Tags: African American, African Americans, black, Civil Rights, community relations, current-events, discrimination, ethnicity, European Americans, Ferguson, Huffington.com, Michael Brown, Obama and American Bigotry, People of color, Police, Prejudice, race, Sean McElwee, systemic bias, white
When the Michael Brown tragedy occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, many people were dismayed that such a thing could happen. Sometime, it takes a tragedy to bring to the surface other equally discomforting things as well. We hear about people organizing to make things better for the community and especially better police and community relations. Usually, the focus of attention is on the event that just occurred and what caused it. In Ferguson we learned that out of a total of fifty-three policemen, only three or four were African American, when the population percentage of African Americans is around sixty-seven percent. The answer to resolving the police-community relations problem, according to some, is to hire more African Americans on the police force. Unfortunately, that would not solve the problem.
If we want to get to the heart of the problem that contributed to the death of Michael Brown, then hiring more police will not accomplish that objective. The real problem has to do with the treatment of African Americans with respect to fairness and justice. The problems of fairness and justice for African Americans will not be addressed or resolved by adding more African Americans to the police force if the perception, attitude, and behavior of the people in charge of the police do not change.
What incidents like the one in Ferguson shows is that the problem of community relations does not rest with the police force; the problem is systemic. The police behavior is simply one manifestation of the mind-set of the community leaders. The various elected officials from the mayor to the dog-catcher play a part in forming the attitude of the community relative to its citizens. Therefore, when searching for a cause of the problem relative to police behavior towards the African American community, one has to look at who controls the police.
One journalist looking into the community relations in areas near Ferguson discovered a pattern of unjust actions that places undue stress on the African American communities in the St. Louis area. For example, the greatest police-related instances taken from police reports occur in African American communities. The greatest percentage of traffic violations reported occurred in African American communities. The greatest percentage of arrest reported by the police occurred in African American communities. Why? We can not simply look at the police force for an answer.
Taken individually, the statistics seem to suggest that the African Americans are the worst drivers in the area, and they give the police more cause for arrest. However, when looked at collectively, we recognize that the majority of the African Americans stopped for traffic violations are poor, low-wage workers. When stopped by the police, whether they committed a violation or not, they do not usually complain. They do not complain because of the history of negative consequences associated with being African American and uncooperative with the police. The police not only know that African Americans understand this situation, but also depend on it working successfully in issuing tickets. The entire process is part of the system for general income for the community.
Many police departments depend on the poor, powerless communities of people of color to generate money to operate their local government. Usually, the poor do not have the extra money available to pay a large traffic fine. So, in some communities, if one cannot pay, they go to jail. If they go to jail, the family, friends, and often the employers of the jailed person will come up with the money. If not, the person jailed will usually lose his or her job, incur bills that cannot be paid, leave children to the mercy of available family or foster care, and in some instances lose their home and transportation. Why? They get caught in the system because they are powerless and defenseless and therefore, easy prey. The cause of their problems is not the police force; they just follow the instructions of the administrators.
Part of the problems comes from ignorance and prejudice of European Americans towards the African American and people of color in the community. The ignorance and prejudice comes from perception. Sean McElwee, in an article for Huffington.com, “Five Signs We’re Not a ‘Post-Racial’ Society” noted that
“In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, a recent Pew poll finds that 47 percent of whites believe that “race is getting more attention than it deserves,” with regards to the death of Michael Brown, while only 18 percent of African-Americans feel the same. Meanwhile, a similar Pew study found that whites are far less likely to see discrimination in the treatment blacks receive by the education system, the courts and hospitals. Such views are held by many Americans, who believe that “blacks are mostly responsible for their own condition.” Police killings of unarmed blacks are certainly the most visible manifestation of systemic racism, but data show that racism still manifests itself frequently in everyday life.”
The shooting of Michael Brown created an opportunity for all the citizens to see the actual conditions of the community and not rely on rumor and opinions. Armed with the facts of just how much African Americans are treated unjustly and unfairly, the citizens can began to organize themselves into groups that will act to address many of these problems. When concerned people in the community realize the degree to which the poor and people of color are exploited, they should be moved to some level of action.
Change will come to the community, not just Ferguson, when the leaders from the top on down adjust their attitudes and become better informed relative to the people they serve, all the people they serve. Likewise, the poor, and people of color need to realize that they have power through the vote and public protest to make positive changes. However, as McElwee stated: “In America, race determines not just where someone lives and what school he or she attends, it affects the very air we breathe. Although many whites wish to believe we live in a “post-racial” society, race appears not just in overt discrimination but in subtle structural factors.
So, the problems relative to the police and the African American communities are not simply police problems, but problems that involve the entire system of government that devalues and under represents many of its citizens of color. Problem solving, however, must began at the top.