Posted Posted on 2014-11-26
Ferguson: While Race Still Matters
By Imam Zaid Shakir
Note: This essay was first posted in the immediate aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In the aftermath of the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict the officer who killed Brown, a decision I totally expected, I am reposting it with the addition of a paragraph mentioning the police slaying of two Ohio youths, both African Americans, who have been fatally shot by police since Brown’s killing in Ferguson. At the end of the day, until we see all humans as truly equal, gross disparities in law enforcement, as well as in other facets of life in this country, will continue.
In his Time Magazine essay discussing the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Rand Paul focuses on the militarizing of our police. He also mentions the malicious role that race plays in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, a courageous stance for an American politician. Paul, however, misses a critical point. He says that as a youth if he were told by policeman to get out of the street, he would likely have “smarted off” without the expectation of being shot.
The point is that an average young white kid today can still smart off to the police, militarized or not, and not expect to be shot, or even arrested for that matter. For the average black kid, the chance of being shot during an encounter with law enforcement, while not high, is always present, and the chance of getting arrested is astronomical. Thus, race and not the militarizing of the police in America is a more reasonable starting point for tackling the issue of the abuses African Americans face when dealing with the law enforcement and criminal justice systems in this country.
To further develop this point, consider the following. When Oscar Grant was shot, lying face-down and handcuffed on a Bart platform in Oakland, California, the policeman who shot him was not in an armored personnel carrier, nor militarized in any other way. He was on foot. The gang of policemen who rolled up on Amadou Djiallo in New York City, and proceeded to pump 41 bullets into him, were not wearing flak jackets and night vision goggles, they were in plainclothes. The policemen who gathered outside of the elderly Kenneth Chamberlain’s apartment, hurling racial insults at him and demeaning his military service, before finally kicking in his door, “tazing” and then fatally shooting him, were not militarized in any particular way. The policemen who fatally shot two unarmed teenagers, Papo Post, an African American, and Miguel Arroyo, a Puerto Rican, in my hometown, New Britain, Connecticut, did so in the 1970s before militarized police forces were even being discussed.
We can add to this list the fatal police shooting of 22 year-old John Crawford in an Ohio Walmart store while walking with a toy rifle, taken from the shelf of the store, and 12 year-old Tamir Rice, recently slain by police in a Cleveland, Ohio park while in possession of a toy pistol. A full list of such incidents would be exhaustive. There are likely few people in America who seriously believe that these two individuals would have been shot by police if they were doing whatever they were doing had they been white. It is unlikely that anyone would have even called the police in the first place had they not been African American.
While it is indeed true that militarized police forces are on the rise in this country, and the implications of this development for civil liberties are chilling, police shootings of unarmed white citizens are not rising correspondingly. Hence, if we want to meaningfully examine the ongoing incidences of members of minority communities who are being gunned down by law enforcement officers in this country, we must factor the issue of race into the analysis. By so doing, we can see that we are not in a post-racial America, as many claim. Rather, we are in an America where masses of poor black folks are being ushered into jail cells and shot in the streets like dogs in numbers reminiscent of the days of slavery and Jim Crow.
In conclusion, while it is certainly true that there have been incredible gains for African Americans in this country, issues such as the disproportionate searches, arrests and shootings of black youths, which are harsh realities not just in Ferguson, but throughout the nation, point to the deceptive nature of those gains. The country certainly passed a racial milestone when it elected a black President, however, the conversation around race and the ramifications of failed race relations, in law enforcement as well as in other areas of American life, must be ongoing and part of a wider search for solutions that will contribute to ending glaring racial disparities in this country. To avoid the hard conversations related to these issues, and to continue to delay the search for the strategies needed to change the attitudes informing racist behavior is a disservice to all Americans, especially our minority youth.