The recent shootings of black men Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott have left many throwing their hands up with desperation, asking themselves ‘why does this keep happening?’ But for everyone who is outraged, there are plenty more who express either apathy or outright hostility towards the idea that racial bias is still a problem within U.S. law enforcement. It should come as no surprise then that the national dialogue about racial bias has achieved little over the past few years. It’s incredibly hard to discuss an issue when many Americans don’t even view it as one, or at the very least don’t view it as pervasive. The larger question is, why do so many Americans, specifically white Americans, think this way? By and large, it comes down to two factors: racial self-segregation and views on criminality.
I’d like to make clear that plenty of white Americans are indeed aware of the systemic problem of racial bias in the justice system. However, as someone who grew up in a largely homogenous, white suburb, I’ve heard my share of shocking opinions regarding police shootings of black people. ‘They deserved it,’ ‘that’s what happens when you engage in criminal activity,’ and ‘the police just made a mistake’ are just a few examples. The ‘they deserved it’ line is perhaps the most disgusting, yet I’ve heard it more times than I can count. This cold, dismissive attitude can be at least partially attributed the racial segregation that still occurs in the United States to this day. While mandatory segregation was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, voluntary racial segregation is still extremely common.
Segregation in schools is actually slightly more pervasive now, than it was in 1968, only four years after the law passed. This trend is mirrored by the makeup of many American neighborhoods. White people generally live in majority white neighborhoods, while black people live in majority black neighborhoods. Finding more diverse communities can be a bit of a task. A survey in 2013 found that an average white person’s social network was composed mostly other white people, nearly 91%. What this ultimately does is limit understanding between different racial groups. When nearly all the people you interact with are the same race, it makes it easier to carelessly brush off the experiences of people who are different than you as something merely a product of their ‘culture’ or as an anomaly.
Views of criminality also play a large role in white perceptions of police shootings of black people. Since some victims of police shootings were doing illegal things, many people jump on the ‘law and order’ bandwagon, declaring that anyone who does something illegal should know that they are putting themselves at risk for a lethal interaction with police. Such a view could not be more wrong. It implies that all acts that warrant police interaction makes someone liable to be harmed, including small things like going over the speed limit or not using your turn signal. Only someone who is putting a law enforcement officer’s life in danger should expect to receive a lethal response. Yet today, all across America, people of color are subject to a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mentality that, while certainly not held by all police, is far too pervasive within law enforcement.
Anyone who says that racial bias and discrimination isn’t still a major problem in the United States needs to take a hard look at the facts. Racial bias is the reason why my white coworker back in high school got a light sentence for a drug possession charge, while Eric Garner got choked to death for illegally selling cigarettes on a street corner, an act no more serious. It’s why I’m still alive and writing this article despite all my years of playing with fake guns in parks with my friends, while 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed for doing the exact same thing. It’s why my friend got a warning for going over the speed limit, while Samuel DuBose lost his life because his car didn’t have a front license plate. It’s why Dylann Roof, who killed nine people at a black church, was given a free meal by police before being taken to jail, while Sandra Bland was threatened to be tazed and shoved to the ground on a routine traffic stop.
While at NYU Shanghai we may all recognize these injustices, many people back in the U.S. still do not. Those people may even be your friends or family members. Just as the fight for women’s rights did not end with the 19th Amendment granting women voting rights and just as the fight for LGBTQ rights did not end with the legalization of same-sex marriage, the fight against racial discrimination did not end with the signing of the Civil Rights Act. It’s convenient to think that all our problems can be whisked away with the stroke of a pen, but the reality is that we must never stop fighting, and we must never stay silent. Over the next few years, Americans are going to have to have some serious and uncomfortable conversations about race. If they are constructive, then one day saying ‘black lives matter’ won’t be construed as some sort of political statement. It will simply be a statement of fact. Until that day, we must all continue to spread the message that while all lives do indeed matter, not all lives are subject to the daily risks faced by black lives.
This article was written by Ben Haller. Please send an email to email@example.com to get in touch.
Illustration Credit: Arshaun Darabnia