Preface: This piece should not be seen as an indictment of America’s police force. A vast majority of police in America try to uphold the values of service to their country. Rather, this piece delves into the intricacies of the system of racial bias that America maintains; it hopes to explore what one of the world’s great powers has failed in, because change is clearly needed.
There is a simple pattern that has arisen since 2013. It starts with a black man, generally unarmed or non-aggressive, who is shot and killed by a police officer. As multimedia evidence of this event emerges on the internet, a responsive uproar begins across the nation. That uproar then physically materializes into protests in major cities. After a certain amount of time, violence ensues, wherein police forces attempt to disperse the crowd, resulting in multiple arrests, beatings, and the occasional loss of life. The cycle has been repeated on numerous occasions, and on September 23, 2016, the people of Charlotte, North Carolina bore witness to this course of events.
Sights from a Black Lives Matter protest in San Francisco, CA, by Erica Joy
That afternoon, Charlotte police officers confronted Keith Lamont Scott at his car after searching for a suspect with an outstanding warrant in the same area — Scott was not that suspect. After initial contact with the police, Scott re-entered his car, where a firearm was visibly present. From there, police officers encircled the car, prompting Scott to exit the vehicle with what police say was a firearm. Other eyewitness accounts say Scott was unarmed upon exiting his vehicle. Following heated verbal confrontation by the police officers, Scott was shot four times. There was no physical confrontation, nor was there any advance made by Scott towards the police.
What ensued was the expected uproar from local community members and social justice activists around the country, with #KeithLamontScott trending on social media as video of the incident surfaced. By 7:00 pm that day, crowds of protesters gathered in the city center, culminating in violent confrontation with the police. The end result: four arrests, several injuries, thousands of dollars’ worth in municipal damages, and one death.
Charlotte’s experience rings true for a multitude of areas across the United States. Ferguson, Baltimore, New York; the list goes on, but the story remains the same. Conservative pundits, like the editors of the National Review, are quick to justify the actions of law enforcement officials by looking at the victim’s background for a “violent history,” and labeling these events as isolated incidents. These officers were in ‘deadly’ situations, where a violent response was ‘necessary’ to ensure the wellbeing of the police present.
While these feelings of danger and imminent death were probably legitimate, did they justify the action? Did those same feelings justify the actions of Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, two police officers who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice? Did they justify the death of Philando Castile, who was killed by Minnesota officers after reaching for his license and registration when pulled over? Though the fears were real, where those fears originated is what is inherently problematic.
What remains is this: the United States has a racial bias problem. It is not limited to these overtly publicized instances of bloodshed by police, but rather, it has been permeating the very lives of a significant portion of America’s population. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black individuals are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana usage than whites even though their consumption rates are identical; a report by the New York Times Economics Review found that black people are charged roughly $700 more than white people when buying cars; a study conducted by the University of Chicago concluded that black-sounding names were 50% less likely to hear back from potential employers, as opposed to their white counterparts, even though the resumes were identical.
Members of the Madison, WI community attend a candlelight vigil in the wake of the Charleston Church Shooting in 2015, by Joe Brusky
The fabric of daily life for non-white people in the United States has thus been impacted in such a way that white individuals will almost always stand three feet higher than their neighbors. This is what happens when a country’s laws and culture are created by and dedicated to only a portion of the population. That is not to say that white people in America cannot experience hardship and trial, and at times be worse off than others of different racial status. Inherently, however, the color of one’s skin determines one’s seat at the cool kids’ table.
When institutions like law enforcement agencies, schools, private businesses, and even courts of law seek to uphold these racial standards of ‘entry,’ we arrive at a problem. Too often are human rights violations narrowly restricted to the likes of underdeveloped, non-Western states that perpetuate blatant atrocities against their inhabitants. Although organizations like Amnesty International have recently recognized police brutality in the United States as a human rights concern, institutionalized racism, the fundamental source of these injustices, has yet to appear on their radars. What is posited here defies that scope and places America in that almost unthinkable category.
The unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that this country was founded on sadly only rings true for a select few. Whether it takes the form of the death of one more non-white person at the hands of law enforcement, or an inability to decide legislation due to systematic deterrents like mandatory ID laws, they all tell the same story.
Now, we come to the final question: what can we do about it? When this problem has extended its tentacles into multiple aspects of daily life, it is hard to come up with an overarching solution. Politicians like Hillary Clinton, Senator Cory Booker, and others have devoted time to providing legislation to reverse the effects of some inherently discriminatory policies, for example gun laws and incarceration laws, et cetera. Yet legislation can only go so far in changing a culture. How do we change the minds of the American population so that innate prejudice ceases to exist? In my eyes, finding an answer to that question can only bring us closer to making America’s mantra of freedom become a universal standard.