Editorial: The kettle screams because of fire below

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BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 29: People participate in a rally for the family of Freddie Gray.

We see people marching in Chicago this week to protest police mistreatment of African-Americans, and we can’t help but notice those who are missing — 45,000 black men.

That, according to a recent New York Times analysis, is the number of African-American men between the ages of 25 and 54 in Chicago who have “disappeared’ from “everyday life” because they are behind bars or died young, often violently.


Police misconduct is a hot issue across the country right now, and understandably so. It seems hardly a week goes by without yet another case of a black man being killed by the police or while in police custody, at times in ways impossible to justify.

But as we survey a troubled landscape, the inescapable reality is that the kettle screams because of a fire below. Police misconduct, inexcusable as it is, is symptomatic of a much bigger problem. Death from a police officer’s bullet is sometimes the final injustice in a chain of injustices and devaluations of black men in American society.

For all the racial progress our nation has made, African-Americans — especially young black men — continue to face daunting odds in getting a decent education, a decent job, a fair shake with the criminal justice system, and simply in being seen as fully equal and valued human beings.

To some readers, we know, that may sound rather dramatic. But we keep returning, in our own thinking, to the shooting of 50-year-old Walter Scott earlier this month in North Charleston, S.C. A video shows that Officer Michael Slager shot Scott eight times as Scott was running away. What was Officer Slager thinking in that moment? What kind of man did he see? Would he have shot eight times had the man been white? We don’t know.

But can any of us, of any color, honestly claim to be free of at least subtle racial biases in our own thinking?

The police, President Barack Obama said Tuesday, often are asked to “do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise” from social ills way above their pay grade — absent fathers, drug abuse, unemployment, bad schools, limited opportunities all around and a grinding sense of hopelessness.

Precisely so. It is all connected. And we had best look at the whole.

Page 13 of Wednesday’s Sun-Times carried the story of Justus Howell, 17, who allegedly was shot twice in the back by a police officer in suburban Zion. The Lake County coroner ruled Howell’s death a homicide. Next to that story, on the same page, was a report about Chicago Police Officer Michael Flisk and former CHA police officer Stephen Peters, who allegedly were killed, execution style, by a young man trying to cover up a burglary.

The first story raised the possibility of police misconduct. The second story reminded us of the terribly dangerous job we ask the police to do.

In a third story, Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy this week announced he will embark on a listening tour of the neighborhoods — something a smart cop can never do enough. In a fourth story, four uniformed Chicago Police officers were shown in a photo playing an impromptu game of touch football with a group of boys in North Lawndale — even better than a listening tour.

In yet another story, the White Sox played the Orioles on Wednesday in an empty ballpark in Baltimore, the city afraid to run the risk of big crowds even for a baseball game, while the Baltimore Police gear up to patrol another night of street demonstrations. Exactly how, the angry protesters in Baltimore demand to know, did 25-year-old Freddie Gray sustain the spinal cord injury while in police custody that ultimately killed him?

And then there was this story: Spike Lee wants to make a movie in Chicago called “Chiraq,” a title civic boosters just hate. Is the problem the title or the truths that give the title credence?

In its story about “missing” African-American men, the New York Times reports that, nationwide, one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.

High imprisonment rates account for about 40 percent of the missing. Almost 1 in 12 black men in this age group are behind bars, compared with 1 in 60 non-black men in this age group. And higher mortality is the other main cause — due to homicide, but also from higher rates of heart disease, respiratory disease and accidents.

The disparities should shame us all, whatever our color. They leave black women with fewer partners of the same race. They leave children without fathers. They lead to higher rates of childbirth outside marriage.

There is a danger in our argument, we know. To point the finger at everybody can be a way to point the finger at nobody in particular. And we can’t let that happen.

We must hold to account the cop who shoots without justification. We must jail every looter and arsonist. We must hunt down every cop killer. We must demand personal responsibility from every absentee father.

But let’s not pretend this has nothing to do with the rest of us.

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