12 August 2015
ABC The Drum
The state of emergency called in Ferguson on the anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting is a sobering reminder that structural racism cannot be uprooted within a year, writes
The first anniversary of Michael Brown's death was supposed to be a time of pledging "never again" and moving forward after one of the most turbulent years in race relations in decades. However, the violence on the streets, excessive use of force from the police and the announced state of emergency in Ferguson, Missouri make this feel like a tragic déjà vu and reinforce the manner in which this town has become a synonym for everything that is wrong with race relations in the United States.
The most recent events in Ferguson are yet another sobering reminder that structural racism cannot be uprooted within a year. The centuries long legacy of racial inequality has in recent times been most acutely visible in unequal outcomes for African-Americans in law enforcement and criminal justice system.
What makes the latest round of violence even more tragic is that even after the initial impetus for change from the local to federal government, much has remained the same.
Distrust that African-Americans have towards the police force and justice system cannot be cured overnight for it has been repeatedly shown that the structures are stacked against them. The US Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, which was published earlier this year, clearly showed that the issues were not on the level of an individual; they were systemic.
The findings were damning — the law has been enforced more harshly against African-Americans than any other racial or ethnic group. Moreover, the police practices such as issuing fines, which have asymmetrically targeted the black community, have been found to be an instrument of raising revenue rather than improving public safety.
The injustice has continued at courts, as arrest warrants would be issued if fines were not paid and additional fines were added for missed payments and non-appearances. Finally, and as demonstrated from the recent events, many officers have been found to use excessive force on people who they perceived were disobeying their orders or resisting arrest.
Ferguson is just shorthand for the way in which the police and judiciary are treating the black community in the US. The deaths of other unarmed African-Americans such as Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray are painful examples that Michael Brown's death was all but an exception.
Making matters worse, in a lot of the cases involving police shooting of black individuals, the justice system failed the victims. The officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner faced no charges, while in other cases the charges and verdicts against those who were implicated in the shootings often seemed too lax.
Given the scope and the depth of this issue, finding fast remedies is nearly impossible. Granted, there have been rounds of firings and resignations within local government after some of the most prominent cases of police shootings occurred.
Police officers will soon be required to wear lapel-mounted body cameras that record their interactions with the public and president Barack Obama has not long ago issued a ban that will prevent the federal government from providing certain military equipment to police departments.
Clearly, this is not a strategy to combat the root causes of structural racism within the police and court system, even though it is a start in the right direction. Moreover, judging by the ongoing protests there will need to be much more done to minimise the adversarial nature of the current relationship between the African-American communities and authorities.
The laundry list of needed reforms include those that could take years — extensive training, improved hiring procedures to reflect local communities, and greater oversight; as well as those that could be changed at the stroke of a pen (provided they are genuinely enforced) such as punitive fines structures, arrest warrant practices and rules guiding the use of force.
After six-and-a-half years in the White House, the events in Ferguson are also an opportunity for president Obama to assert his leadership around issues of race. He has been rather bold in working on his legacy in recent months — from the Iran nuclear deal to announcing historic carbon pollution standards. He has also signalled that he is willing "to show his passions a little bit more".
Regardless of Obama's unwillingness to admit that his reluctance to act on race relations was driven by politics, there is still time to use his role as the national agenda-setter and a healer.
This article was originally published at ABC The Drum