Overall, white Americans believe that discrimination against whites (i.e., "reverse racism") is a more prevalent phenomenon than the racial discrimination African Americans face. Most of you reading this post likely find such a belief to be absurd, a myth contradicted by the facts that present themselves to us every day. Nevertheless, a study conducted in 2011 by scholars at Tufts and Harvard found exactly that.
Certainly, many whites reject this myth, but enough buy into it that it has colored how different groups view the push for civil rights and equal treatment for black Americans, issues that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement. Large segments of the white community believing that they've got it worse than blacks stymies the effort to galvanize support for the implementation of long-needed reforms. That's why the Justice Department's investigation of the police department and the municipal court system in Ferguson, Missouri, is so important. There is no way anyone -- anyone with an open mind, that is -- could read this report and continue to deny what confronts African Americans across our country.
The report describes what goes on in Ferguson quite clearly:
Ferguson's law enforcement practices are shaped by the City's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson's police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson's police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson's own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities. Over time, Ferguson's police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the police department, undermining law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular.
Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson's predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue
These disparities occur, at least in part, because Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias.
The data is one part of the story:
And, to explore just one example, was the disproportionate number of stops justified by what the police actually found? Not even close. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explained:
The "focus on revenue" was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue. Black people in Ferguson were twice as likely to be searched during a stop, twice as likely to receive a citation when stopped, and twice as likely to be arrested during the stop, and yet were 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband. Black people were more likely to see a single incident turn into multiple citations. The disparity in outcomes remained "even after regression analysis is used to control for non-race-based variables."
Coates' entire article on the report -- aptly titled "The Gangsters of Ferguson" -- is a must-read.
Beyond the data are the specific people whose lives were turned inside-out by the discriminatory treatment Ferguson's police and courts imposed on them. Although there are too many to recount, two stand out. The first was an African-American woman who parked her car illegally in 2007. Ultimately, after missing a number of court dates, she was arrested on two different occasions, resided in Ferguson's jails for six days, and, to this day, owes the court $541, even after having already paid $550 in fines. For one parking incident.
The second was a black man, age 32, who was sitting in his car when an officer approached and demanded -- without cause -- that he produce identification along with his Social Security number and asked for permission to search the man's car. This citizen cited his constitutional rights and refused to do so. What happened next? As the DOJ report described it, "In response, the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of Ferguson's municipal code." One of the charges was for "Making a False Declaration," issued because the man said that his name was "Mike" rather than "Michael." Another charge was for not wearing a seat belt. In a parked car. "Mike" also faced charges both for having an expired license and for not possessing a license at all. The report further noted that the man was fired from his long-term position as a federal contractor due to these charges, another life damaged by the racist policies carried out by the legal authorities in Ferguson.
Systematic, institutionalized racism and exploitation have been so thoroughly interwoven into every aspect of the justice and law-enforcement systems in Ferguson that one Washington Post article likened it to a "collection agency," and another described it as "racketeering." And as bad as Ferguson is, it's not alone. From Newark to Albuquerque to New Orleans to Cleveland to East Haven, Connecticut, to Missoula County, Montana, the Justice Department has uncovered various forms of systematic discrimination. As for the kinds of abuses perpetrated in Ferguson, there are numerous other cities that are essentially "criminalizing black people to pay the bills."
So what's going to happen? What's going to be the impact? As Shaun King put it so concisely, "Will we have justice?" The Justice Department certainly has the authority to impose change on Ferguson. As important as reforming Ferguson itself is, I'm also wondering about the degree to which this damning, detailed report will influence those across our country who believe that racial discrimination against blacks is a thing of the past. On the one hand, it's easy to be skeptical, given the wealth of information that's already out there.
We have Coates' brilliant essay that -- whether or not one agrees with the idea of reparations -- makes devastatingly clear the financial penalties that legally sanctioned discrimination inflicted up through the 1960s on African Americans who are still alive today, penalties that have negatively impacted the amount of wealth they have accumulated. The black-white wealth gap has remained stubbornly wide, at approximately 10 to 1, over the past 30 years. And in addition to what we know about the continuing impact of past legal discrimination, we can look at, among other examples, the recent study demonstrating that the same résumé received significantly more interest from employers when it bore the name Greg or Emily than when it contained the name Jamal or Lakisha. That study was conducted not in the 1960s but in this century.
I have hope, however, that this report will move some people. All the people? Of course not. But some. Others will reject it, just as they reject anything that doesn't fit into their narrow, preconceived notion of reality. Some will reject it because if Eric Holder and/or Barack Obama say that the sun is shining, well, then it must be pitch-black outside. But some will be moved. How many? How far? I don't know.
We have made real progress in this country. Slavery was legal in 1860. Jim Crow was legal in 1960, as was housing discrimination in both the North and the South. The laws have changed, and that has improved the lives of millions. Yet our progress remains achingly incomplete, as we see in the widespread violations of laws mandating equal treatment for all. In order to get closer to a more perfect union, we need to root out clear violations of the law, and go beyond that by making the kinds of fundamental changes to our institutions that will rectify the injustices carried out in the name of white supremacy. To do so, we will need support from as many Americans as possible. Support can lead to pressure, pressure applied to officials who will need to change if they want to keep their jobs, as well as pressure applied in order to bring in new officials if current officeholders and leaders refuse to change.
Among those who currently do not stand with us in the fight to reform our system of law enforcement and criminal justice, some are motivated by pure hate, but I believe many are influenced more by ignorance and fear. If we can reduce the level of ignorance about exactly what African Americans face, and lessen some of the misplaced fears about white disadvantage being ginned up by media figures and elected officials who -- even this week -- continue to bloviate about various forms of "reverse racism," then we can strengthen our coalition and make our chances of success that much greater. As the report on Ferguson makes clear, our country can no longer continue on in the way we have in the past.