Columns 2015

It’s not a post racial world

I was watching the Nightly Show when the topic of discussion was the recent Justice Department’s report on the systemic problems of racism within the Ferguson police force.  The panel had both black and white participants. One white participant was noted for the fact that he walked over the Selma bridge thirty years ago with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He received a large round of applause when this was announced. That applause died away to a dribble when another panelist, an African-American, looked at the man and said, “Yeah, but when you got to the other side of that bridge, were you still white?”

Rude as it may sound to say that to someone who risked life and limb to participate in a march that ended in such horrific bloodshed and violence, the point was that at the end of that march, this particular marcher could have gone into a nearby store for food or medical supplies and been helped. No one would have told him to use the “colored” entrance, no one would have said to him that he couldn’t be served because of the hue of his skin. Once he left that march, he was again a white man with all the privileges attendant on that designation in the south in 1965.

Most of America would like to think we’ve moved way beyond that world and into a world that some persist in calling “post racial” despite all evidence to the contrary. And my, oh my, is there ever evidence to the contrary. We’ve probably all seen the statistics by now. One hundred percent of the times a police dog was used by Ferguson police, it was against African-Americans, including once against an unarmed 14 year old. I have to assume that Ferguson never got the message about how ugly it looked to use police dogs inappropriately. Maybe they should review some of that footage from Selma.

In Ferguson, a community that is 67% African-American, 85% of vehicle stops, 93% of arrests, and 88% of use of force involved African-Americans. Top that off with the fact that being black made you almost 100% more likely to spend more than two days in jail for any given offense and you can see where blacks might be just a bit paranoid about their police.

And these statistics just keep getting worse. Despite the fact that black drivers were stopped and searched exponentially more often than white drivers, statistics show that white drivers were 27% more apt to be carrying contraband. But you wouldn’t want to stop and frisk white drivers based on that because, after all, that would be profiling and you wouldn’t want to be accused of doing that… at least, not if it involved white citizens.

Perhaps the one thing that blew my mind more than anything else is the fact that Ferguson actually has a law that allowed the police to stop you for the way you were walking down the street. How is that even tangentially constitutional? And are there videos somewhere that you could watch to alert you to the wrong way to walk down the street? Or was simply being black considered the wrong way? 

I wish I could say I can relate to this in some way but honestly, I’m an old white lady and so I simply can’t. For the most part, except for some early youthful experiments in social protest during the sixties, the police are a group I have always viewed as honorable professionals who have my best interests and safety in mind.  I am not frightened or concerned when I see them. I am, in fact, mostly comforted by their presence since for me it indicates safety. So trying to put myself in the shoes of people of color, whether black, brown or some variation in between, is almost impossible. The idea of seeing the police as scary or oppressive faded with the fading of my protest days, and it honestly wasn’t all that strong then.

I still believe, or at least I want to believe, that most cops are better than the examples we are seeing in Ferguson and places like it. I want to believe that in the majority of this country, all our citizens enjoy equal protection. But every time another unarmed young black man is killed by police, it becomes harder and harder to keep that belief alive.