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Black History Month Good-Bye Blues

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Black History Month has ended---with a sorrowful bang. The short period of the shortest month happened to mark multiple downturns in key measures of what used to be called progress, but which now underscore the gathering speed of backwards trends.

Let's look at just three pieces of unsettling data the month brought. An analysis from the Center for Labor Studies at Northeastern University, released in mid-February, showed the extent to which unemployment is now selective, being only 3% for Americans earning $150,000 a year or more -- the top 10% -- but 31% for the bottom 10%. That's bad enough, of course, but it still does not fully define the ravages of unemployment in low-income areas with predominately black populations; Detroit officials, for one example, estimate that the real unemployment for their city is 50% -- a figure which, shocking at is, would only be truly shocking to those who have not spent time in low-income communities in the past few years. The ghastly unemployment in poor communities, of course, in part reflects the very studied failure to direct stimulus-funded jobs to the poorest places. In the South Bronx, New York's poorest county, where I run a community health program, I haven't encountered a single person, through all the hundreds of people we are in contact with, who has obtained an actual stimulus job.

Meanwhile, in New York City, a Daily News Black History Month investigation revealed that the numbers of black students in the city's elite high schools -- special public schools that require an entrance exam -- has dropped by 10% since 2002, the first year of the Bloomberg Administration. There are now only 1,042 total black students in these eight schools, with their almost-guaranteed trajectory to good colleges and a bright future.

And data which the city had for years refused to release, but finally obtained by my organization, showed that blacks in New York are not even receiving AIDS services in proportion to their population! As the whole country tragically knows, but evidently not the New York City Department of Health, AIDS has hit the black community the hardest of any group in the nation. The New York City Department of Health receives some $111 million a year from the federal government specifically to provide targeted AIDS care and support for the poorest, high need patients. Obviously, that means that blacks, who are the poorest patients, should be enrolled in these life-prolonging services significantly above their overall portion of the city's AIDS cases, not noticeably below it. By 2008, blacks accounted for 50% of the city's newly diagnosed HIV/AIDS cases; however, under the Bloomberg Administration, blacks receiving this federally supported care (commonly known as Ryan White services) steadily declined from 54% of patients in 2005 to 45% in 2007. Women with HIV/AIDS -- 65% of whom are black in New York City -- plunged from 38% of AIDS patients getting this targeted federal care in 2005 to only 33% in 2007; during the same years, as they lost services, women's portion of AIDS deaths increased from 30.4% to 33.3% of all deaths of city residents with HIV/AIDS. This would be upsetting in any case, but considering the federal millions poured into New York which should have had clear benefit in lengthening the lives of these women, it's a public crime.

When one puts all these figures together -- the selective unemployment, the "nonselection" for the best high schools and the fact that even when the federal government assigns money to a critical health need in the black community millions that are supposed to go there do not arrive -- the picture is terrifying. It is a portrait of such institutionalized and accepted failures of such an all encompassing range -- from failures of government to failures of leadership, including in the black community itself -- that it is almost hard to comment.

Perhaps the most telling final comment, then, is to look at something which, as we learned during Black History Month, didn't decrease for African Americans, but actually increased. That people in poor communities do not, themselves, have stimulus jobs hardly means that jobs have not been created with stimulus funds which have a decided impact on poor communities. In February, the New York City Police Department released the 2009 figures for its street stops and frisks. The Department had broken a record! The 575,304 'Stops and Frisks" were 8% higher than in 2008 -- not to mention 600% (!) higher than 2002, the first Bloomberg year. Those stopped, the Department announced during Black History Month, were 92% male and 55% black and 33% Hispanic. What enabled this sorry record of very targeted over-policing with all the humiliation, anger and depression it visits on communities which are already humiliated, angered and depressed from being unemployed? More than 1,000 police departments across the nation received stimulus funding. New York's $35 million went to hire 120 new recruits, obviously contributing to its record ability to stop and frisk.

Given the berserk numbers of stop and frisks focused on poor communities, it's not surprising that, while I still don't know anyone with a stimulus job, in Black History Month alone, I did know three people who were stopped, frisked -- with two arrested. Somewhat unusually, that month, the stopped, frisked and arrested were both women. Given that the police generally are "nicer' to women, their "cases" sharply define the relentless nature of this police policy in poor communities. The first was a Board Member of our community health organization who was stopped walking back to her Bronx apartment from a medical appointment and arrested because she had loose pills in her pocket -- fully and properly prescribed medication. The second woman, the sister of a staff member and herself the daughter of a policeman, was stopped at 9 ap.m. as she exited the public housing building in which she has lived for 18 years. She was going next door to bring back her 13-year-old who was supposed to be home by then. Instead of just accompanying this mother upstairs where she could produce identification, the police cuffed her, and threw her in the squad car yelling "Where's the drugs?" Finally, they ticketed her for "trespassing."

The final stop and frisk involved a male staff member -- by chance the brother of the accused "trespassee" -- who was on his way to meet his father the retired policeman when he used a park lavatory; on his exit, the police pushed him against the wall to the shouted query, "Where's the drugs and gun?" They searched the lavatory and, of course, found nothing; but as may be obvious from the treatment the women, innocence in this game is not enough. Indeed, since the police are supposed to have at least the semblance of a reason to stop people in the first place, innocence may just inflame them into justifying themselves with an arrest or summons -- which is effectively the same thing because if you don't go to court to deal with it, you will surely be arrested. Perhaps explaining that his retired officer father was just down the street waiting for him saved him from the cuffing and ticket or arrest meted out to the frisked women.

"I didn't know," said Michael Goodhope, employed and middle-aged, "that you need police permission to go to the bathroom."

But for those in communities targeted by race and income, no ordinary activity -- walking to a medical appointment, retrieving an overdue teenager or heeding nature's call -- is safe from police interference. Even in Black History Month, even for the well-behaved and grown offspring of police officers.