Living Black in Ferguson before and after the Furor and Continuing Racial Divisions across This Land

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This article appeared on on September 3, 2014.

In the op-ed “Black Town, White Power” by Jeff Smith (The New York Times, Aug. 18), we learn that, since 2010, the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is 67 percent black and 29 percent white.

But “majority-black Ferguson has a virtually all-white power structure: a white mayor; a school board with six white members and one Hispanic; which recently suspended a young black superintendent who then resigned; a City Council with just one black member, and a 6 percent black police force.”

And throughout St. Louis County, “with primarily white police forces that rely disproportionately on traffic citation revenue, blacks are pulled over, cited and arrested in numbers far exceeding their population share, according to a recent report from Missouri’s attorney general.”

“In Ferguson last year, 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests were of black people — despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22 percent versus 34 percent of whites). This worsens inequality, as struggling blacks do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites.”

Moreover, overlooked in the concentration on Ferguson, racial divisions and basic inequality remain common across this country.

With President Obama apparently now being awakened to consequences of national militarization of police — although this has been going on for years within his administration — what prospects are there for a further and deep look by Congress and 2016 presidential candidates at the increasing racial power divisions in this land on many fronts even if there comes to be some meaningful change in militarizing our police?

In view of the hollow nature of Obama’s “leadership” and the continually fractured civil war in Congress, how much meaningful change is there likely to be in either police militarization in this digital age under national executive power — or in advanced Jim Crow across the land?

In “Under Obama, racial hope but no change” (Politico.com, Aug. 24), Edward-Isaac Dovere writes: “Six years ago, Barack Obama’s election was going to usher in a new era of racial understanding.”

He then quotes National Urban League President Marc Morial:

“Things got somewhat better because the country felt proud of itself for electing him. But I certainly think they’re worse than they were on Jan. 20, 2009. There was a sense that the country had turned a corner. I think today there may be a sense that the progress has been a proverbial step forward and two steps back.”

Aside from whether police militarization significantly decreases, Dovere continues, “The economic divide, accentuated by the recession, has only widened the racial divide — the number of African-Americans who lost their own houses during the mortgage crisis, among other factors, appears to have done more to shape where race relations stand than having the first African-American in the White House.”

Moreover, “in 1950, the workforce participation among young black men was 65.2 percent. In 2012, it was 35.7 percent.

“That’s not helped by many neighborhoods — Ferguson included — remaining either (largely) white or black, with little interaction between them.”

And where the sources of power are clearly mostly one-sided.

Also quoted in the Politico column is Tom Perez, labor secretary and former Justice Department head of the Civil Rights Division:

“There are so many communities where you still have persistent patterns of segregation. It leads to a lack of understanding and that is unfortunate and that can have ill consequences.”

Lack of understanding often results from those in power not giving a damn for those without.

How many 2016 presidential candidates are likely to say anything about this extensive racial segregation? During his three (!) terms as New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who prided in calling himself “the education mayor,” never once publicly mentioned the extent to which New York City’s public schools are largely racially segregated. I noted that often in my Village Voice column, but not a word from the billionaire mayor to this day.

Moreover, the Rutherford Institute’s John Whitehead in “The Final Nail in the Coffin: The Death of Freedom in our Schools” (Aug. 26) underlines again (affecting many but not exclusively black students), “Zero tolerance policies, which punish all offenses severely, no matter how minor (conditioning) young people to steer clear of doing anything that might be considered out of line, whether it’s pointing their fingers like a gun, drawing on their desks or chewing their gum too loudly.”

And, of course, in the schools, there are “metal detectors, surveillance cameras, militarized police … random searches, senseless arrests, jail time, the list goes on.” We are indeed experiencing a police state — but not entirely. We still have a First Amendment that can be aimed at our government, and we still vote. Also, as Whitehead says, “parents with kids returning to school” should say something, and, as Americans, do something!

As Justice William Brennan often told me: “Our framers knew liberty is a fragile thing, so don’t give up!”

Obama proudly brags: “I have a pen!” so he can do what he wants by executive order. You also have a pen (or however you vote, not only for the presidency, but for Congress and state and local offices). If you haven’t already given up, take this country back from your government and begin to bring it together in real life.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.

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