<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Kalet Myth of Post-Racial America


Myth of Post-Racial America

America has not entered a post-racial era, no matter how much we would like to wish it so. In fact, if anything, we remain mired in an era of racial animosity and resentment, with the privileged classes failing to see why African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and others often feel like they live in a different country.

“Post-racial,” a phrase ushered in with the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president, was supposed to indicate that race no longer mattered, that the words of Martin Luther King – that a man should be judged by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin – had finally been made a reality.

And while there have been undeniable improvements over the last 50 years, race continues to suck the air out of our politics and paralyze us. This is the context within which we have to consider the current debate over policing. Race is at the center of this debate – whether it is over stop-and-frisk efforts, over so-called “broken windows” policing, over the strategic targeting of neighborhoods, etc. It’s why polls have consistently shown that minorities – and African-Americans in particular – have significantly less confidence in local police than whites.

An August poll by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that blacks were far more likely than whites to feel that police departments did not treat all races fairly, that they did not hold police officers accountable for misconduct, and that they did a “poor job of using the right amount of force.”

A more recent report from Gallup – issued in December, but based on several years worth of surveys – found that urban blacks “view the police much less positively than whites do” and that they are less confident about being protected from violent crime and more likely to view the justice system as biased. That’s why, when a grand jury in Missouri failed in November to indict the police officer who killed an unarmed man in Ferguson, it elicited such a strong reaction across the country. It was not, as Prosecutor Bob McCullough and the conservative blogosphere said, because the narrative had been corrupted by the press. Yes, the reality of what happened that August night in Ferguson appears more complicated than was first presented, but the underlying racial dynamics remained the same and it seems clear – especially from a remove of two months – that the grand jury process in Missouri was rigged. This played into the feeling – see the polling numbers I referenced above – that police do not police themselves well and that blacks are less likely to get justice from the system.

Then, less than two weeks later, a grand jury in Staten Island failed to indict an officer in the chokehold death of an unarmed man accused of selling loose cigarettes on the street, a death that was caught on video tape. The protests intensified, the police in New York pushed back and – as tensions rose – a mentally unstable man assassinated two New York police officers. Now the narrative is shifting to one of lefty mayor versus the police – allowing the main force of the original critique to be pushed to the back burner in a media more interested in conflict than reform.

But the issue — the loss of confidence by minority communities in the police – is not going away. My composition students – mostly black and Latino – wanted to discuss the Ferguson non-indictment during class. We had been focusing on race and identity, reading poetry by Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic magazine piece, “The Case for Reparations.” My students – most of whom were working adults — identified with Michael Brown, the teen killed in Ferguson. They were used to being stopped for “driving while black” or Latino and followed in retail stores by security. They believed they had the same opportunities as whites, but only if they worked harder than their white counterparts.

This is not unlike what New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio said after the Garner announcement – remarks that caused an overreaction on the part of police and the mayor’s conservative critics. DeBlasio said he and his wife have had to tell his African-American son that, “because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face — we’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.”

That’s a scary thing – to know that, because of the color of one’s skin, as Tomasky points out, “black men are killed by police at 21 times the rate white men are,” he writes. This is what we need to talk about: How to change the relationship between minority communities and police, how to change the way many officers look at blacks and Latinos. This is not an indictment of all police officers or all departments. It is a recognition of human nature and the lingering systemic racism that undergirds so much of our political apparatus. It’s been nearly 52 years since Martin Luther King looked toward that moment when the content of one’s character would be more important than skin color, when the nation finally made good on the promissory note offering blacks “the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” Things may have gotten better, but there remains a long way to go.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email grassroots@comcast.net

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2015


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