Responding to the decision by a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of un-armed African-American teenager Michael Brown, President Obama spoke to both the anger and frustration that has manifested in Ferguson and around the country, as well as a larger American context, saying, “there are still problems and communities of color aren't just making these problems up.”
Despite the conservative media narrative that racism against minorities is a thing of the past, race, racism, and inherent biases on all sides are a part of what's happening in Ferguson and communities across America -- as are systemic and institutional factors spanning several generations, from the Watts riots in 1965 to the riots in various cities in 1967 and '68, to Los Angeles in 1992. While an inciting incident -- usually involving the police and communities of color -- sparked the violence, a tinderbox of underlying frustrations awaited that spark.
After each of these incidents, reports issued by government commissions seeking answers cited hauntingly identical findings. Police brutality, poor relations between the police and the community, a sense of hopelessness fueled by a lack of jobs, economic inequality, inadequate schools, discriminatory housing practices, an unresponsive political system many felt shut out of, along with policies that created segregated neighborhoods which further isolate communities of color were highlighted again and again. Again and again the recommendations included expanding community policing strategies and social programs, making them more consistent with the extent of the problems.
Not surprisingly, similar frustrations have been expressed in Ferguson and from activists in other cities. One Ferguson man told the New York Times that the killing of Brown “broke the camel's back,” He added that “the people in North County [the northern part of St. Louis County] -- not just African Americans, some of the white people too -- they are tired of the police harassment.” While violence is an unacceptable response to the underlying frustrations, understanding the deeper issues play a role in preventing it in the future and moving forward.
Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King eloquently put these issues into context, providing insight into why the shooting of an unarmed young black man by a white police officer can be such a potent catalyst.
It reminds many of the way in which authority is exercised, especially in communities where the central relationship between blacks and whites is the police.
In places like Ferguson, police represent white authority. Authority empowered to enter the community backed by the extralegal support of white sentiment. Authority whose word is taken against the word of an accused African American. Authority that not only arrests, but punishes, too.
Too much of the media coverage hasn't examined these larger issues about the sources of anger, frustration, and why history continues to repeat.
Conservative media has been working overtime to deny their very existence, dismissing their relevance by accusing anyone who raises them as making trouble, “race-baiting”, or being a “race hustler”. As usual, a core message in the narrative is that it's all Obama's fault.
Accusing Obama of labeling the initial shooting in Ferguson as a “race-bait incident” or “deeply racial,” editor-at-large for Breitbart News Ben Shapiro suggested that the administration has, “a vested agenda in the continuation of the belief that is so prominent in the black community, unfortunately, that law enforcement and the justice system are wildly biased against black folks.”
According to Rush Limbaugh, the media is also to blame for “perpetuat[ing] myths” in Ferguson because what happened is “not common, it does not happen all the time, and yet this story is being covered and treated by everybody involved as though it goes on so much that we've had our fill of it... the only problem is it isn't happening; it is irregular when this happens. It does not happen.”
All of which is directly contradicted by the facts. An FBI report found that between 2005 and 2012, a white officer used deadly force against a black person almost two times every week. Of those who were killed, nearly one in five were under the age of 21, as compared to 8.7 percent of white people under 21 who were killed. An examination of FBI data from 2010 and 2012 found that black males between the ages of 15 and 19 are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than whites of the same age.
The “black on black” crime meme, and the erroneous accusation that Obama and other black leaders are ignoring that problem, is equally divisive. An attempt to distract from conversations about relations between the police and communities of color, the meme creates a false choice between these issues, insidiously re-framing them as “black” issues, not American issues.
To bolster their argument, surrogates like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani use various statistics out of context, saying on NBC's Meet the Press, “Ninety-three percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We're talking about the exception here.”
But there is more to the story -- the percent of white victims killed by white Americans is similarly high, 84 percent. That's because those statistics are largely driven by two realities: most murders are committed by someone who knows the victim, and American society remains racially segregated.
As Obama noted at the end of his remarks about the Ferguson decision, “these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down. What we need to do is understand them and figure out how do we make more progress. And that can be done.”
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