Police shootings and violence against African American citizens have put a lot of eyes on the discussion about racism in the U.S. The murders of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, in the hands of police officers, have gone viral on social media and have sparked a sense of public outrage. The Black Lives Matter movement, the violent and unjustifiable reaction of the lone gunman in Dallas, and the increased sense of racial tension show that race and racism are still a major problem in the United States that needs to be analyzed and addressed. In a country where laws such as the Civil Rights Act were supposed to open a new era of equality, it has become painfully obvious that implementing a fair society is still an unfinished task.
In his speech after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s murders, President Obama explicitly recognized that these shooting are “symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system” and mentioned some numbers that show how in the U.S. criminal justice system, the color of your skin does matter, and it matters a lot. According to the studies cited by Obama, blacks have a 30% higher chance than whites of being pulled over by the police. Once they’re pulled over, African Americans and Latinos are three times more likely to be searched. Black Americans have twice the chance of being shot by police, and twice the chance of being arrested than white Americans. In fact, even though black and Latino Americans represent no more than 30% of the U.S. population, they constitute more than half of the incarcerated population.
Is this because African Americans commit more crimes? It doesn’t seem so. More than half of the incarcerations in the U.S. are for drug offenses and 59% of incarcerated drug offenders in state prisons are black. However, African Americans represent only 12% of the drug user population. In fact, even though black and white people use marijuana at the same rates, a black person is 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person. And even though 5 times as many white individuals are using drugs in general as African Americans, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of white people. Furthermore, police shootings of African Americans do not seem to be a response to the presence of guns or the violence of the suspect. According to Mapping Police Violence only 31% of black people killed by the police in 2015 were allegedly armed and violent. In fact, in 2015 unarmed black people were killed at 5 times the rate of unarmed whites.
The racial disparity this data shows says a lot about how African Americans are seen and treated by the system. Sadly, it may be argued that there has not been a significant change since Jim Crow laws. As Michelle Alexander states in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,“Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.”
The perception of African Americans as criminals leads to higher probability of being incarcerated, and once people are incarcerated and enter the criminal justice system, they become “second-class citizens”. A formerly incarcerated person cannot get jobs, cannot get food stamps, cannot have access to housing and sometimes cannot even vote. Even though this applies to all incarcerated persons, the fact that the African American population has a higher incarceration rate than the rest of the population increases the likelihood of black people entering into the “second class citizen” category. Hence, without explicitly using race, the system ends up discriminating mainly African Americans in a similar way as Jim Crow laws did. As Alexander puts it, “as a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it”
However, even though mass incarceration and the disparities in the criminal justice system show a big part of the problem, the issue of race and discrimination goes further. As Theodor R. Johnson shows in his Black America study, if the black population of the U.S. were an independent country it would fall way behind the U.S. It would have the 46th GDP per capita, whilst the U.S. has the second. The median wealth per adult would be around $4,955, just over the median wealth of an adult in Palestine, whilst in the United States it is around $44,911. Black-America would have an unemployment rate of 13.8% and poverty rate of 27.4%, while the U.S. has rates of 8.1% and 15.1%; and it would lag 30 places behind the U.S. in terms human development (health, education, financial security). And, of course, if the African American U.S. population were an independent nation-state its incarceration rate would be more than 6 times the current incarceration rate of the U.S., which already is the highest in the world. The overall picture is that, as Johnson states, if Black America were a nation state, it would be a “troubled, fragile state suffering from socioeconomic disparities and structural subjugation in ways that degrade life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
So yes, it’s about race. But the issue goes deeper than police shootings and the racial tensions they have awakened. If we’re going to start talking about race, then we need to start looking at profound structural problems such as the criminal justice system, the war on drug and the social inequities that African Americans face in the United States. The same is true for entrenched and structural racism across the American continent. Admitting that “it’s about race” is a good start, but it’s not enough.
*Helena Durán Crane is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).
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