During the days of slavery one could identify a person analogous to the swine-drover in the meat market. This person — we might call him a man-drover — rather than ushering pigs to market to be sold as a transferable commodity, did so with blacks. It goes without question that this treatment was inhumane. It made blacks into something less than human, things to be traded as objects to fuel economic necessity.
You may think that these days are long past but consider the case of Ferguson, Mo., — a city of 21,135 people, predominantly black, that served 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses in 2013. This remarkable level of surveillance and interdiction incidentally generated for Ferguson more than $2.5 million in revenue from fines and court fees — the city’s second largest source of revenue. I ask you, what is this except the return of the drover in the mask of state legitimacy? In a nation where blacks possess only on average a dime of wealth for every dollar of white wealth, how is this reclamation of scarce resources anything but the continuation of oppression by other means, the reduction of blacks to instruments of economic necessity and exploitation?
If this does not convince you, listen to the audio track of Eric Garner’s last words. In a tragic sense, his plea — “I can’t breathe” — is the soundtrack of black life under conditions of deep unfairness and disregard: When we use the breath we have to ask for the rights and respect that ought to be ours, we have little breath to accomplish much else. Everyday life becomes the double struggle of working not only for what we need but also for securing that to which we are entitled in any case. Dr. King may have seen the promised land, but we appear to be anchored off its coast.