Rajkamal Rao

There’s no easy solution to America’s racial divide

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on June 06, 2020

Structural issues in law and order, along with racial biases that are ingrained in both communities, cannot be resolved overnight

Protesters from all over the world are united in solidarity against police brutality in the US. The trigger for this was the death of George Foyd an African-American, due to choking after being held down by a White police officer in Minneapolis, Derek Chauvin, for over eight minutes.

The assault occurred in broad daylight, at a busy street intersection, as Floyd’s repeated pleas, “I can’t breathe!”, were ignored. Three other police officers did nothing to stop the assault. Floyd’s crime? He allegedly passed a fake $20 note at a convenience store.

While most protests have been peaceful, some have joined the chaos to loot businesses. Many government officials have unfortunately excused this behavior as a legitimate outing of pent-up frustration over systemic injustices that disproportionately hurt American Blacks.

But a release of feelings will not solve the underlying problems of America’s racial divide. Many problems are deeply structural. It will take a complete revamping of the US’ founding roots to address these issues — and such changes won’t come easily.

Systemic problems

Consider a few practical issues which have brought us here. Minneapolis is a liberal city and all police officers, just as other government workers like school teachers and firefighters, are protected by employee unions. Union contracts are so overprotective of employee conduct that it is almost impossible to punish an employee even when their behaviour is egregious.

William Galston of The Wall Street Journal says that there were 18 complaints against Chauvin before the Floyd assault, but no action was taken other than two letters of reprimand. Since 2012, more than 2,600 complaints were filed against Minneapolis police officers — only 12 resulted in disciplinary action. If bad police officers can’t be fired and taken off their patrols, how is the US ever going to solve this problem?

Fighting crime in the country is a local responsibility, so the state of Minnesota will try the officer in a local court of law. The lawyers for the Floyd family are pressing the state to elevate the charge to first-degree murder, where the bar to convict is high because prosecutors have to prove that Chauvin planned Floyd’s death in a premeditated manner and with an intent to kill. What happens when a jury cannot convict Chauvin and he is let free? More riots will ensue, America will be irreparably damaged, and the media narrative will once again indict the criminal justice system.

Everyone agrees that the American criminal justice system is ripe for reform. The NAACP, a 110-year old civil rights organisation for the advancement of Blacks and people of color, says that African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Whites. In 2014, African-Americans constituted 34 per cent of the total 6.8 million people in prisons —— although constitute only 12 per cent of the population.

But dire as these statistics are, the issue is more complicated. America loves guns, and the right to bear arms is protected by the Constitution. Anyone wishing to buy a weapon can stop by at a gun show and acquire it without undergoing a criminal background check or applying for a license. This flexibility is great if only good people buy guns. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Out on the street, police officers are legitimately scared for their lives. Every traffic stop by an officer could be the last stop ever made because the driver could have a loaded weapon. Police officers are therefore granted enormous discretion to use lethal force to defend themselves and those around them.

Prevalence of bias

Racial stigmas that African-Americans are more likely to indulge in violent or criminal behaviour — cultivated and popularised in thousands of Hollywood movies — already have White police officers on high alert when they encounter a Black male. When the suspect doesn’t obey the officer’s orders, or treats him with disrespect, the officer’s antennae are quickly programmed to escalate the reaction. The officer is trained to shoot first and ask questions later, even if the Black male is later found to be innocent and carried no weapon.

The root cause therefore is the enormous distrust that exists between the Whites and Blacks, largely because America is still a highly segregated society and there is little opportunity for the two races to socially mingle. White families don’t live in Black neighborhoods and vice versa. Children attend schools based on their address, so most White children attend majority-white schools, and correspondingly, Blacks attend schools where children of color are in the majority.

Both White and Black biases solidify during formative years of high school. Blacks feel that most Whites continue to enjoy enormous privilege in all aspects of life. Many Whites feel that Blacks are lazy, come from broken families, and are beneficiaries of a welfare state.

When students go to college, in a more open environment that campuses are known for, many biases are shed. But in the US, one only needs a high school education to become a police officer. An 18-year old who is just out of police academy training probably retains all their biases growing up and quickly takes to patrolling the streets.

So, protesters are right to attribute police excesses to systemic problems. Where they are wrong is in hoping for easy solutions. Because, none exist.

The writer is Managing Director, Rao Advisors LLC

Published on June 05, 2020

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