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A pattern has emerged—in Oakland, New York, Cleveland, Baltimore, the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, and beyond. Police claiming to feel threatened kill unarmed black men. Protests follow, sometimes including violence. The Department of Justice finds a pattern and practice of racially-biased policing. The city agrees to train officers not to use excessive force, encourage sensitivity, prohibit racial profiling. These reforms are all necessary and important, but ignore an obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.
In racially isolated neighborhoods where jobs are few and transportation to job-rich areas is absent, where poverty rates are high and educational levels are low, where petty misbehavior and more serious crime abound, young men and cops develop the worst expectations of each other, leading to predictable confrontations.
In 1968, following more than 100 urban riots nationwide, almost all in response to police brutality or killing by police, a presidential commission concluded that “[o]ur nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” and that “[s]egregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.” The Kerner Commission added that “[w]hat white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Photo by Robert C. Johnston