One of the more interesting findings in the aftermath of Ferguson is not that blacks and whites have different views of what happened in Ferguson; after all, it is of little surprise that one poll showed that “62 percent of African-Americans believed Officer Wilson was at fault in the shooting of Mr. Brown, while only 22 percent of whites took that position.”
What is interesting – at least to me – is that most African-Americans believe that there has been a lot of progress on race, but they also believe that there is no way a young black man could find justice.
A New York Times article from last week notes a Pew Research Center poll from earlier this year that found “black mistrust of the police and courts is far more pervasive than it is toward other institutions.” In fact, “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.”
As the Times notes, “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.”
It has to do not only with experience, but also where people live. The two races now “work together, play sports together, attend school together,” but at the same time they go home to separate worlds.
The Times notes, “At the end of 2013, 3 percent of all black males of any age were imprisoned, compared with 0.5 percent of whites. In 2011, one in 15 African-American children had a parent in prison, compared with one in 111 white children.”
They quote Patricia Williams, a Columbia University professor, who argues that the war on drugs has disproportionately affected blacks. For example, “in California in 2011, a black man was 11 times more likely than a white to be jailed for a marijuana felony — and that 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.
As Jann Murray-Garcia writes in her latest column, on the other side of the stress, “This (racial) divide is defined by first a stinging difference in the frequency of racial experience as Americans of black race, and two, a lack of trust because of experiences in well-documented excessive use of (lethal) police force, disproportionate, unwarranted law enforcement contact with people of color, and prosecutorial overcharging.”
She calls this parallel play, borrowing from a concept in early-childhood development of “two very young children playing side by side, but not with one another. The two are deeply engaged in what they are doing, with the other child and his or her concerns being unnoticed, irrelevant, not understood.”
She writes, “In the same way, I am not sure we as adults get each other, in the very real, present importance of race to many African-Americans. How can we occupy the same space and have such decidedly different experiences with the police, with schools, walking in stores, etc.?
“Parallel play. We are still young with one another.”
She speaks of her 14-year-old son, whom she tells, “You’ll be watched more closely because you’re teenagers. You in particular will be first to be suspected because you’re black.”
She adds, “I’m sorry, son. If one of your friends picks up something or otherwise does something stupid, you will likely be more suspect than your friends. Don’t say anything. Call me. I’m staying in town, and I’ll be right there.”
The differential experiences that whites and blacks have with police and the justice system help us to understand why whites and blacks responded very differently to the news in Ferguson.
As I stated on Tuesday, the prevailing belief in the black community, especially for those under the age of 40, is that they do not trust the system to oversee the actions of the police and hold them accountable. While there is no agreement about whether Officer Wilson was justified in his shooting, the absolute lack of faith in the system renders that a moot point.
Barack Obama, putting your partisan hat aside for a moment, is an interesting figure. Last year, in the wake of Trayvon Martin, Barack Obama was able to articulate the frustrations of the African-American community.
The President said, “When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
He would add, “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.”
He continued: “There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”
But what is interesting is that, in another way, the President really doesn’t relate to the African-American community. Well-educated, a lawyer, he believes in the rule of law.
Last week he said, “We are a nation built on the rule of law.”
However, for too many people in this nation we are a nation built on the rule of two different laws – one that governs privilege and one that governs people of color and last night we saw what happens when those two sets of law meet. Without trust, there can be no acceptance of the rule of law.
It is interesting that the President who can relate to blacks on one level – the experience of being racially profiled or viewed with suspicion, which is probably a common experience for all people of color, but cannot relate on the level of distrust of a system that he is now a part of.
A commenter made a lot of the fact that the President has utilized Al Sharpton on issues of race. It is easy to point out the flaws in public figures and the Reverend’s style and rhetoric definitely rub some the wrong way, but at the same time, he can relate to a large segment of the African-American population that even the President cannot reach.
Last year they did a poll of 1002 African-Americans, and the most influential person by far was Rev. Sharpton, at 24 percent. Next was Jesse Jackson at 11. So why would you ignore someone in the civil rights community with that kind of support?
But the bigger point is that the Rev. Sharpton understands that distrust of the police and legal system in a way that Barack Obama simply does not.
Maybe there are simple black and white answers in this world. It would be nice if we had a system where people could get an education and find good jobs and a way out of poverty. A system where fathers stayed with their families, people didn’t use illicit substances to self-medicate, and everyone was responsible for their actions.
Until we live in such a world, we have to work hard to break down the barriers of trust that divide us from each other and undermine the sanctity of our system.
—David M. Greenwald reporting