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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

RACE AND JUSTICE


The ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri are a relentless reminder of the racial divisions in the nation.  The entire episode has become as familiar, tragic and repetitive as the annual over crowded ferry boat sinkings in Bangladesh.  The immediate sequence of events has become predictable; the rush to judgment, the hyperbolic accusations, and the general acceptance and exploitation by the media, of the claims.  This is quickly followed by the arrival of the professional race mongers like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who swoop in from afar like  buzzards  on road kill ,to lead the chants, repeat the exaggerations and give the civil disorder in the minds of the disorderly some perverse sense of legitimacy.  But the underlying frustration of the non-involved across the nation lies in the knowledge that there is no remedy, either in law or public policy that will end the inevitability of future similar incidents.

There is much pontificating about alleged “causes” of racial turmoil over interactions with the nation’s police forces.  Some bring up the never ending reference to the “legacy of slavery” and decades of discrimination prior to the civil rights era and the passing of the Civil Rights bill in 1964.  Others cite high unemployment and high levels of poverty among urban blacks.  Still others blame a “history” of police brutality and racial discrimination by law enforcement organizations.  In the case of Ferguson, the media suggested that the lack of local black politicians and police officers created an atmosphere of distrust by the black majority population in this small town of 21,000 people.

Thus the black citizens of Ferguson were presented with a multiple choice set of justifications including “all of the above”, for making snap decisions on the circumstances of the fatal interaction between Michael Brown and police officer DarrenWilson and then taking to the streets to proclaim “No justice. No peace.” and in some cases to loot and destroy their own community’s businesses.  Based on the demands for “vengeance”, the inflammatory words of the Governor of Missouri, and the pandering of the U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, who tried to make himself part of the aggrieved crowds, the definition of “justice” seems to be nothing less than a murder conviction for the police officer involved, no matter what facts the investigations disclose.

The nation cannot go back in history and change the curse of slavery which was brought to our shores by British colonists.  Nor can we go back and change the decades of racial hostility and discrimination following the Civil War.  It took a long time but the nation has tried hard to change the culture with wide ranging legislation like the aforementioned Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, numerous programs of affirmative action and billions in public transfers of wealth to minorities. 








Again, to non-involved observers it appears that most of the protestors and looters are too young to have felt the sting of the overt racial discrimination of the 1950s through the 1960s. Thus, largely immune to the social dysfunction of the past, the 20-40 age cohort currently in the streets seem logically to be motivated by something else.  Is their anger of the shooting of a young black man really increased because of the frustration of high unemployment in their community, especially among black teenagers (currently at 36%)  Perhaps, but that particular frustration’s contribution to their anger is difficult to measure, it is even more difficult for government to change.  High unemployment is related to low educational levels, especially in an era of diminishing low skill manufacturing jobs and the shift to technology which requires higher skills. 

The basic requirement for entry level jobs in the nation is a high school diploma.  The nation wide level for blacks is 69%.  This number includes students of both sexes.  This is important because  across all races, females have a 7% higher graduation rate than males.  Applying this figure to blacks would indicate that young black males have a graduation rate of close to 64%.

Stated differently, close to one in three (33%) young black males drops out of high school before obtaining a diploma.  The devastating impact on black male employment is obvious as is the inability of government at any level to find easy solutions for the problem.

What we are seeing here is an effort to take an incident involving a specific black citizen and a specific police officer, who happens to be white, in a specific set of circumstances and generalize it as a part of a historical and nation-wide set of social and economic conditions which are more relevant to the protests than the shooting itself.

It is genuinely possible that the Brown/Wilson confrontation had nothing to do with race.  Law enforcement in black majority Ferguson, MO would make interaction between white officers and young black men commonplace.  The issues known about the incident so far, walking in the middle of the street, a fight and gun shot in the police car, and the possibility of a threat of further attack on the officer, don’t have obvious racial content.  But as in so many of incidents between blacks and non-blacks, there seems to be an emotional need on the part of various black communities to exploit the incident as an almost cathartic response to wider perceived grievances.  This of course provides grist for the mill of racial demagogues  like Jackon, Sharpton, and various radical activists like the New Black Panthers.

Police concentrate on locations where crime occurs. Crime occurs disproportionately in poor black urban areas.  Police departments will remain mostly white or at least non-black simply because of demographics. The black population in the nation remains at 12-13 percent and recruitment of blacks to become police officers is very difficult.  Thus violent interactions between black men and non-black police will continue.  Given the mindset of much of the urban black population regarding a sense of racial victimization, these interactions will continue to stimulate outrage, protests and occasional urban violence.  The presence of those who depend on such confrontations and outrage for personal status, money, celebrity and influence will contribute to their inevitability.

The only possible solution to this dynamic is a significant change in the black urban sub-culture. Reform of existing racial animus and overreaction on the part of individual police officers and some police departments will help.  But mistrust of police agencies, and the self perpetuating culture of lack of respect for authority generated by the breakdown of two parent families, and the exaggerated machismo of the hip hop and gang  culture that affects so many young black men is generally beyond the scope of government solutions. 

Michael Brown was an exception in some ways but was part of the culture in others.  He had a high school diploma; had a father in the area but with whom he didn’t live, and wasn’t a member of a gang.  Still he felt entitled enough to rob a convenience store, big enough to man handle the black store clerk, defiant enough to walk down the middle of the street and  reject the commands of a police officer to move to the side walk and then tough enough to engage the officer physically in the police car.
 

The investigations will show whether the officer over reacted and violated department guidelines  or whether he was justified in feeling that he was seriously physically threatened by the six foot four, 290 pound teenager who had punched him in the face minutes before.  In either case, there is still room to believe that had Michael Brown been white the events would have played out in the same way.