It pains me to admit it, but I see nothing new in the tragic events in Ferguson, nothing new in the protests, which often blended into festivals of destruction, nothing new in the extensive coverage and the calls for our nation to confront racism. It’s an old script, often replayed.
Policeman Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown may have been unwarranted and even criminal. A thorough investigation is needed to see that justice is done. Whatever the outcome of that investigation, we should not turn our eyes from the fact the killing of a black teenager is a daily occurrence in America. They are six times more likely to be killed than young white men. “Young black man dies in gunfire. Mother mourns.” A journalist on the city beat writes these words again and again and again.
Those deaths sometimes trigger protests. Here in New York a black man, Eric Garner, was killed when a policeman put him into a chokehold, leading to a series of protests. But they’re rarely as explosive as those in Ferguson. And even when they are they rarely end up changing much. Perhaps that’s because we’ve all—black and white—decided to accept the fact that the culture of poor blacks is violent, dangerous, and dysfunctional. The best we can do is keep the violence under control with aggressive policing and incarceration.
Which brings us to the second regular feature in this familiar script: the confrontation between the young black male and law enforcement. This also happens everyday throughout America. The police focus on what they perceive to be sources of disorder. And in cities and towns with large black populations, those sources include the young black male. So he’s often in the crosshairs of law enforcement. A white teenager gets out of line and he’s given a relatively gentle swat, or even a pass. A young black? He’s identified as a more serious threat. He’s treated both more carefully and more aggressively.
Thus the mistrust of law enforcement in the black community, something very much on display, not just in Ferguson, but across the country. As head of the Department of Justice, Eric Holder is our chief law enforcer. But as a black man he feels that distrust, because he too has been in the target of the “special attention” police give to young black men. I don’t know of any black friends who haven’t. Many have been pulled over for what they call DWBs, driving while black.
We can formulate policies against racial profiling and exhort police to exercise special sensitivity. We can do a better job training and staffing police forces in places like Ferguson where demographics have changed. But I don’t see any way around the fact that young black males attract the particular concern of law enforcement. And, sadly, that particular concern inevitably leads to the kinds of deadly encounters that enflamed Ferguson and the familiar script.
A population that gets “special attention” from people carrying guns, even people carefully trained scrupulously to uphold the law and guard the rights of all citizens, will end up being shot by them more often than others. That includes being unnecessarily killed by police.
Let me put it a slightly different way. There are bad policemen who take perverse pleasure in hurting others. There are lazy precinct captains who don’t adequately control their men. There are scared policemen who might shoot too soon. There are poorly trained policemen who use bad judgment. There are drunk and high policemen. These realities—all of which good policies can limit, but none eliminate—increase the likelihood that police will do bad things, including kill innocent people. And it’s the law of probability that the segment of the population of “special concern” for law enforcement—young black men—will suffer those wrongs to a disproportionate degree.
Which is again why Ferguson taught us nothing new and why the outcome of investigations into the circumstances of the shooting of Michael Brown, though of utmost importance for the cause of justice, won’t make a difference for our overall views of race, violence, and policing.
We already knew that the police force of a small town is unlikely to be adequately trained to deal with the migration of urban crime outward to poor suburbs. We already knew that predominantly white police forces can’t reliably impose order in poor black communities. We already knew that the young black male gets “special attention” from law enforcement. And although we’re not allowed to say so too blatantly (and perhaps for good reasons), we know that this attention is largely justified.
How do we stop repeating the script? How do we put an end to the fatal encounters, the outrage, and then protests bleeding into the looting and rioting that do a great deal to confirm law enforcement’s focus on the young black male? Juan Williams sees the answer quite clearly. It involves breaking down the reasons why the young black male is the American face of disorder, violence, aggression, and lawlessness.
This requires speaking frankly about marriage and family, the dignity of work, and the nobility of faith. It requires diligent and responsible policing to create space for a civic goodwill and trust in poor black communities, something that’s already there, often in powerful ways, but which can be overwhelmed by crime and violence. It requires confronting the miserable fact that our entertainment industry markets the hyper-sexualized, violent, and foul-mouthed young black male as a trickster to stimulate the transgressive fantasies of white Americans.
I think the script can be changed. It’s already changing. Juan Williams, Eric Holder—and the President of the United States—represent a different trajectory, one followed by many young black males today. Immigration from Africa and the Caribean is fundamentally reshaping what it means to be “African-American.” The time may come—and I hope soon—when the young black male no longer attracts the “special attention” of those committed to upholding our laws.