BY: JOHN A POWELL, Director, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and Professor of Law, African American and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley
Last night, like many across the world who were watching, I experienced deep disappointment in the decision by the St. Louis County grand jury not to indict Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenage boy, on August 9. My thoughts are first with the family of Michael Brown and the community of Ferguson.
It’s important to note that this case has never been about just one police officer. The spotlight on Ferguson has revealed with a renewed, sharper focus a deep divide in our society highlighting persistent systemic inequalities. Even as we awaited the decision in this case there have been too many additions to the killing of young black men and boys at the hand of those who have sworn to protect us. But who will protect the black and brown community from the police?
What we are witnessing is a reflection of a systematic failure in our society that is revealed wherever we are willing to look — schools, health care, employment, housing, life expectancy, poverty, and the list goes on. The problem is persistent, cumulative, and deeply debilitating. The arrest rate or murder rate between African Americans and whites, as evidenced by a recent set of studies, cannot be explained by the “behavior of blacks,” as some will quickly suggest. Nor can it only be explained by explicit racism in the police department or other systems that fail to serve the black community. What we are seeing is the consequence of a systematic failure at every level, and a political response that ranges from hostility to neglect. But many people in Ferguson and around the country of different races and from different perspectives are saying no, and demanding: enough.
The attention to those killed remind us that these deaths are not isolated incidents, but part of a larger pattern. Decades of segregation and inequality in Ferguson, as well as most American metropolitan areas, have fostered a racial inequality exacerbated by the criminalization of not just poverty, but the criminalization of black and brown bodies. Too many whites, including those in uniform — with guns and the authority of the state — are too willing to believe that a black body poses a threat.
As President Obama acknowledged in his address last night following the grand jury announcement, this case highlights the legacy of racial discrimination in this country. More effective training for police officers in de-escalation and working in coordination with communities, especially communities of color, is a necessary step.
But we also have to acknowledge the deep racial anxiety that leads to escalated violence against communities of color. Recent evidence from neuroscience reveals that many Americans, even those who embrace egalitarian norms, harbor unconscious negative associations with black bodies. These anxieties and biases are fed to us by the frequent negative association with blacks — words and images that strengthen these unconscious but impactful associations. It is on account of these pervasive, culturally embedded associations that so many black people in this country are not only viewed with suspicion, but also as criminals, regardless of who they are.