Originally published in Faith Street
I remember having to explain to my then three-year-old why the Taliban shot Malala. It was a difficult conversation because he loves Malala, but it was easy to explain why killing is wrong and that the Taliban is evil. The world condemned the Taliban and, thankfully, Malala survived.
So when my now-five-year-old asked me why “they” killed Eric Garner, and why the cop isn’t going to jail, I felt a lump in my throat. How do you explain that to a five-year-old?
How do you explain that at all?
As a father, a lawyer, and an American of color, I find myself analyzing this issue from multiple directions. The reality is that Americans of color have a different experience than white Americans. Exacerbating this race debate is the amount of misinformation that exists, promulgated by those I’ll call “obstructionists.” I won’t use the “r” word to describe them because — as we’ll see below — open racism is not necessarily the issue.
This list is not exhaustive, but if we expect to move forward as a country, here are five issues about race in America we need to acknowledge.
1. America has a prison problem, and race has a lot to do with it.
America comprises 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. America has imprisoned more people than China — a nation that has four times our population. Moreover, black Americans receive on average 10 percent longer federal sentences than white Americans for the same crimes. White Americans use drugs five times more than black Americans, yet black Americans receive prison sentences for drug offences at ten times the rate of white Americans. (This and much more data on this lopsided reality is available here.)
Unfortunately, a biased criminal justice system perpetuates America’s race issues. We must return to justice and morality in how we deal with Americans and treat all Americans equally irrespective of skin color.
2. America has a police brutality problem, and race has a lot to do with it.
Americans are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. And police kill black teens at 21 times the rate that they kill white teens. With over 400 civilians murdered by police this year, our police force is an anomaly in the world. In fact, the United Nations has now asked the United States to investigate America’s unprecedented cases of police brutality.
The grand jury system also appears to be a mockery when it comes to police. In law school, they teach us that we can “even indict a ham sandwich.” But these days it looks like a ham sandwich is guiltier than the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
The overwhelming majority of our nation’s police serve with honor, compassion, and justice. That doesn’t mean a problem doesn’t exist, and it does us no good to pretend race isn’t a factor. Which brings me to my next point.
3. America has a racism ignorance problem.
A surprising recent Tufts and Harvard study found that white Americans believe they face more discrimination than do black Americans. Perception motivates behavior, and this misperception may help explain why many white Americans appear not to understand why Eric Garner’s murder is more than just an isolated death, but in fact part of a systemic apparatus of racial persecution.
It is worth reflecting on Dr. Martin Luther King’s wisdom: “[T]he Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.” Too many white Americans refuse to acknowledge a problem exists, or are ignorant to it altogether. That ignorance and obstructionism perpetuates our race problems.
4. America embraces the myth of “black-on-black crime.”
You may have heard something along these lines:
- 83% of black Americans killed were killed by black Americans, and this number has been as high as 88% as recently as 2012
- 36% of black Americans killed were women, far higher than other races
- Black Americans kill black Americans 4.6X they kill white Americans
Now here’s the kicker. All the above data is in reverse. In reality:
- 83% of white Americans killed were killed by white Americans, and this number has been as high as 88% as recently as 2012
- 36% of white Americans killed were women, far higher than other races
- White Americans kill white Americans 4.6 time more than they kill black Americans
If black-on-black crime is an epidemic, then so is white-on-white crime and Latino-on-Latino crime. It is a fact and a reflection of our highly segregated society that the majority of murders in America are intra-racial.
Drop this myth. Stop this ridiculous narrative that black Americans are somehow more violent or more destructive than other races. It is a false, baseless, offensive, and destructive notion.
5. America embraces the myth of “black rioting.”
Violent rioting, looting, and chaos are not acceptable. Such actions harm civilians, destroy businesses, and create more hate.
But rioting has nothing to do with race. One Facebook meme during the Ferguson riots wonderfully summed up the response to the ignorant myth that “only” Black Americans riot:
Black Americans experience ongoing frustration and anger at a system that has historically and contemporarily discriminated against people of color. That is a human emotion, not a “black” emotion.
I still don’t know how I’m going to explain Eric Garner’s death to my 5-year-old. But I hope we can appreciate the above five facts and keep an open mind about working together to resolve these race issues. And I hope when our children become parents, they won’t have to worry about having to explain to their kids why police killed a man on the street and walked free.