WASHINGTON – The killing by a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, of a Black young man, 18-year-old Michael Brown, triggered a (predictable) chain reaction that once again exposed the ugly truth of an America still torn by racial tensions.
Jumping to conclusion
The Black community in Ferguson and across America, even without the benefit of any real, conclusive evidence, immediately labelled this tragic death as yet another example of police brutality consciously aimed at Black people.
Yes, Black people are targeted. Yes, innocent Black people are harassed, stopped in the street and subjected to all sorts of humiliations by White policemen only because of the color of their skin. And some get killed by the police, for no reason.
White America hates Blacks
And here is the conclusion: “White America hates Blacks; and it uses police forces as attack dogs who act viciously under the bogus pretense of conducting law enforcement operations.”
The sad fact is that, no matter what will come out of the ongoing investigation on what really happened that day in Ferguson, Black America made up its mind, “This tragedy proves what we already know. Blacks are the victims of police brutality. Period”.
Let’s step back
Of course this is the proverbial oversimplification. There is some truth here; but only some. Let’s step back for a minute and let’s look at the broader context.
The sad fact is that a disproportionately large percentage of young Black are in fact criminals –and therefore targeted by the police. And why are there so many criminals? Because most young Black people are marginalized, or semi-marginalized.
No education, no good options
And they are marginalized because, for a variety of reasons, they are unable to fit into a mainstream that includes getting a decent education, and then applying for and obtaining a decent job.
It is a well-known fact that most young Blacks get below average education in below average public schools. Some do not even get that. They drop out. And, at that point, with essentially zero qualifications, the choices available to them are really unattractive.
With little or no education, there is no chance whatsoever to be able to compete for a good job in a US labor market that has become ultra-competitive.
Therefore here is the restricted universe of available opportunities:
A) the prospect of a life of under employment, getting low-paying menial jobs here and there; or
There is money in criminal activities
For many crime may look much more attractive because there can be money, lots of easy money coming with it. And so many Black people get into the drug trade. In so doing they get into a world of gangs, violence, lots of killings, turf wars, and more.
And, as a result of these dynamics, with some reason, we get to the stereotype held by many Whites: “Most young Blacks are criminals. This being the case, police forces have reason to be particularly aggressive when pursuing Black suspects.”
And here we see how get to the circular argument:
–Whites believe that most Blacks are criminals, and therefore they should be pursued, arrested and convicted.
–Black communities, and this would naturally include peaceful, law-abiding people, see most police activities in their neighborhoods as willful persecution. (Indeed, if you are a law-abiding Black but you are stopped, questioned, harassed or worse by the police, merely because the fact of being Black makes you a suspect, it is natural that you will feel persecuted.)
Police brutality in Ferguson
And here we understand how Black communities in Ferguson and across America immediately reached the conclusion that, if an unarmed Black teenager got killed by a White policeman, the only possible explanation is that the policeman is a trigger happy racist who used a pretext to kill an innocent Black boy.
The police would say instead that policing Black neighborhoods is an extremely dangerous endeavor, because there are too many armed and violent criminals in these areas. Therefore “tough law enforcement” is totally justified.
But we know that this “toughness” can easily be construed as “willful brutality”, in many instances with cause.
So, here we are. Blacks believe that the police are out to get them. Whites believe that most young Blacks are dangerous, and therefore they welcome aggressive police actions aimed at them.
As you can see, we are in a real mess in which both sides have a good argument. This makes finding common ground a close to impossible challenge.
How do we break the cycle?
But reasonable people –Black and White– would probably agree that if young Black people could stay in the mainstream, get a good education, and then a good job, much of this now gigantic problem of Black crime-tough policing-perceptions of brutality-protests would disappear.
Black marginalization, whatever its causes, leads to Black crime. Black crime, very often violent crime, leads to harsh policing in Black neighborhoods.
And this leads to Black perceptions of intentional police brutality. Mostly White police forces are maliciously targeting all Blacks, including peaceful, law-abiding citizens, without any cause.
Therefore when Michael Brown in Ferguson, or any other seemingly innocent Black person elsewhere, gets killed by a White police officer, the instinctive reaction is: “Here we go again. They just want to kill all of us”.
Getting young Blacks to stay in the mainstream
But if most young Blacks would stay in the mainstream, get good degrees and good jobs, Black crime would decline, and with that all perceptions and exaggerations whereby “most young Blacks are criminals” would gradually fade away.
Having said that, I fully recognize that the hard part going forward is in devising smart policies and incentives that will stop and reverse Black marginalization.
However, I am sure that any constructive policy has to start with making a good education truly available to all Black children, even those living in the really tough neighborhoods.
In fact, these are the children who need it the most. If poor children do not get a good education, then –by definition– the way forward becomes extremely difficult.