The shooting of yet another young unarmed black man, this time in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, has ignited a firestorm in the United States over the issue of race, specifically those who are African American. The return of a Grand Jury decision that there was insufficient evidence and too many contradictory witness reports to charge the police officer has only made matters worse. And similarly the Grand Jury’s decision in New York not to prosecute the white officer whose chokehold led to the death of Eric Garner gives the impression that there is one law for whites and another for blacks. Once again the argument is polarized between two sides that put all the blame wholly upon each other. Then there are those like me, who see both angles.
In both cases the victim was not blameless. Brown was wanted as a suspect in a petty robbery and behaved aggressively. Garner was doing something illegal and resisting arrest. None of these warrants taking a life. Clearly something is wrong with police tactics. But the juries focused on whether there was malign intent to kill and decided, as in the case of Trayvon Martin (who was not killed by a police officer), that there was not.
Regardless of what gun supporters claim, the prevalence of guns in American society means they are more likely to be used, and police officers feel more jittery about there being used against them. Almost every day on American streets police officers shoot first and ask questions afterwards. Eventually American society will have to decide what it prefers. It is true that far more black men are shot by police officers than white. But this might reflect the reality of crime statistics on the one hand and that too few blacks who graduate school and get into police forces. The reality is that the overwhelming number of black deaths are caused by other blacks. If demonstrators really believe the issue is black deaths, why are they waving placards saying “Don’t Shoot” at white policemen when they should be waving them at other blacks,spreading the message that black lives are cheap.
Although the crime rate in the USA has dropped significantly in general, specifically in certain big cities, the evidence shows the link between poverty and violent death. If one is raised in certain high crime areas, one is more likely to become a criminal and get killed by same race criminals too. There is a whole substratum of alienated violent young men and women, predominantly black but also Latino, and this was only underlined by the violence, looting, and wanton destruction that accompanied the demonstrations in Ferguson. The question is whether this is about poverty, poor values, poor education, poor parenting, and desperation, or only about race. Gangs of poorly educated unemployed white youths are just as intimidating.
America has improved racially a great deal over the past 50 years. There are black Americans at every level and in every area of American social, economic, and political life. Clearly to rise is possible. Yet much of the black community is still held back.
So what is the problem? The American judicial system is seriously flawed. On one level almost 90% of criminal cases are decided on the basis of plea-bargaining, where often innocent people admit to guilt to avoid the possibility of a much longer prison term. This means that bullying and coercion too often decide a person’s guilt rather than merit.
The legal system has decided that non-violent drug crimes are the biggest threat to society and deserve incarceration. Overwhelmingly, poorer Americans get caught up in this. The result is that 40% of the massive prison population is made up of blacks, even though they only make up 12% of the population. One in three blacks is likely to spend time in jail. Blacks are three times more likely to go to jail for the same offence as a white man. And the three-strike laws in many states mean that for repeated non-violent drug offences a person could spend most of his life in prison.
The result of this is that hundreds of thousands of blacks come out from jail, brutalized and unable to find employment and become responsible citizens. Family life is further eroded – 67% of all black children grow up in single-parent families. This affects education as well as stability. For most young poor blacks, if they cannot become sports stars, entertainers, drug dealers, or petty criminals, they have no way of making a living other than joining the army, which produces its own disastrous after-effects. All this breeds desperation and hopelessness, which in turn increases violence.
Another cause of holding poor people back is the culture of dependency and expectation. Once it was a European disease to rely on welfare. Now in the USA government support is the sinecure that the poor have come to rely on. The massive growth in lotteries and gambling and the huge sums the poor spend proportionally on them also underline the reliance on salvation coming from somewhere else. In addition, a culture of blaming others and failing to take responsibility is reinforced by the culture of litigation. The career agitators, the Al Sharptons are out in force and the lawyers looking for million dollar paydays. Making a noise does not necessarily mean you are helping.
The media is to blame too for encouraging notoriety, instant fame, and excessive rewards for no talent other than self-promotion (usually through violence or pornography). The worse you behave, the better you do.
I also blame the left as much as I excoriate the excessive greed of the right. They love to simplify the enemy, to blame the other and look for any excuse to further their agenda. The proof is that at these current demonstrations one is seeing pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel placards. It is the same pathology. Too many ideologues focus on perpetuating problems by playing the blame game. And then for all their good intentions they end up supporting those who refuse to support themselves peacefully, because the victims are encouraged to look to others to get them out of their mess.
There are grave problems that must be addressed. There is some good news. The school dropout rate amongst the black population has reduced from 21% in 1972 to 9% in 2012. Education is slowly improving if only because there are more alternatives, despite the opposition of the teachers’ unions. There is hope.
Where there are peaceful demonstrations, I believe all caring citizens ought to be joining them. If something is not just or right in the societies we live in, it is our religious and social obligation to protest and work towards a resolution. But we should not perpetuate the problems by indulging and pandering and pretending it is what it is not.