Racism has been a continuing problem in America, from the days of slavery to today. One result of this continued treatment of most blacks as second class citizens, is continued resentment which occasionally boils over into a confrontation – whether it’s one angry black man raging at a white man or a group of angry blacks joining together to protest, loot, trash, or otherwise attack property in the neighborhood.
In turn, 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, which lasted 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.
Whites haven’t been too concerned about black-on-black crime, including murder, as long as it didn’t spill over into their communities. Police became viewed as the first line of defense to keep whites safe from black crime. Yet the mostly white police had to deal with this crime, 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 often discriminatory or led to discriminatory consequences.
A prime example is when a police officer is quick to suspect an African-American man who happened to be within a few blocks of where a crime occurred. So the black man becomes a prime suspect whether he closely fits the description of the suspect or not. He was black, too, wasn’t he, and the witness could easily have been mistaken, or so the police officer’s thinking might go. So the innocent black man is soon arrested, and once in the system, he is often misidentified as the perpetrator of the crime and within a few months, convicted of a crime he didn’t do. And another key reason for this miscarriage of justice is by having less job opportunities and living in the inner city, he doesn’t have the money to get bail or hire a good defense lawyer. Then the system too readily gobbles him up and he joins the disproportionately black prison population, and his only real crime, so to speak, is being “black in America,” where he is more likely to be poor, unemployed, and living in an inner city in an enviroment where drugs, crime, and despair can be found on most city streets everyday.
Periodically, the situation where blacks were continually disadvantaged boiled over into race riots, such as in the sixties. 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.
Thus, racial tension has continued to be a problem in this country. Witness the events of the past couple of years including the shooting by the cops of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina; the death of Freddie Gray in a police van in Baltimore, Maryland, and most recently the killings of Philando Castille in St. Paul, Minnesota and Alton Steele in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which finally led to the ambush shooting of cops by Micah Johnson in Dallas, Texas. After a while, the names of the victims and the killers blend together and may be forgotten, with just the city names as monuments to the days of rage and destruction.
For the most part the killings have been done by cops, though recently more and more cops are being killed. While there may be many factors at play in causing these killings, a continuing theme is the feelings of anger and fear of the other. The police suspect the black man as up to no good and are more prone to shoot first rather than considering any alternatives, while some angry and alienated black men have been influenced by feelings of injustice to strike back in what is often a certain death following their act.
But even though these are killings by individuals and, it would be a big mistake to attribute the actions of a few rogue police or blacks to police or blacks generally, there is no denying that racial tension contributes to the impetus for killings. And currently, that tension has come to a head in the face-off between cops and African-Americans, whether individual cops and blacks are fighting each other or African-American protesters are sharing their anger with the world. Plus now a growing movement to support the cops – Blue Lives Matter – has emerged from the ashes of the recent cop killing in Dallas. The media often are complicit in tensions, because they contribute to whipping up attention to conflicts. But so are whites who are content to let the situation fester as long as it doesn’t directly affect them. Or they go for simple solutions, such as seeking a crackdown based on the slogan: “Let’s not get soft on crime!” But they don’t realize that the situation is complex, and a crackdown by itself will only provoke more resistance and fiercer battles.
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. The numbers are truly appalling. According to data from the U.S. Department of Prisons, FBI, Pew Research, and other sources, about 2 million Americans are in federal, state, and county prisons and jails around the country, and the racial disparities are striking. Black men are six times more likely than white men to be in prison, while Hispanic men are 2.4 times more likely to be there. Moreover, 1 out of 31 Americans are under U.S. corrections custody either through parole, probation, or incarceration, and one in three Americans have a criminal record.
But we need to do something, before the racial divide becomes even greater. A comprehensive plan for criminal justice reform is one place to start, and that’s what I call for in my 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.
However, not just lawmakers 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. Instead of pointing fingers to lay blame on the other side for what they allegedly did wrong, individuals on both sides of the issue or the aisle need to listen to one another more, whereby 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 public will to address the root causes of this racial tension. A key part of this solution is to 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 way the criminal justice system works. The police and blacks are certainly aware of how it usually operates, but they are often intimidated and scared when they confront each other in any situation, such as when a police officer stops a car for a traffic violation. What may seem routine when a police officer stops a white driver, whether for a broken tail light, lack of registration, improperly changing lanes or speeding, is fraught with the potential for violence when an officer stops a black driver. While the police officer may be fearing the driver may have a gun and reach for it to retaliate, the black driver is already thinking about the other black drivers shot by the police and worried if he might be next if he makes the slightest wrong move. So a simple stop is anything but that.
Whites who don’t encounter the system have to educate themselves about how the system really operates on others who are affected by it everyday, especially in the inner city. Whites have to realize the kind of monstrosity this system has become for inner city residents and recognize their own role in creating this system which may operate well for them but has disastrous consequences for others. We all need to realize what is going on before anyone can hope to reform or fix the system with a goal of ending the division and the fear it brings. So now it’s time to start before the monster of a system we have created gets any worse!