Once again, unsurprisingly, justice has proven elusive. The grand jury’s failure to indict police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown is the latest chapter in a tragic saga that began with the death of an unarmed, black teenager at the hands of a white police officer.
America’s past — not some rogue police officer, or racist bogeyman — bears the brunt of the blame for this current state of affairs. Nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago, this country was founded on ideals like equality, freedom and tolerance. Yet, racial bondage rooted in a pernicious presumption of inhumanity and inferiority was the order of the day in 1776. And while slavery is now a very distant memory, its residue — that wrongheaded presumption of inhumanity and inferiority — has cast a long and unyielding shadow that informs the attitudes and behaviors of all people, both consciously and subconsciously. Until we uproot and discard those foundational beliefs, we will remain prisoners of America’s past.
Time and again, that same presumption of inhumanity and inferiority has infected American policy. When people are not seen as human, but rather as “less than,” it becomes very easy to do all manner of things to them. That is what happened to those brutalized or killed by police. That is why, in America, we continue to assign benefits and burdens along the fault line of race.
These lessons are well known in Missouri. St. Louis is the birthplace of Dred Scott v. Sandford, a case in which the United States Supreme Court declared in 1857 that black people were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Ferguson is not immune to the taint of bias. Racial isolation is commonplace in its political structure, educational institutions, employment opportunities, and housing, while stark racial disparities characterize policing.
Sadly, we are witnessing incidents of police violence against black people with increasing frequency these days. Akai Gurley was killed by police in the stairwell of his girlfriend’s public housing residence in Brooklyn. We saw Eric Garner choked to death by a New York City police officer. We witnessed Marlene Pinnock being pummeled by a California Highway Patrol officer. We saw Levar Jones shot by a South Carolina police officer during a traffic stop. And just two days after Michael Brown’s death, Ezell Ford, an unarmed black man, was killed by a Los Angeles police officer.
In many ways, the violence that has come to define the relationship between law enforcement and people of color — and black people in particular — reveals a larger truth about America.
Of course, we have made significant strides in the battle against the belief that race, inhumanity and inferiority are inextricably linked. A Civil War, several constitutional amendments, and a socio-political mass movement for civil and human rights have led to massive changes in the social fabric. Yet, an unarmed, 18-year-old black youth can still be gunned down in the street by the police, seemingly without any repercussions. Merely existing can prove fatal. And therein lies the problem.
Fortunately, we are not without potential solutions. On a national level, transparency, accountability, leadership and training must be employed to address the scourge of police violence. That’s why Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. has urged the United States Department of Justice to prosecute officers who commit crimes and departments who support them, account for police killings and use of excessive force, condition police funding on improved training, and encourage the use of body-worn cameras. In Ferguson, a coalition of community groups and advocates have sought a range of reforms to policing, including civilian oversight and mandatory training of officers.
But any reform efforts must be coupled with a change of culture. That requires that we acknowledge the persistence of false and ugly connections between race and inhumanity, and grapple with them through conscious, collective effort. That means practicing empathy — putting ourselves in the shoes of those who do not look like us or come from our neighborhoods, or towns, or communities. It means making decisions — about policy, law, and governing structures — from the long-ignored perspective of the disfavored. It means working through truth and reconciliation to repair the wounds of our country’s past. It will not be easy. But given all that has happened before and after Michael Brown’s death, it must be done.
Vincent Southerland is senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.