Did you know there were 14 deaths of unarmed black males at the hands of police in 2014 alone? Four of those deaths occurred within 30 days of each other. And these may only be the ones that drew national attention. It is no wonder people zero in on the race question.
With all the research available we know a much higher percentage of black people are killed by police than whites or Hispanics. We are letting ourselves off the hook somewhat if we stick to such a simple explanation as racism. There are just too many other correlating factors.
Consider Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. Sandtown-Winchester is the poorest census tract in Maryland. It is blighted by decayed and vacant housing.
The number of boarded up houses in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood is five times the number in other parts of Baltimore. There are few jobs, and the ones that are available won’t support a family. More than half of all children in Sandtown-Winchester households live in poverty.
Minorities’ financial stability continue to trail white peoples’ income by all measures of economic opportunity and security. The average white family brings home $57,000 per year but the average black family earns only $33,300 per year. The gap in household net worth is even larger.
It is easy to confuse racism with an attitude of disgust for the poor. While consumer confidence among the middle class has grown to an estimated 95 points, people in Sandtown would be relieved to have a decent job and a house not rotting with lead paint.
Now some of the few amenities the community was getting are ruined. In their anger rioters burned out a CVS pharmacy that neighborhood leaders had worked hard to attract. A partially constructed senior center is scorched to the earth, as are several black owned businesses.
In an interview with the New York Times, Robert Wilson, a college student who went to high school in Baltimore, said: “With the riots, we’re not trying to act like animals or thugs. We’re just angry at the surroundings, like this is all that is given to us, and we’re tired of this, like nobody wants to wake up and see broken-down buildings. They take away the community centers, they take away our fathers, and now we have traffic lights that don’t work, we have houses that are crumbling, falling down.”
Sociologists are pointing out the underlying desperation as well. “It’s not so much racism; it’s kind of a perception of being treated unfairly, like second-class citizens,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. Mr. Lynch explained that in poorer communities in Baltimore where crime rates are higher, officers tend to use extreme policing tactics against innocent minority residents in anticipation of potential crime being committed.
A vicious cycle has evolved. The police are on the defensive just because of the neighborhood they are in – and the residents are on the defensive because police assume the worst of anyone who lives there. And round and round we go.
As a society we have to recognize how police officers may have only seconds to judge the level of danger. They are people who risk their lives on our behalf, and it’s only human for them to be on heightened alert in an area where gang activity is overt and violence is frequent.
But police departments and often their city officials must also own the fact they contribute to the fear. They have to monitor themselves, and retrain or even fire the bad cops who make the rest of them look bad. What the public perceives is a lot of effort to excuse or cover up the behavior and not much effort in changing the behavior.
The six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest have been charged with homicide. We can only hope that all of the facts come out and that justice will prevail in this case. We cannot let it stop there. Justice in this case is about much more than whether the police officers acted with such disregard for his life that they caused his death. It is about the circumstances that put him in harm’s way. Those circumstances go far beyond the color of his skin.
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