Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson and Michael Brown are Not the Central Issue

Okay, so the case against Officer Darren Wilson is a whitewash. Prosecutor Robert McCulloch achieved what hardly any grand jury hearing ever produces: No indictment. This was to be expected. The cards were stacked. McCulloch was not impartial. Only in name was he a “prosecutor.” A majority of (local) public opinion was stacked. The jury’s composition was suspect.

Then, too, the FACTS were ambiguous. A video showing huge Michael Brown manhandling a small storekeeper went viral and demonstrated that Brown was no saint. Above all, there is a strong possibility of a scuffle inside Officer Wilson’s car, in which Brown was trying to grab Wilson’s gun...

Anyway, this is not to rehash my incomplete knowledge of the case, but to make the following point:

The Michael Brown case is not the best fight to pick for those of us who deplore the plight of African-Americans. It is symbolic and symptomatic of that plight, but it contains enough ambiguities so as to enable naysayers to argue that “there are two sides to the story.”

The issue goes far beyond Michael Brown - as it goes beyond Trayvon Martin, or 12-year old Tamir Rice just killed in Cleveland for brandishing a toy gun, or any one of many other cases. Since the killing of Michael Brown, cops have killed another 14 teenagers, half of them black.

The issue requires a sociological perspective.

1. American policemen kill over 1,000 citizens every year. In Great Britain the number is 0 or 1, as it is in Germany, Japan, Canada, France and other comparable countries.

Whenever I mention this disgraceful difference to my conservative friends, they reply that comparing the US with such countries is unreasonable because America is uniquely diverse, whereas those other countries are more homogeneous. This excuse is less and less valid, as France, the UK, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and the other Western democracies now house millions of Third World immigrants. You want to see diversity, go visit Paris or London!

So what accounts for this terrible discrepancy? It is not necessarily to be blamed on our police alone: US law enforcement faces a heavily armed population. American cops can always expect the worst, even when performing routine traffic stops. The typical Japanese, French, or Scandinavian cop doesn’t have to fear for his life every time he confronts a citizen. He does not live in a constant state of siege, as does the American peace officer. (Some) American cops may be paranoid, but to them, it is reality.

2. At the same time, racism in the criminal justice system remains part of the problem: The chance of a male black teenager being killed by a policeman is 21 times greater than that of his white counterpart (deadly force).

Blacks, who make up 13% of the US population, constitute nearly half of the country’s prisoners. In other words, the chance of a black man going to prison is seven times greater than that of a white male. In Ferguson, MO, 80% of all traffic stops are of African-Americans.

While blacks do commit a disproportionate share of street crime, this does not explain the enormous share of punishment which they receive.

Social class and poverty predict crime, race does not: If you control for income, the black-white discrepancy in crime rates evaporates.

3. So it gets back to basics. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: It’s inequality, stupid. While African-Americans are highly visible among our superstars in popular culture, in sports and in other endeavors, their vast underclass remains as far behind other Americans as ever - in fact more so than it was in the 1960s. Average black wealth is ONE TENTH of per capita white wealth (net worth, of which one’s house is the main component, for most people).

Throwing the book at a few rogue (or innocent) cops may appease public outrage. However, things will not improve until our society addresses its underlying socio-economic conditions, its deep-seated racial schism, its flawed criminal justice and law enforcement systems, and the out-of-control number of firearms in circulation.

 © Tom Kando 2014

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