It’s foolish to argue with President Barack Obama’s observation, made during his BET interview about police mistreatment of minorities, that “It’s important to recognize that as painful as these incidents are, we can’t equate what is happening now to what happened 50 years ago.”
“If you talk to your parents, your grandparents,” he continued, “they’ll tell you things are better. Not good, in some cases, but better. The reason it’s important to understand that progress has been made is that it then gives us hope we can make even more progress.”
But all you have to do is read the ugly social-media comments to see that hope tarnished a lot. While his election and re-election show that we’ve made significant improvement in race relations, the openly bigoted vitriol that has defined too much of the reaction to his every move and certainly the substantial imbalance in the authorities’ treatment of whites and people of color show how terribly far we have to go.
It is true that our laws prohibit some of the worst Jim Crow discrimination, but even now, many conservatives have no compunction about trying to turn back the clock — attacking voting rights, for instance.
But setting that aside, study after study confirms that cops treat people of color differently than they do whites. An analysis by the Center for Constitutional Rights submitted during the lawsuit against New York City’s noxious stop-and-frisk policy determined that between 2005 and 2008, 80 percent of the stops involved blacks and Latinos, who total 53 percent of Gotham’s population. Ten percent involved whites, who total 44 percent of the residents.
In Ferguson, Missouri, while blacks made up less than two-thirds of licensed drivers, they amounted to 86 percent of those who were pulled over for traffic violations. Then they were twice as likely to be searched and arrested than whites were.
Obviously, I’ve cited these particular statistics because New York City and Ferguson are the two most infamous recent cases of the killing of unarmed blacks by white officers who were then not indicted. But this is not just about those two injustices. The profiling, with its deadly consequences, is a national problem.
Even more insidious is the cavalier attitude of hard-liners like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who argues that police focus on minorities because “93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks.” That’s what he said on “Meet the Press.” He was citing Bureau of Justice data collected between 1980 and 2008. Of course, he did neglect to mention the 84 percent white-on-white tally.
He’s nowhere near the only one who tries to justify a society in which minority parents in particular have to train their male teenagers how to handle themselves when they can’t steer away from hostile cops. How sad is that?
One bit of encouragement can be found in the renewed focus on this problem. Suddenly we are hearing a torrent of stories from black Americans who were innocents, going about their business in a lawful way, who were nevertheless hassled by cops. Some of them are people of accomplishment, but were treated as if they were something less than people.
We have just been reminded of the torture inflicted by the CIA on detainees captured post-9/11 described as a “stain” on America. That’s probably a good word for the remaining blot of racial prejudice.
Hopefully, the protest rising out of these tragedies won’t wither away, like so many others do once the sense of outrage subsides. We can’t let that happen. We have a long way to go, so it’s high time we get up off our laurels and tackle our lingering inequality. Widespread vestiges of bigotry remain, and no matter what our color, we all have a stake in eradicating it.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.