Saturday 29 November 2014

Ferguson riots underline 'built-in' racism in US

Disparities between white and black communities remain entrenched
By Jeremy Au Yong, US Bureau Chief In Washington, The Straits Times, 28 Nov 2014

AS PROTESTS in Ferguson in Missouri and many other towns across the United States ease off because of the Thanksgiving holidays, community leaders and minority rights groups are pondering the damage done - not just to shops and cars, but also to already fragile race relations.

While many are calling for changes to the justice system or for the overturning of the grand jury decision not to charge the white police officer who killed the unarmed black teen, some are also shining the spotlight on the perceived unfairness built into US society.

The Centre for Racial Justice Innovation, for instance, refers to structural racism at length in its response to the Ferguson case: "We must relentlessly focus on systemic racism, even while condemning the behaviour of individuals. We cannot ignore the rules, both written and unwritten, that reduce black existence to unfulfilled dreams."

It said: "It is structural racism that allows the vast racial disparities between the police force and the community. It is structural racism that leads to militarised policing of communities of colour."

The structural racism it describes is borne out by a multitude of shocking statistics.

According to 2011 census data, the net worth of an average black household in America is US$6,314 (around S$8,200) - more than US$100,000 short of the figure for an average white household.

Then there is the finding by the National Bureau of Economic Research that job applicants with black-sounding names needed to send out 50 per cent more resumes than those with white-sounding ones. Or the finding that although ethnic groups break traffic laws at similar rates, black drivers are far more likely to get caught.

Perhaps most telling in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson is a recent report by ProPublica. It found that a black teenager is more than 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white teenager is.

There are numerous examples with parallels to the Brown case.

The acquittal of Mr George Zimmerman last year for shooting teenager Trayvon Martin also triggered riots. Last week, a police officer in Cleveland killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was brandishing a toy gun.

Cleveland officials released a video yesterday of the fatal shooting that shows the boy pointing a pellet gun around a park before police arrive and shoot him within two seconds, Reuters reported.

Yet, there is also much to suggest significant progress in race relations. For instance, nearly 90 per cent of Americans now approve of mixed marriages, compared with just 4 per cent 50 years ago.

The point was raised as well by President Barack Obama as he called for calm on Monday: "We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I've witnessed that in my own life, and to deny that progress, I think, is to deny America's capacity for change. But what is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of colour aren't just making these problems up."

His last reference to seemingly imaginary problems points to a particularly difficult challenge in the struggle with race relations. After Mr Obama's landmark election, some began to assume that the battle for equality was over and that the US had entered a post-racial era.

Yet, the Ferguson shooting and riots show that many people cannot even agree on what the problem is.

A Pew Research poll found that while 80 per cent of blacks said the shooting raised racial issues, only 37 per cent of whites did.

Experts agree the black community needs to rehabilitate its image.

Said Professor Carol Swain, an expert in race relations at Vanderbilt University: "Changes will have to come from within the black community. Black people have to begin to take some responsibility for the conditions in their communities that have led to absent fathers and broken homes.

"The black crime rate is a significant part of the problem... Whatever happens in the black community affects all Americans. Consequently, the whole nation has a stake in seeing black people make better choices."

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