When Barack Obama became America’s first black president, optimistic pundits pondered the prospect of a “post-racial” society, color-blind and free of racial prejudice.
That notion was laid to rest by two weeks of racial unrest over the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman in a small town in Missouri.
The incident in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, spotlighted a gulf of fear and mistrust between black and white Americans so wide that it prompted questions on how much progress the United States has made on changing the way black and white Americans see each other in the 50 years since racial segregation officially ended with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Polls taken after police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, 18, with six shots brought the racial divide into sharp focus. In a national survey, 80 percent of black respondents said the shooting raised important questions about race relations, just 44 percent of whites thought so. Similarly, only 18 percent of blacks thought there would be a proper investigation of the shooting. Fifty-two percent of whites did.
In the wake of the shooting, nightly demonstrations by black residents produced television images that shocked many Americans: police looking like soldiers and brandishing assault rifles, clouds of tear gas, looters breaking into stores, police arresting journalists, armored personnel carriers. The most striking image could have come from Gaza or Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War: the dead teenager lying face down in the middle of the street where he fell.
The body was left for more than four hours in the boiling August heat.
The scenes captured worldwide attention. To the embarrassment of the Obama administration, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for restraint, the human rights organization Amnesty International dispatched a team to a U.S. city for the first time, and a commentary by the official Chinese news agency Hsinhua suggested that the United States should focus on solving its own human rights problems rather than pointing fingers at other countries.
African-Americans, who account for 70 percent of Ferguson’s population, saw the shooting as another example of brutality against blacks from a police department made up of 50 white officers and three blacks. Demonstrators called for the arrest and prosecution of the policeman. On the other side of the divide, a support group for Wilson raised more than $300,000 “for any financial need” he and his family may have. Through black eyes, it was murder. Through white eyes, it was self-defense against a dangerous young black. Exactly what happened was still not clear by the time thousands of mourners attended Brown’s funeral Aug. 25.
A gap in black-white perceptions is not unique to Ferguson. “In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” Obama said in a television interview. “In too many communities, too many young men of color are ... seen only as objects of fear.” It was not the first time the president mentioned stereotypical fear of young black men as a persistent problem in American race relations.
In 2012 after a white neighborhood watchman killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American, the president related his own experience: “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were in a department store. And that includes me. There are very few African-America men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happened to me.” Obama’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Eric Holder, has spoken of similar experiences as a young man and even when he was a federal prosecutor.
The reason why more black than white Americans are stopped, questioned, frisked and arrested by the police is simple: They commit proportionally more crime than other groups. While African-Americans make up roughly 12 percent of the population, they accounted for 30 percent of arrests for property crimes in 2011 and 38 percent of arrests for violent crimes. If present trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime, according to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group.
To what extent this is a function of the collapse of the traditional black family structure has long been a matter of debate. The statistics on the matter are not: more than 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock, most of them brought up by poverty-stricken single mothers.
In a 2013 report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the Sentencing Project blamed “two distinct criminal justice systems, one for wealthy people and another for poor people and minorities.” The latter, the report said, was influenced by “implicit racial bias,” a social science term for stereotype. “Extensive research has shown ... that the vast majority of Americans of all races implicitly associate black Americans with such adjectives as dangerous, aggressive, violent and criminal.”
To hear Obama tell it, there has been “extraordinary progress” in narrowing America’s racial divide. That is indisputable, up to a point. America has a black president, a black attorney general, black mayors running big cities including Washington and Denver, black police chiefs and black CEOs of several Fortune 500 companies. But black Americans as a group are still at the bottom of the economic and social ladder, just as they were half a century ago.
Bernd Debusmann is a former Reuters world affairs columnist. This article was written exclusively for The Daily Star.