Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Baltimore Is a Symptom of Racism in America

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Isaiah 1.18-20

Before we go to Baltimore, let’s begin with some background.

Most people are not self-consciously or intentionally racist.

That is good news and bad news at the same time. It is good news because at least there is some understanding that we ought not to be racists. We know that racism is wrong.

An extension of this good news is that there are now people of color in every profession and at every level of government and business leadership. This was not true fifty years ago. This is progress and we should celebrate it.

The bad news is that most people do not seem to understand that in spite of the progress, racism persists. And in part because of the progress we have made, the issue is more difficult to address.

Unconscious racism is more difficult to address than conscious and intentional racism. It is very difficult to convince someone to stop doing what he or she does not believe they are doing in the first place. We are in a bizarre and strange place where the person who points out an instance of racism is labeled a “racist” for “playing the race card.”

Personal racism is still a problem, but institutional and structural racism are much greater problems.

Last week Jon Stewart did an amusing and interesting piece comparing the Atlanta educators sent to jail over a cheating scandal to the numerous Wall Street traders whose cheating drove the world off a fiscal cliff and who largely escaped unscathed. What struck me, as I looked at the news clips he used to tell the story, was that all five of the administrators pictured were black.

Further research revealed that there were actually eleven educators convicted, and yes, still 100% black. The judge was white. So the black educators, whose cheating netted them thousands of dollars in performance bonuses will go to jail and the white Wall Street traders, whose cheating earned them millions of dollars in bonuses and who caused trillions of dollars of damage to the world economy went free.

Make no mistake. The educators in Atlanta violated the trust of the community and of the children they were supposed to be teaching. But would they be going to jail if they were white? Statistics on incarceration tell us that black people are more likely to go to jail than white people, for the same crime. They are likely to get longer sentences, for the same crime.

Last week Alexandra Zayas and Kameel Stanley wrote a story for The Tampa Bay Times about traffic tickets issued to bicyclists. In the past three years, Tampa police have issued over 2,500 tickets to cyclists. That’s more than the number of tickets issued to cyclists in St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Miami—combined.

But the most interesting and disturbing part of the story is that 80% of the tickets issued to cyclists in Tampa are issued to blacks, who make up only 25% of the population in the city.

This didn’t happen by accident. Zayas and Stanley found that it was intentional. “Officers use these minor violations as an excuse to stop, question and search almost anyone on wheels. The department doesn't just condone these stops, it encourages them, pushing officers who patrol high-crime neighborhoods to do as many as possible.”

They describe the case of a 56 year old man “who rode his bike through a stop sign while pulling a lawnmower. Police handcuffed him while verifying he had, indeed, borrowed the mower from a friend.” They tell of a woman walking her bike home after cooking for an elderly neighbor. She said she was balancing a plate of fish and grits in one hand when an officer flagged her down and issued her a $51 ticket for not having a light. With late fees, it has since ballooned to $90. She doesn't have the money to pay.” And then there was the 54 year old man who had his bike impounded because he was not carrying a receipt to prove that he owned it.

Which brings us to Baltimore.

No sane person would condone the violence. We cannot condone the violence perpetrated by the police against Mr. Gray. And we cannot condone the violence of the demonstrators.

But we will never be able to address these issues until we address the root problems of racism in America. First, we need to acknowledge that it is real and that it is pervasive. Only then will we be able to come together to look for solutions and for common ground.

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