(This column appeared in The Concord Monitor on August 20, 2014)
I have never known what it means to be afraid of the police. In the small New Hampshire town where I was raised (population 1,200), Chief M and his part-time deputies were our friends. If your dog went missing or your car broke down, the chief was the first person you called. Otherwise, “good fences made good neighbors” in our all-white country town.
If I am blessed to someday raise a son, the same will not be true for him.
I first glimpsed the turbulent dynamic that exists between black boys and the police when I left New Hampshire at age 18 to serve as an AmeriCorps volunteer with City Year Washington, DC. I was assigned to work in an impoverished middle school where black and Hispanic students comprised the entire student body and white people made up a disproportionate share of the people in charge. I was ill-prepared for the assumptions of student deviance and guilt that marked–and marred–the education system in which I worked as a teacher’s assistant.
Arriving in uniform on the first day of school, I was struck by the eerie resemblance of the dilapidated red brick building–with its burglar bars and peeling paint and police presence–to a juvenile hall. Students were permitted to enter and depart by a single front door, where law enforcement officers greeted them with wands and a metal detector. Searches and seizures were commonplace. Classes were uncompromisingly strict or else a free-for-all, depending on the teacher. During lunch, the students were herded by class into the basement cafeteria, where a pair of security guard would pace the floor wielding bullhorns and batons and angrily instruct the kids to “sit down and shut up–or else.”
Having been raised with an ample supply of nurturance and play, I could not understand the logic behind removing recess from the school day–in response to substandard test scores, I was told. Even gym classes had been cut back to allow more room for the “essentials.” Without a healthy outlet for their youthful energy (not even gym took place outside) many kids found it difficult to concentrate in class and were prone to disturbances. Fights among a handful of the boys were a recurring fact of life, leading to detention, suspension, and–for one in every three black males–eventual prison time. Sociologists call this system the “school-to-prison pipeline.” For them, it was simply the status quo.
While I cannot speak for the encounters my students had with law enforcement after school–I retreated to the placid white suburbs of northwest Washington, thanks to a kind great-aunt who took me in–the stories they brought to class betrayed an astonishing degree of suspicion between themselves and the police. Their suspicions were sadly warranted.
According to the CATO Institute, nearly 5,000 unique reports of police misconduct involving 6,613 police officers and nearly 7,000 victims occurred in 2010, the most recent year for which data were available. Although police departments generally do not report on the use of deadly force, estimates of the number of Americans shot and killed by the police range from 500 to 1,000 per year – approximately ten times the number of police officers shot and killed in the line of duty. An estimated 15,000 Americans have been killed by the police since 1976.
African Americans are disproportionately counted among those gunned down by law enforcement in the United States. Although black people comprise just 13 percent of the U.S. population, a comprehensive study of extrajudicial killings by police, security guards, and vigilantes in 2012 placed the number of black victims at 313–at least ten times the rate among white people. A large majority of the black people killed by police were in their teens or twenties.
Contrary to common assumptions about the violent nature of black youths, the report found that just one in five black victims were confirmed to be in possession of a gun, and fewer than one in twelve fired a shot while police were on the scene (a clear justification for lethal force by police). In fact, official police reports revealed that black men and women killed by the police were far more likely to have fled the scene when shot than to have wielded a weapon of their own.
Despite these findings, and the well-documented fact of unequal treatment of black people throughout the criminal justice system from detention to death row, few members of my race acknowledge systemic bias–dare we say racism–in the data. According to a recent Pew survey, just 37 percent of white Americans believe that last week’s shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO “raises important issues about race” compared to 80 percent of black people. In a city where African Americans comprise 67 percent of the population, 86 percent of people stopped, 92 percent of people searched, and just 6 percent of the police force, it is hard to dismiss the concerns of their community out of hand.
Consider the socio-political milieu occupied by communities of color in the United States today. Nearly half of all black children are raised in areas of concentrated poverty, compared to 12 percent of white children. Three-quarters of black children attend segregated schools where a majority of the students are nonwhite, the same percentage as in 1968. Household wealth among black and Hispanic families is less than one-sixth that of white families, and the trends have only worsened over time. Black people are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be unemployed and seeking work. And still more damaging to their long-term interests, black citizens of voting age are far more likely to be disenfranchised at the polls and without a voice in American politics.
When one black boy like Michael Brown is shot and killed by the police, it is a tragedy. When hundreds of black youths in their teens and twenties are shot by the police each year, it is an outrage. Much as we may wish to ascribe such deaths to the individual failings of the people involved and embrace the so-called “post-racial” or “colorblind” ideal, the reality of racial bias in the criminal justice system–and the race-based poverty and inequality to which it is attached–is undeniable. The system killed Mike Brown.
Officer Darren Wilson did not begin his fateful patrol on August 9th intending to shoot an unarmed youth. Let no one doubt that fact. Nor do his actions justify the indiscriminate looting and violence by certain disgruntled or opportunistic members of the Ferguson community. But when police officers routinely practice racial profiling and excessive use of force in dealing with people of color, the question must be asked: Does our system assign equal value to the lives of young black men and women as it does to other citizens? Until the answer is a definitive “yes,” what choice have I but to stand in protest with the victims of persistent prejudice–in Ferguson and my own home?