Glenn Loury revisits three tropes that have characterized much of the thinking surrounding the Michael Brown killing and Ferguson protests. First, he reminds us that a focus on Brown’s character and Darren Wilson’s status as a rogue police officer wrongly individuates a systemic problem.
Second, he suggests that claims for a new civil rights movement are misplaced, in part because the social conditions of the 1950s and ’60s no longer prevail. Observing the election of President Obama as a clear indicator of change, he pronounces Jim Crow “a distant memory.”
Finally, he blames both sides, criticizing, on the one hand, aggressive policing, police racism, and racial disparities in criminal justice; and, on the other, young black men who “participate in so much violent crime.”
The legal and political advances of African Americans are under relentless assault.
Loury has missed the point, I think. As horrific as police killings are, they cannot be our exclusive focus. Far from being the chief cause of racial tensions in the United States, relations between the police and African Americans are simply the best indicator of the deep hostility the state directs at people of color in general and African Americans specifically. Brown’s death, the unpunished killing of John Crawford III in an Ohio Wal-Mart, the strangulation of Eric Garner, the police killing of seven-year-old Aiyana Jones in Detroit, and the inexplicable shooting deaths of Akai Gurley and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice are only the most recent and gruesome markers of the economic, social, and political arrangements that pervasively confine black people to subordinate social positions.
Ferguson, a majority black city with a white police department and power structure, is a good reminder of the minimal political influence afforded people of color. Note also that last year the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act last year. Since then, states and localities, especially in the South and Southwest, have moved to redraw district lines, shorten or eliminate early vote periods, and implement voter ID requirements and other changes designed to undermine the political voice of communities of color.
Law enforcement reflects this disenfranchisement because police represent the control of the state over its citizens at the street-corner level. Nationwide, African Americans are disproportionately stopped, arrested, subjected to the use of force, convicted, imprisoned, and sentenced to longer terms of incarceration than are whites for identical offenses, real or perceived. Felon disenfranchisement—in place in most states, including Missouri—has effectively removed one of every thirteen African Americans from the eligible electorate, creating an indisputable linkage between dubious law enforcement and prosecutorial patterns on the one hand and the racist distribution of political power on the other.
Meanwhile, legislatures across the country have reduced investment in K–12 and higher education, raising tuition costs and barriers to entry. Arizona public schools are required to abolish successful ethnic studies programs and fire teachers with accents. The Texas legislature refuses to comply with court orders to increase and equalize funding across school districts. The Wake County, North Carolina, school system abolishes a hugely successful desegregation plan, as schools nationwide are re-segregating at an accelerating pace.
I could go on. Loury may believe that Jim Crow is a distant memory, but for many Americans that distance stretches only to the last election, their last encounter with the police, the last round of school budget cuts, the last time they were denied a job or home loan on the same terms as a white applicant, the last time they were gerrymandered into electoral irrelevance. The legal and political advances of African Americans, Latinos, and other racial minorities are under relentless assault in electoral politics and undefended by the majority of the Supreme Court.
The confrontation with police killings of African American men and boys provides the ideal moment to revive the civil rights struggle. These painful illustrations of racial inequity, several caught on tape yet brushed aside with ludicrous justifications by malfeasant prosecutors and grand juries, reveal the chilling consequences of our politics and racial belief systems. Rather than trumpet the need for public order in an unnecessary attempt at evenhandedness, let’s focus our attention on political actors, policies, and institutions that work to the detriment of the almost 40 percent of the American population that is not white-European.