Agonizingly slow and only in places
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The police dogs in Ferguson never bit a white person.
Not once, in a damning Justice Department investigation of the St. Louis suburb released Wednesday. Two years of police dogs biting African-Americans, who comprised 67 percent of the town but just 11 percent in the police force, part of a jaw-dropping pattern of discrimination that isn’t as unfamiliar as Americans elsewhere might like to pretend it is.
The report details how police used the legal system as a cash machine, socking residents, almost exclusively black, with multiple expensive tickets, including for “manner of walking,” whatever that might be.
Over the period the feds examined, 93 percent of the arrests made in Ferguson were of black people; 95 percent of the jaywalking arrests were of blacks; 95 percent of the people who spent two days in jail were black.
The killing last August of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was the spark that, eventually, illuminated this warped system. People elsewhere wondered — why these days of protest? What’s all the fuss about? A single killing?
Turns out, there was much more than that.
Not that we should be too smug.
Chicago can take some cold comfort at regarding a community whose police practices are even worse than our own. Years of lawsuits have nudged the number of African-Americans in the Chicago Police — about 29 percent — to a figure near the black population of the city — 32 percent. Not that black officers guarantee empathy. Cops aren’t black or white, they’re blue; their loyalty invariably is toward their fellow officers as opposed to the citizens they supposedly protect and defend.
Then there’s Attorney General Eric Holder’s description of Ferguson: “A highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by years of illegal and misguided practices.” Well, that kind of rings a bell, doesn’t it? One reason many Chicagoans so easily swallowed the Guardian’s overblown story on Homan Square was it resonated with past practices.
The real outrage of Ferguson is that it’s still true in much of urban America. If we look in the suburbs around Chicago, we easily see a number of Fergusons or at least potential Fergusons: Blue Island is 30 percent black, with a police force only 5 percent black. Merrillville, Ind. is 44 percent black, with 4 percent on its police force — a 10th of what it should be. And there’s no reason to limit the focus of concern just to blacks: Cicero is 87 percent Hispanic, with a police force only 28 percent Hispanic.
In their defense, they’d argue that they have procedures, tests, and if blacks or Hispanics don’t apply, don’t pass the tests, there’s nothing they can do. Gang-bangers drive around in cars shooting people, thus cops have to pull lots of cars over and see what they find.
But failure to hire minority offices is symptomatic of a culture of exclusion. Too many black kids don’t get enough education to be police officers and, based on their experiences with them, wouldn’t want to become one if they could.
The report is both shocking and nothing new. Incarceration rates for blacks are seven times what they are for whites in the United States. This is in part because of a legal system stacked against them at every phase. Take drug crime. Blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate. But blacks are arrested more, charged more, convicted more, imprisoned more. The cheaper crack cocaine used in the inner city carries far greater penalties than the more expensive, powdered cocaine that white people use in their suburban homes. Blacks are 13 percent of the American population and 40 percent of the prison population.
Whites are always eager to blame this on moral failure, to proclaim racism dead. We have a black president, it’s 2015, time for everyone to be responsible for his or own condition. Some people just pick their parents better, that’s all. If blacks are in jail, well, they’re criminals.
Then shocks like this Justice Department report on Ferguson yank us out of that complacency, showing us how some blacks become criminals: by sitting in their cars. By standing on the street. By merely existing. The criminal justice system grabs them and then won’t let go. They have no high-priced lawyers to skip in and take care of everything.
This report does, or should, remind us that, in some ways, the 13th Amendment ending slavery, whose 150th anniversary we just marked, was merely a change of tactics. Blacks went from being chattel property to being a powerless, rights-less serf class, a century of Jim Crow bondage.
That supposedly stopped in the 1960s, when black people snared their supposed right as citizens to vote, plus the opportunity to sit in buses and use restrooms and other basics of human dignity that white people just assumed.
But it didn’t really end there. We see the right to vote being eroded nationwide. And only a kind of self-admiring white exceptionalism could pretend it ever really ended. We live in a manifestly unfair, racist society. We don’t have to argue; the numbers speak for themselves. Until we recognize it, change will come as it has: agonizingly slow, and only in places.