Jim Crow laws “reflected customs and traditions” and “preserved public peace and good order.” The laws stayed in place until 1954, when the Brown v Board of Education case came to the Supreme Court.
However, the Brown ruling didn’t convince the southern states to change their Jim Crow laws. In 1956, the “Southern Manifesto” was signed by 101 out of 128 congress members from the south and inspired 50 new Jim Crow laws. White private schools, called “Segregation Academies”, popped up across the south. Vischer points out that many of these schools were Christian.
Widespread civil rights protests, combined with anti-war protests were becoming violent by this point. Things had gotten so bad that in 1968, 81 percent of Americans believed “Law and order has broken down in this country,” and the majority saw communists and “negroes who start riots” as good demographics to blame. Politicians responded with rhetoric designed to convince voters they would restore law and order. For instance, Richard Nixon campaigned on a platform of law and order.
“The number one source of intergenerational wealth in America is home ownership.” From the 1930s to the 1960s, the federal government enacted policies to actively encourage white families to own homes but discouraged black families from owning them. For instance, in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) created a risk rating system to determine which neighborhoods were a safe investment for federally backed mortgages. Black neighborhoods were considered too risky. This labeling was known as “redlining” as the maps used would employ red ink to mark the black, “high risk” neighborhoods.
In 1948, 40 percent of housing developments in Minneapolis had covenants prohibiting purchase by African Americans. This means that blacks couldn’t get federal funding to buy houses in black neighborhoods, and they also couldn’t buy houses in white neighborhoods. As late as 1950, a realtor could lose his or her license if they helped a black family buy a home in a white neighborhood. In addition, the FHA decided it would be a good idea to separate white and black neighborhoods by highways.
The GI Bill
After WWII, the GI Bill provided subsidized mortgages to help millions of men returning from war to buy their first home. While black soldiers were technically eligible for the same benefits, the way the bill was administered left one million black veterans “largely on the outside looking in.” For instance, in New York and New Jersey, new mortgages procured through the GI Bill numbered 67,000, but fewer than 100 of those were for non-white households. In Mississippi, out of 3,200 GI Bill mortgages, only two went to black veterans. (In case you’re curious: That’s 0.14 percent of the New York and New Jersey mortgages for black veterans and 0.06 percent in Mississippi).
The housing disparity had long term consequences. After the war, white families “were able to build home equity, growing wealth for retirement, inheritance, and college education for their kids.” Black families did not get that opportunity.
The War on Drugs
African Americans living in inner cities were extremely vulnerable economically speaking. “The overwhelming majority of African Americans in 1970 lacked college degrees and had grown up in fully segregated schools.”
In the second half of the 20t century, manufacturing jobs moved to the suburbs, and black workers struggled to follow the jobs as they couldn’t live in many of the suburbs. In 1951, for instance, a white landlord sublet an apartment to a black family in Cicero, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago). The white community was so upset that they rioted and set fire to the apartment building. The National Guard had to intervene. Transportation was also an issue. In 1970, only 28 percent of black fathers had access to a car, exacerbating the problem of the moving factories.
In 1970, 70 percent of black men had good blue collar jobs, but in 1987, only 28 percent did. In other words, unemployment in black communities skyrocketed–and with unemployment rising, so did drug use. As drug use increased, so did crime. Vischer makes a comparison to drug use in black communities during this time to white, rural communities struggling with opioid addiction today. But unlike the opioid crisis of today, Vischer says America decided not to treat the drug-use crisis of the 1970s and 1980s as a health crisis, but as a “crisis of criminality,” and “we militarized our response.”
During the Reagan administration of 1981-1991, anti-drug budgets saw a huge swell. For instance, the Department of Defense’s drug budget went from $33 million to $1.04 billion. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act stipulated mandatory minimum sentences and much harsher punishment for distribution of crack cocaine “which was associated with blacks” than powder cocaine, “which was associated with whites.” The Act also stipulated mandatory evictions from public housing for any tenet who permitted drug-related criminal activity to occur on or near premises. It also eliminated many government benefits, including student loans, for anyone convicted of a drug crime. A revision of the Act in 1988 stipulated a five-year minimum sentence for possessing any amount of crack cocaine, even if there was no intent to distribute. This revision replaced the one-year maximum sentence for the possession of any drug without the intent to distribute.
