The killing of Tamir Rice – another black and white issue

‘If you want to look at inequality in America, look at East St Louis’

Naeshee Rice at  a rally at the Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland, Ohio, this week. Photograph: EPA/DAVID MAXWELL

Naeshee Rice at a rally at the Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland, Ohio, this week. Photograph: EPA/DAVID MAXWELL

 

I can’t imagine what it must feel like right now to be a black person in the United States. It must feel like being hunted.

In Cleveland, footage has been released of a police officer shooting dead a 12-year- old boy, Tamir Rice, mistaking a toy gun the child was messing around with for a real weapon. The kid was black, the cop is white.

It’s nearly four months since an 18-year- old black man, Michael Brown, was shot dead by a police officer in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson. The white officer, Darren Wilson, shot him with a barrage of bullets. Witnesses said Brown had his hands in the air, though the officer denies this. The protests that followed, culminated in a grand jury hearing, with a jury made up of three African-Americans and nine whites, deciding not to indict the police officer.

We know the narrative of a white police officer killing a black youngster in the US. We know the tropes because they are so common; a deeply racist society, a police force armed to the teeth, a tendency for reactions in tense situations to be overreactions with fatal consequences.

The police officer told his “side of the story” on TV. We won’t get to hear Brown’s side, because a white guy killed him.

Terrible poverty

If you want to look at inequality in the US, look at East St Louis, a “city” (if you can so term a place that has dropped to a population of around 30,000) that lies across the Mississippi from St Louis. By way of comparison, the UN lists Honduras as the deadliest country in the world for murder by far, a remarkable 90.4 per 100,000 in 2013. The murder rate in East St Louis in 2007 was 101.9.

East St Louis’s murder rate is 17 times the American national average. Its police force was reduced by a third between 2008 and 2011. The average household income is $21,000 (the national average is $50,000). Half of its population under the age of 18 live below the poverty line. East St Louis is 98 per cent African-American.

Europeans tend to view the US in coastal terms, forgetting about most of the middle and south. There are Third World pockets of the US that are utterly opposite to its projected identity of aspiration and freedom. At their heart is a racial make-up that is impossible to ignore.

A young American woman recently interviewed on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland was asked whether Barack Obama has made a difference to race relations. She made the analogy that just because a woman gets made the chief executive of a company doesn’t mean sexism ends.

America’s war on black people runs parallel with its War on Drugs. Although the difference between crack cocaine and powder cocaine is baking soda, until 2010, the criminal penalties for selling crack as opposed to cocaine were weighted 100:1, meaning a disproportionate number of African-Americans were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, with the penalty ratio shifting from 100:1 to 18:1.

The United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Only 12 per cent of the US population is African-American, yet 40 per cent of its male inmates are African-American.

Last year The Sentencing Project, which promotes reforms in sentencing policy, submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Committee regarding racial disparities in the US criminal justice system. African-Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated after being arrested. “If the current trends continue,” the report said, “one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.”

Keeping the poor poor

Inequality has a habit of catching on, though. The 2011 census found that half of Americans were low income or poorer. That’s 97.3 million people in the “low income” category and 49.1 million below the poverty line. Extreme poverty in the US (living on less than $2 a day) has doubled since 1996.

Black Americans, like all oppressed people, are constantly asked to “rise above” their oppressors, to meet violence with poetry, poverty with wit, racism with tolerance, assault with understanding, imprisonment with dignity, subjugation with strength. Black Americans are asked to reflect on what would Martin Luther King do.

Well, we don’t know what King would do. Because a white guy killed him too.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.