With the dash-cam video of Sandra Bland being forcibly removed out of her car, simply because she refused to put out a cigarette, some context is needed in regards to similar tragedies spanning from Rodney King and Trayvon Martin to Eric Garner and John Crawford. While police brutality affects people of all races and backgrounds in the U.S., it's important to note that black citizens face a unique experience within America's criminal justice system, just as they've faced a unique state of affairs for centuries in the United States.
As Harvard professor Jennfer L. Hochschild points out in The Skin Color Paradox and The American Racial Order, "racial minorities with dark skin in the United States have been disproportionately disadvantaged for centuries" and "with some exceptions, most Americans prefer lighter to darker skin aesthetically, normatively, and culturally."
Therefore, considering that Darren Wilson was previously employed by a police department disbanded because of racial tensions, or that the City of Ferguson targeted black citizens as a form of generating revenue, or that Baltimore police routinely broke the bones of suspects on wild wagon rides, or that Sandra Bland was a women in a car smoking a cigarette, Professor Hochschild's findings aren't conjecture, they're rooted in fact. When an officer is videotaped shooting a black man in the back and then planting evidence, or beating a black women on the side of the freeway, or when Cleveland police shoot 137 rounds into the car of an unarmed black couple, Congress should view these tragedies as part of a national epidemic.
Race undoubtedly plays a role in America's criminal justice system, as well as our politics and society, and both left and right are complicit. Just look at the way Sean Hannity berates Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton on Fox while glorifying a Nevada rancher, or how Hillary Clinton's 3 A.M. ad resorted to racially charged optics (one Harvard sociologist believes the commercial had a "racist sub-message") as a means of winning an election against Barrack Obama in 2008. In addition to inherent racism ingrained in many aspects of American society, the targeting of black citizens is also tied to a frightening economic component.
As reported by The Huffington Post, the Department of Justice found that officers in Ferguson targeted black citizens as a means to generate revenue for the city:
DOJ's civil rights investigation into the Ferguson criminal justice system found that authorities have routinely violated the rights of black citizens and have used tickets to generate revenue for the city.
Many police officers "appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson's predominately African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue," in part due to city policies, according to the report...
When the DOJ finds that "authorities have routinely violated the rights of black citizens" in order to raise money, just imagine for a moment if the phrase were reversed.
What if the DOJ found that authorities routinely "violated the rights" of white citizens to generate revenue? How would the Tea Party react to this kind of DOJ finding?
The Huffington Post also reported that in a frightening bit of irony, Ferguson officials blamed black citizens for their own fate (citing "personal responsibility" as the cause of disproportionate interactions with law enforcement), while these same Ferguson officials were "cutting favors for friends." In addition, the DOJ found that "many other municipalities in the state of Missouri, in fact in the country at large," were engaged in the practice of targeting black citizens as a means of generating revenue.
The reality is that the U.S. has many Fergusons.
Combined with a national prison system that is fueled by profit, viewing black citizens as just another form of tax revenue is one of the many reasons Congress should address the unique situation faced by African-Americans in 2015. While the Tea Party will protest any increase in income tax, and Democrats like Bill Clinton will pass a crime bill that "made the problem worse," who in the country is wondering why cities have decided to view their black citizens as a means to generate more money?
Aggressive law enforcement tactics might indeed affect everyone (including white citizens, Latinos and every other group in the country), but since African-Americans face the highest poverty rate in the U.S., the endemic poverty they face combined with a history of racial prejudice makes them especially vulnerable to brutality. While Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore shed light onto how prisoners are transported to jails, The Lost Angeles Times writes that "rough rides" have been a method of retribution used in cities throughout the nation:
In Baltimore and other cities, huge settlements have been paid to people who were put in handcuffs, then battered during what they say were intentionally wild trips, with fast turns and sudden stops that had them bouncing off metal walls and benches...
There are no federal regulations governing the safety of prisoners in transport, according to a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, who said "those are policy decisions made by individual law enforcement agencies and private companies that transport prisoners" based on state laws.
When there are "no federal regulations governing the safety of prisoners in transport," no federal regulations governing the streams of revenue that cities and municipalities derive from targeting black citizens, and no federal regulations ensuring an officer can't pull a black woman from her car simply for smoking a cigarette, then America needs Congress to address the crisis faced by African-Americans.
Finally, the belief that black citizens are more violent than other groups is flawed. As Sally Kohn points out in a CNN article titled The danger society doesn't talk about, there's a myth in America that blacks commit the most crimes, and this myth emboldens a narrative defending brutality:
Whites account for 69 percent of those arrested for crimes. And yet although blacks and Latinos comprise a total of 30 percent of the population, they account for 58 percent of the prison population. Black men are six times more likely than white men to be incarcerated. And according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, since 9/11 more Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by white right-wing radicals than by Islamic jihadists.
So, to simply claim that blacks commit the most crimes and as a result deserve the most attention from law enforcement, completely ignores the reality of crime and punishment in the U.S.
Therefore, Congress must address the fact that blacks face a unique experience with law enforcement. Passing a bill to protect the 45 million African-American and black citizens of the United States from being the next Sandra Bland or Eric Garner should be part of our national dialogue. Federal laws protecting black citizens from aggressive policing should also address the fact that 27.4 percent of African-Americans and a startling 45 percent of black children under 6 years old live in poverty. History shows that poverty breeds a greater interaction with America's criminal justice system.
While I'm a huge supporter of police (I have several friends who are LAPD officers) and believe that most law enforcement officials are honorable men and women risking their lives on a daily basis, America must come to the realization that black citizens are being brutalized in a unique manner. As in all professions, there are the Darren Wilsons of the world, and it's these individuals who ruin the good name of tens of thousands of hard working and courageous police officers. Unfortunately, when an officer body slams a black teenage girl to the ground at a pool party, it's apparent that some cops simply forget their training in the heat of a tense situation, and view complete control, not honoring a person's civil rights, as the ultimate objective.
History has shown that these incidents happen more often to African-Americans, especially when some people say, "Well, if she only just complied and put out her cigarette..."
Sadly, the name of this Congressional bill protecting black citizens from aggressive law enforcement tactics could be the Sandra Bland Act, or the Eric Garner Act, or any number of names correlating to black victims of brutality in this day and age. No other ethnic group in the U.S. was enslaved for hundreds of years, no other group faced Jim Crow, and today, no other group is in greater need of such sweeping legislation. It's time for Congress to specifically address the issue of systemic brutality, in the name of public safety, against America's black citizens.