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Let’s have a real conversation about race in the United States

JOHN A. POWELL | 12/28/2014, 5:05 p.m.
After thousands recently took to the streets in protest and outrage following a Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict ...
john a. powell is director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

(NNPA) – After thousands recently took to the streets in protest and outrage following a Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict a White police officer for fatally shooting an unarmed Black teenager, we are faced with the reality that a New York grand jury – tasked with determining whether to hold a White police officer accountable for placing an illegal chokehold on an unarmed Black man – reached the same decision: No indictment.

We are faced with the reality of a recent study of federally collected data that found that our young Black males are at 21 times greater risk of being shot dead by police than their White counterparts.

We are faced with our system’s criminalization of poverty, anemic political participation, geographically segregated neighborhoods, unprecedented levels of economic and wealth inequality, and a heavily militarized police force entrusted with public safety over communities who are met with not only brutality, but with a justice system that is indifferent, neglectful and even hostile in bringing justice for abuses suffered.

While these realities have forced much of this country into a conversation about race, is the conversation sufficient?

If we are having a real conversation then it must examine this country’s deep racial anxiety that is stoked by strategic political manipulation and fear of rapidly changing demographics, and a rapidly changing world.

It’s important to note that this fear is highly racial in nature. Numerous studies have shown how racial bias – both implicit and explicit – can have deep and lasting effects on Black individuals, especially within the spheres of law enforcement and criminal justice. One study by my friend Jennifer Eberhardt, who was just awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant to continue her groundbreaking work, found that Black defendants who have what are considered stereotypically “Black features” serve up to eight months longer and receive more death sentences than their White counterparts.

As a recent book by Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos cohesively examines, our “deeply divided” country is facing political and economic divisions that threaten to reverse any advancements made during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

More than 50 years after the Kerner Commission issued its report, a serious, bi-partisan effort that examined the underlying issues that gave birth to the movement and unrest of that era, we are still living in a deeply unequal society. No leader today has suggested anything as comprehensive as the commission, and in today’s polarized political environment, a politically-led constructive look at the current state of our society is extremely unlikely.

Brown and Garner are but two names in a long list of Black men and women who have perished at the hands of police. These are not personal issues or isolated incidents: They are tragic reflections of a deeply broken system.

And this long list of people have not just been failed by individual police officers, their situations are emblematic of a systemic failure at all levels.

But, as some have suggested, is the system actually broken? Or, is it working just as it is designed? Whether intentional or not, as currently structured our systems are dehumanizing and containing the racial “other.”