Incensed by Injustice

Yes, this is a post about racial inequality; no, it is not really about Mike Brown. But first, some recommended reading. Nikolas Kristof of the New York Times has a few brief editorials that everyone who wants to weigh in on this topic should bear in mind. The first is titled “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?”. The next is a series titled “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” (part 2, part 3, part 4).

I’m going to throw my log on the fire here. I am becoming increasingly exasperated with the inability of people to understand things — and especially political things — in anything but the starkest terms. There’s an alarming tendency for white people to adopt a “blame the victim” mentality that bears a striking resemblance to the way paternalistic men treat female rape victims. In the same way that men do not understand that for women, every man is a potential rapist, white people don’t understand that for black people — and especially, young black men — every white cop is a potential killer. And this disconnect is growing, because not only do white people not have to live that reality, but racial segregation is actually getting worse. As Kristof pointed out in one of his columns, the average white person has one black friend out of a network of 100 friends. And yet (as he also pointed out), whites nevertheless feel confident making presumptions about the state of racial equality in America.

Here’s a list I compiled to send to my mother last night; despite being liberal, I’ve caught her watching Bill O’Reilly and railing against the protestors in Ferguson. So, let’s get the facts out there:

  • White households, on average, possess 22 times as much wealth as black ones. (Source) The median net worth for whites was $110,729, versus $4,995 for blacks, in 2010. This is a larger divide than that between whites and blacks in South Africa under apartheid. (Source)
  • Incomes for blacks are just 59.7% of those of whites. (Source) In 1967, blacks made 55.3% as much as whites.
  • Blacks are 31% more likely to be pulled over while driving. Blacks and Hispanics are nearly three times as likely to be searched when pulled over. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to be given no reason for being pulled over. (Source)
  • Blacks are, on average, twice as likely to be arrested and four times as likely to be dealt with violently by the police. One in 3 black men are imprisoned in their lifetime. (Source) In Ferguson, blacks are three times as likely to be arrested as whites, a rate that is surpassed by nearly 1600 other police departments nationwide. (Source)
  • Though they’re 30% of the population, non-whites make up 60% of the prison population. (Source)
  • Though drug use is almost identical across racial populations, one in three of the 25.4 million Americans arrested on drug offenses between 1980 and 2007 was black. (Source)
  • Police forces are not representative of the racial make-ups of their communities; in hundreds of departments nationwide, the percentage gap is 30 points or more. In Ferguson, 67% of residents are black, but just 11% of police officers are. (Source)
  • “Between 1968 and 2011, black people were between two to eight times more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than whites. Annually, over those 40 years, a black person was on average 4.2 times as likely to get shot and killed by a cop than a white person.” (Source)
  • Between 2010 and 2012, black teenagers were 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police as whites. Black males age 15 to 19 were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, in contrast to 1.47 white males per million in the same age range. (Source)

So, now, let’s talk about Mike Brown.

First off, the fact that this was not allowed to go to trial is absurd. All the Grand Jury was required to do was determine whether the situation was contentious enough that charges could reasonably be pressed against Darren Wilson. Anyone with an internet connection and a bookmark to Wikipedia can tell you that there was certainly sufficient conflicting testimony to cast doubt over what exactly occurred — and that is why this should have gone to trial. Trials are public, and they’re that way for a reason. Instead, this Grand Jury was convened by a prosecutor who has a rep for being cozy with the police and who refused point-blank to step aside for a special prosecutor. Normally, a prosecutor will conduct an investigation and then present evidence to a Grand Jury with a recommendation about whether charges should be pressed; in this case, McCulloch left the investigation to the Grand Jury, and instead devoted his time to ranting about the meddling of the media (how dare our justice system be transparent!) and defending the accused, even though it would have been his job to prosecute that man. The fact that there is a video recording of someone reacting with the words, “he had his fucking hands up” (source), which was also corroborated by multiple witnesses, indisputably casts doubt on Wilson’s testimony. That on its own should have been enough to send the case to trial.

But whatever. He would have been acquitted at trial anyway because the Supreme Court has made the burden of proof so overwhelming that it’s basically impossible to hold law enforcement accountable for their recklessness.