During the Clinton presidency, between 1993 and 2001, the funding for public housing was cut by $17 billion while funding for prisons increased by $19 billion. The number of Americans incarcerated for drug crimes had exploded. For instance, in 1980, there were 41,000 Americans imprisoned for drug crimes. Today, there are more than 500,000, which Vischer points out is more than the entire prison population of 1980. Most of these arrests are for possession, not distribution.
To make things more violent, we also “militarized our police forces.” Between 1997 and 1999, the Pentagon handled 3.4 million orders for military equipment for more than 11,000 police agencies. In addition to equipping the police with things like bullet-proof helmets, grenade launchers, and M-16 rifles, we also authorized new tactics. Vischer points out the no-knock entry, “when a SWAT team literally breaks down your door.” Incidences of these kinds of forced entry have increased dramatically. In 1986, Minneapolis police performed 35 “no knock” entries. In 1996, that number went up to 700.
Incarceration: the New Jim Crow Laws
Vischer also pointed out that “there are financial incentives for arresting more drug users.” Federal grants to local police departments were tied to the number of drug arrests. “Research suggests the huge surge in arrests from increased drug enforcement was due more to budget incentives than to actual increases in drug use.” This had immediate effects on the prison population. In 1980, the total prison population was 350,000. In 2005, the population swelled to 2.3 million. The U.S. now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. “We imprison a higher percentage of our black population than South Africa ever did during apartheid,” Vischer emphasizes.
Having a drug conviction on your record is far reaching, too, especially for black men. For instance, you are barred from public housing, ineligible for food stamps, and required to identify yourself as a convicted felon when applying for jobs. A criminal record is shown to decrease the likelihood you’ll get a call back on a job application by 50 percent. But the negative effect of a criminal record on getting a job is twice as large for African American applicants.
The sheer number of incarcerated black men compared to white men is staggering. In 2006, one in 106 white men was behind bars. For black men, it was one in 14. For black men between the age of 20 and 35 (the age where families are built, Vischer adds), it’s one in nine. Vischer also explains that this disparity is not explained by higher drug rates in black Americans versus white Americans. Overall, he says, white Americans and black Americans use drugs at the same rates. However, the imprisonment rate of black Americans is almost six times that of white Americans.
“It may be true that there isn’t explicit racism in our legal system anymore,” Vischer concludes, “but it doesn’t mean justice is blind.” He gave the following example of a study done in Georgia as evidence. A law in that state permitted prosecutors to seek life imprisonment for a second drug offense. Over the period of the study, the law was used on one percent of white second-time offenders and 16 percent of black second time offenders. “As a result, 98 percent of prisoners serving life sentences under this law were black.”
Another study looked at African American youth, which make up 16 percent of all youth. However, African American youth make up 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, 35 percent of all youth sent to adult court instead of juvenile court, and 58 percent of youth sent to adult state prison.
Vischer then turned his attention to Philando Castile, the black man from Minneapolis who was shot and killed by police in 2016 after being pulled over for a broken tail light. It was the 49th time Castile had been pulled over by police. Vischer also included statistics from New Jersey, Florida, and Oakland, California showing that black drivers are much more likely to be pulled over by police than white drivers.
Discrimination in School
Unconscious bias shows up in the school system, too. Vischer argues white teachers often assume black students are less intelligent than they actually are. For instance, gifted students have to be recommended by a teacher in order to move into a gifted track. When a teacher is black, an equally gifted white student and black student have comparable chances of being recommended. However, when the teacher is white, black students’ odds of being recommended are cut in half. Vischer takes a moment to say that this does not mean that white teachers are racist. Rather, they are affected by bias.
Vischer admits he doesn’t have a solution to offer for this disparity. But he’s asking viewers to do one thing: Care. “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
If you’d like to know more about the studies and statistics cited in Vischer’s video, these are the sources he lists at the end:
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
How the GI Bill’s Promise was Denied to a Million Black Veterans by Erin Blakemore
Miss Buchanan’s Period of Readjustment (Podcast) by Malcolm Gladwell