Let’s face it. Many whites fear blacks. This fear wasn’t much of a worry during slavery, when black subjugation was total. It became more of an issue since, with other forms of subjugation such as lynching lasting another 50 years, followed by a period of intense segregation. Desegregation was never very successful and in fact promoted white flight from the inner cities to the suburbs, leaving the inner cities to become cauldrons of crime involving economically distressed blacks and hispanics.
Police became considered to be the first line of defense to keep whites safe from black crime, and whites haven’t cared too much about black-on-black crime as long as it didn’t spill over into their communities. Yet the mostly white police had to deal with that, risking their lives on the front lines of racial tension, in minority communities where they often weren’t wanted or appreciated because their tactics were frequently discriminatory or led to discriminatory consequences.
Periodically, the situation boiled over into race riots, such as in the sixties or after the Rodney King beating in L.A. This brought more fear to whites,and the criminal justice system responded with more and more severe sentencing, ballooning the prison system and its associated costs. Some attempts at reform have been implemented locally, such as more community involvement by police, but if the police don’t actually live in the neighborhoods they police, it is difficult for them to be accepted by those communities.
Racial tension continues to be a problem in this country. Witness events of the past couple of years including Ferguson, MO, Charleston, SC, Baltimore, MD, and most recently St. Paul, MN, Baton Rouge, LA and Dallas, TX. There appears to be no single contributing cause, and it would be a profound mistake to attribute the actions of a few rogue police or blacks to police or blacks generally, but there is no denying the racial tension that exists, and that the police have been inserted into the middle of it. The media often are complicit because they contribute to whipping up attention to conflicts. But so are whites content to let the situation fester as long as it doesn’t directly affect them (Not in my yard! Let’s not get soft on crime!).
So, what’s the fix? Clearly, just as there’s no single cause, there’s no one single fix. The situation has festered for decades and only gotten worse (just look at the rise of the number of Americans in prison). Our last blog made a number of specific suggestions, but that clearly won’t be enough. A comprehensive plan for criminal justice reform is required, and that’s what’s called for in Paul Brakke’s book American Justice? In these divisive, partisan times, it just could be that this is one issue that conservatives concerned about cost and liberals/progressives concerned about discrimination can finally get together in a long-overdue bipartisan manner to regain some public confidence in Washington, DC. But it’s not just lawmakers that need to get involved. The public has to get involved as well, and push the lawmakers into action.
A national dialogue is called for, where both sides acknowledge their contribution to this sad state of affairs, where they point fingers less and listen to one another more, where they try to understand how difficult things are for those on the other side.
Racial tension is unlikely to go away anytime soon by legislation alone, but we can embark on a path where it can slowly wind down and recede if there is enough will on the part of the public to address the root causes, see things from the perspective or the other side, and then try to reform matters. The first step is to become more aware of the system. Police and blacks are aware of it, but they certainly are uncomfortable with it, if not downright intimidated and scared. Whites who don’t encounter the system have to educate themselves about what sort of monstrosity they have helped create before anyone can hope to reform or fix it. It’s time to start!