Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Lesson from Ferguson: Talk about Race

Count Ferguson, Missouri, as one of countless places in which the letter of the law trumps justice. That is, unless you believe the letter of the law IS "just us". I don’t and here’s why.

As most know, Ferguson is ground zero to an ongoing saga plaguing our nation. There, a lawman gunned down an unarmed citizen. In this case, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by 28-year-old police officer Darren Wilson. The result has been weeks of protests (locally and nationally) and civil unrest.

Those who thought “letter of the law” was the single most important factor in the grand jury clearing Wilson of wrongdoing are also likely to downplay the fact that the dead victim was African American and that the shooter was white. Such thinking is shortsighted.

What was missing in the grand jury outcome is also by and large discarded in most other legal arguments: the current and historical context race plays.

On this point, attorneys, scholars and armchair law experts will point out that race in such matters has no place in courtrooms. Rather, it’s what happened in the moment that is paramount. The rationale of this head-in-the-sand thinking is that race rarely has a bearing cases like this. But it does. The scientific evidence associated with unconscious bias in all people bears that out.

The current and historical context of race is not just missing in Ferguson. It’s absent from other important mainstream conversations surrounding large swaths of inequity. Like access to quality food, housing, education, jobs and healthcare.

Why is context deemed irrelevant by so many, despite our country’s beginnings rooted in oppression and racism? Yes, there was the wonderful founding dream that we all are created equal. But there also was the founding reality.

It started with the systematic extermination and heinous relocation of native peoples and morally criminal import of Africans as chattel slaves. Illicit acquisitions of land and labor, and both were government sanctioned and rigorously enforced by law.

The persecution continued with the infamous Black Codes and extended into the 1890s post-slavery era with racially motivated Jim Crow laws and practices. This morphed into separate-but-equal government policy, the result of an 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and continued through the early- and mid-1900s, with more and more laws that propped up housing, education, job, health and other institutional segregation and discrimination into the 1960s.

Then came the crack era of the 1980s. Law enforcement wielding its power with seeming impunity; crushing, suppressing and occupying entire neighborhoods – as if they believed the billionaire drug lords responsible for starting that insidious drug epidemic were themselves living in South Central Los Angeles.

Mass incarceration as a policy followed in the ’90s and it continues today, with the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave holding the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. Not China, not Russia, the U.S.

Just think, the United States represents about five percent of the world's population, yet houses close to 25 percent of the world's prisoner population.

And through it all, guess who’s been saddled with the historic burden of enforcing these lawless government laws? Police. What’s worse, who were/are the victims? People of Color.

Government policies aside (and that’s a huge aside), the police has a job to do. I get that. People of all hues get that, not just middle class white folks. The fly in the ointment is the current and historical context in which police operate in communities of color. For many, especially those with few social, financial and legal options, we have been conditioned to distrust police. Others outright fear them. Yes, that fear and mistrust cuts both ways.

Fortunately in our community there is hope. Battle Creek Police Department Chief Jim Blocker is out there walking the talk. When it comes to addressing issues (including race), he’s walking with residents, close up and personal. Marshall Police Chief Jim Schwartz is doing the same.

Both are turning toward, rather than running from the realities race plays in policing and our community’s response to it. That said, they’d agree more (on all sides) must be done.

Amnesty International USA’s executive director, Steven W. Hawkins may have said it best: “The U.S. cannot continue to allow those obligated and duty-bound to protect to become those who their community fears most.”

 Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

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