Evoking the shooting death of Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson, President Barack Obama focused on the intersection of race relations and law enforcement at a Sunday awards dinner hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Fox News reports:
Obama addressed the matter carefully but firmly, saying the young man’s death and the raw emotion that sprang from it had reawakened the country to the fact that “a gulf of mistrust” exists between local residents and law enforcement in too many communities.
“Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement — guilty of walking while black or driving while black, judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and hopelessness,” he said.
He said significant racial disparities remain in the enforcement of law, from drug sentencing to applying the death penalty, and that a majority of Americans think the justice system treats people of different races unequally.
Real leadership on this issue would call for progress on two fronts. First, we should promote objective analysis of these perceived disparities. Far too often, raw statistics are cited as prima facie evidence of institutional bias without regard for case-by-case context or mitigating factors. The Ferguson case stands out as an instance where the community’s prejudice against the police fueled demands for “action” without due process. When we presume that a cop must be a racist, we prove no less prejudicial than when assuming a black man must be a criminal.
The second area where much progress remains to be made is the law itself. We need to take a hard long look at the drug war in particular. Why do we continue to pursue a legal crusade against acts which do not violate individual rights? We have the historical example of alcohol prohibition, which demonstrates the fiscal and cultural folly of criminalizing stupid behavior.
If the laws we commissioned officers to enforce dealt only with violations of rights, that would go a long way toward restoring trust, since all would know that police are there to protect us instead of bust us.
Note: More thoughts on the drug war and racial disparities in law enforcement on the next page.
(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here. 15:00 minutes long; 14.46 MB file size. Right click here to download this show to your hard drive. Subscribe through iTunes or RSS feed.)