I’m going to bleed a bit into Comment Commentary here and cite an example of a typical “non-emotional” perspective that is common, found on this New York Times page:

This account doesn’t mention that prior to this point, Brown had a) physically attacked Wilson without warning through his open window, pinning Wilson in his patrol car, repeatedly punching Wilson; b) because he was defending himself with his left hand while seated in the driver seat, Wilson couldn’t get his asp (an extendable nightstick) or mace, so was left was his gun; c) when he pulled his gun, instead of backing up Brown grabbed for the gun, forcing it to point at Wilson. When Wilson finally recovered control, raised his gun and shot twice (missing Brown both times) Brown finally broke off his attack and started running away. But then he stopped and turned to charge Wilson, repeatedly not stopping despite shouted orders to stop and missed shots.

Consider for a moment an attacker has been shot at 4-5 times and continues to carve toward an armed police officer, in uniform. Someone 6’5″, 289 lbs (see autopsy report). At this point Wilson shouldn’t be in fear for his life? Seriously?

Witness testimony corroborates all of these facts. The most credible witness (per the grand jury report) was an African-American with not connection to either party. He describes the same “puffing up” by Brown as Wilson, but describes it as the way a football player straightens up before charging down the field.

It’s a terrible tragedy – but Brown would probably be alive today if he hadn’t initiated an attack on a police officer sitting in his vehicle.

It’s amazing how many people know that Mike Brown was 6’4″ and 289 lbs, but nobody seems to know that Darren Wilson is 6’4″ and 210 lbs — not exactly some scrawny guy at an insurmountably physical disadvantage that only a handgun could overcome.

Anyway, given the bullet list I provided above, I don’t think Mike Brown’s actions were really that irrational. For a black teenager who must’ve been aware of his own size, and certainly aware that he’d just shoplifted, about the only way to be sure a cop isn’t going to shoot you dead is to take his gun away. It’s interesting that the commenter above ignores the morphology of Wilson’s story, and the initial claim that he had a “ruptured eye socket” and other grievous injuries. Anyone who has seen the photos of Wilson from the day of the killing knows that he was full of shit — his face looks flushed, with maybe a bruise forming. If he was really in fear for his life, why did he immediately get out of his car to pursue? Mike Brown was running away, having already been shot once; why did Wilson not then grab his pepper spray or night stick? He wasn’t being “restrained” anymore, and yet he continued to use his gun.

I think that is the key point in the case.

But those facts are largely irrelevant. The truth is that the case of Michael Brown is just facilitating a boiling over of anger at innumerable injustices. The individual case is not that remarkable or singularly egregious (unlike the case of Eric Garner, which is despicable). Police brutality and an utterly broken justice system are very real problems, and they slant disproportionately against minorities. When whites see protests against racial injustices they seem to feel that they are being personally indicted as overtly racist, or that they should feel guilty for some historical grievances. They become defensive and reactionary. It is nauseatingly similar to the way some Muslims react to criticisms of their faith, wherein normally disparate subgroups band together in feeling collectively offended. But overt racism is not really the issue. As Kristof put it:

…an uncomfortable starting point is to understand that racial stereotyping remains ubiquitous, and that the challenge is not a small number of twisted white supremacists but something infinitely more subtle and complex: People who believe in equality but who act in ways that perpetuate bias and inequality.

Nobody is perfect. It’s important that we accept the possibility of our own unconscious bias, accept that our institutions are intrinsically unfair, accept that our society has failed to fully integrate, accept that we are not ensuring the best future possible for all children regardless of race or socioeconomic status. Inequality between whites and blacks has a lot to do with inequality between the rich and poor in general. Middle class whites lash out at the idea of things like affirmative action because they’re already being squeezed, and they don’t want to be squeezed even harder for what they see as “reverse” discrimination. I think that’s understandable. But if we grant that, we need to grant that minorities are at a disadvantage from the start.

But what we must not do is divide ourselves along racial lines. As the middle class and the poor — white and black alike — fight over who is being discriminated against, the wealthy are gobbling up ever-increasing volumes of wealth… and depriving us all in the process. Racial tension does nothing but strengthen the status quo.

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