The tragic shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, has sparked an intense debate about the state of race relations in America, but there's little indication much will change.
Predictably, Barack Obama, the first black president, is at the center of the debate. Should he speak out more forcefully? Should he go to Ferguson? Is this a teaching moment?
This recalls the expectation that his election would magically transform an issue that has plagued the U.S. for hundreds of years. Obama gave eloquent speeches on race. He didn't run as a black candidate; had he done so, he would have lost. In office, he's given more speeches and promoted initiatives on race, but hasn't governed as a black president.
When the facts of the death of the Missouri teenager, Michael Brown, are clarified, the president no doubt will speak out. Nonetheless, as Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard Law School professor and scholar on race issues, notes, Obama already "has spoken enough about race to know where he stands." More important will be what Attorney General Eric Holder and the administration do.
A good measuring stick for racial progress is to start 40 years ago, after the seminal civil rights measures of the 1960s. There have been impressive gains. There are 44 black members of Congress, more than two a half times as many as in 1974; the increase in local officials is more far-reaching. There are seven black chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies; the first was named in 1987. Most significantly, there is a robust black middle class.
There are many discouraging developments, too. Unemployment among black teenagers is 36.8 percent, double that of white teenagers. Some states are rolling back civil rights.
The president today is a polarizing figure, along political and racial lines. Gordon-Reed, the first black winner of a Pulitzer Prize for history, believes that much of the opposition goes beyond normal partisanship and has racial overtones.
More basically, she argues, "the zeal for focusing on injustices to minorities has waned." Few people would disagree with her that "something must be done to fix the dysfunctional relationship between blacks and law enforcement."
This black-white divide was captured by a Pew Research Center survey last week. Blacks were twice as likely as whites to say the shooting raised "important issues about race." In addition, 65 percent of blacks said the police response went too far, compared with 33 percent of whites. Only 18 percent of blacks expressed confidence in the investigation. That sense is reinforced by the events in Ferguson. The town is two-thirds black, yet only three of the 53 police officers are minorities. The department has released information about the shooting only selectively, and police involvement with the community had been minimal.
Yet many police officers, white and black, would condemn that kind of situation. "Ferguson belies what's been happening in policing over the last 20 years," says Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which advises law enforcement officials. Police forces have become more diverse, reflecting the citizens they protect. They work more closely with troubled neighborhoods, stress sensitivity training, and strive to be forthcoming and transparent when there's a problem. From Los Angeles to Cincinnati, Wexler says, there has been pronounced progress in police-community relations.
And Ferguson's black majority bears responsibility for its lack of representation on the police force and in local government. Ian Millhiser, writing on the liberal blog ThinkProgress, notes that in the last municipal elections, only 6 percent of blacks voted. The turnout for whites was 17 percent.
In 2012, however, a majority of Ferguson's black residents turned out for Obama, the same proportion as white voters. The lesson of the Michael Brown tragedy might be that for all the pride accruing from electing a black president, the home front matters as much.
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