We’re all caught in the floodlights of Ferguson, Missouri, still reeling from the death of Michael Brown and the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the man who shot him. We seem to be seeing American society down to every fragile, moving part.
There were signs this summer, from the chief of police and the top highway cop, that the signs in might point to progress. But in the end Brown’s family and their supporters were met by a prosecutor, with deep ties to the police, playing defense on live television, and a president preaching restraint to a world that didn’t, and doesn’t, seem to be listening.
Since then we’ve watched a new outbreak of anger around the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police and the non-indictment, too, of the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death on Staten Island this summer.
In all this it was the comedian Chris Rock who broke through, in interview with Frank Rich in New York magazine:
When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before… To say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress…
There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.
It’s about white people adjusting to a new reality?
Owning their actions. Not even their actions. The actions of your dad. Yeah, it’s unfair that you can get judged by something you didn’t do, but it’s also unfair that you can inherit money that you didn’t work for.
So if the story began in Ferguson, its roots in racism and its structures are national and historical. Michael Brown embodies a generation of young black men who are living poorer lives, nearer to violence and crime, with an exaggerated danger of wrongful death by cop, “wasted“, in many ways, by the country they call home.
The protests carry on and for now, as the protestors say, Ferguson is everywhere — not just in the news, but in our institutions, our interactions, and our ideas. We know Ferguson when we see it: another killing, another lost life, another city inflamed. But what does justice look like, and when will we — all of us — be satisfied?
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The Divide by the Numbers
In the so-called “age of colorblindness” there are still ways to detect racial bias everywhere nationally — the American division into what the Kerner Commission called “two societies… separate and unequal” almost 50 years ago.
One is visceral, visual and individual: to watch the videos that have surfaced of, for example, the killing of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice by police, and to wonder whether race might have played a role in the killings. But another is analytical — to look at the experience of black people nationwide in terms of encounters with police and the justice system, and within the American economy.
The current ratio of the black unemployment rate to the white one, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — meaning that where the white unemployment rate hits 4.8%, among black Americans it’s 9.7%. (This number has been startlingly consistent since 1970, never dropping below 1.75.)
Number of Americans killed by police in 2013, according to the FBI’s annual tally.
That number including cases reported by police departments but not included in the final FBI tally. (It’s very difficult to know how many people are killed police each year.)
The number of police homicides reported in the UK in 2013.
Percentage of the U.S. population that is ‘black or African-American alone’, according to the Census Bureau.
Percentage of victims of arrest-related homicides by police, between 2003 and 2009, who were black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
20 to 30%
Percentage by which white Americans were found to overestimate the amount of overall crime that is committed by people of color (in a 2010 study).
1 in 3
Ratio of black men who end up imprisoned at some point over their lifetime, according to a 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics report.