Ferguson: US as divided about race and justice as it was decades ago

Recent events in Missouri show black mistrust of police and courts runs deep

A protester in Philadelphia during a march on Tuesday after  the decision to not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown. Photograph: Katherine Taylor/The New York Times

A protester in Philadelphia during a march on Tuesday after the decision to not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown. Photograph: Katherine Taylor/The New York Times

 

Paul McLemore, the first African-American to become a New Jersey state trooper, was on the streets of Newark in 1967 when riots triggered by a police beating of a black taxi driver left 26 dead. He spent decades as a civil rights lawyer and years as a municipal judge in Trenton. His wife and children have gone on to enjoy accomplished careers.

“Of course, there’s been a lot of progress” since Newark’s days of rage, he said in an interview on Tuesday. But asked whether a young black man today could find the justice that was believed to be absent in Newark 47 years ago, his response was starkly different.

“No, period,” he said. “There’s pervasive racism – white racism.”

For whites and blacks alike, that duality may be the takeaway from a grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a young black man: much has changed and nothing has changed. A nation with an African-American president and a nascent, if struggling, black middle class remains as deeply divided about the justice system as it was decades ago.

Disagreed

Washington PostRodney King

“What’s striking is just how constant these attitudes have been,” said Carroll Doherty, the director of political research for the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington. In Pew polls, black mistrust of the police and courts is far more pervasive than it is toward other institutions.

However, a Pew poll taken earlier this year suggests that African-Americans under age 40 – the demographic that made up most of the people who took to the streets in Ferguson in August – are much less likely than their elders to believe that racism is the main force blocking blacks’ advancement.

That whites and blacks disagree so deeply on the justice system, even as some other racial gulfs show signs of closing, is perhaps not as odd as it seems. Decades of changing laws and court decisions mean the two races now work together, play sports together, attend school together. But they frequently go home to separate worlds where attitudes and experiences toward the police and courts not only are not shared, but not even understood across the racial divide.

At the end of 2013, 3 per cent of all black males were imprisoned, compared with 0.5 per cent of whites. In 2011, one in 15 African-American children had a parent in prison, compared with one in 111 white children. Patricia J Williams, a Columbia University law professor, said the war on drugs disproportionately affected blacks – in California in 2011, a black man was 11 times more likely than a white to be jailed for a marijuana felony – and three-strikes laws kept many in jail.

Beyond such disparities, “it’s the little things, like stop-and-frisk, like racial profiling and million-dollar block demarcations” – law-enforcement tactics that saturate a high-crime area with police officers – that reinforce blacks’ negative attitudes toward the justice system, she said.

Both sides

“I grew up with a lot of economic privilege,” he said, “and still because of my race and my age and my gender, I’m still in certain situations perceived as a threat. When I walk down the street, they don’t see my Sat score [a standardised test used for college admissions in the US] , they see a black man.

“I don’t believe most white people are malicious. I think most white people are oblivious. And I think that there’s a lot of work to do.”

Some blacks take a different view. Brian Willingham, a church pastor and black police officer in Flint, Michigan, said he was conflicted by the grand jury’s decision, but concluded it was correct. “I now realise that we who consider ourselves leaders in the black community can’t just be against racism. We have to also be against a portion of black culture that has become increasingly anti-authority and anti-social to a point of self-destruction. This is an enemy we’ve yet to engage in the black community,” he said. “But it’s a conversation I think we’re forced to have now.”

Blacks and whites who are friends found the case a delicate topic. In Atlanta on Tuesday, Nneka Ekechukwu (23), a South Carolina native of Nigerian descent, was having lunch with Denise Henderson (45), her white friend and co-worker. The two discussed the Ferguson case and the racial minefield it epitomises, tiptoeing through some elements so as not to cause offence.

Ms Henderson, who grew up in a heavily white part of Oklahoma, said she was concerned that the prosecutor in the Missouri case had brought too much of his own perspective to bear in bringing the evidence of the Brown shooting before the grand jury.

“I do think that so much of it was wrong,” she said. “But I do think it was wrong for Michael Brown to be fighting with a police officer.” Then she looked at her black friend. “But I feel like my saying that, I don’t know, is that an affront to you?”

Rankle

When she heard the recent news that a 12-year-old Cleveland boy had been shot by an officer while wielding a toy gun, Ms Ekechukwu said, “My first question was, ‘Is he black?’” He was.

– (New York Times service)

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