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Race to the bottom: America's muddy civil rights debate

Isn't the pledge "liberty and justice for ALL?"
Isn't the pledge "liberty and justice for ALL?"Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Friday morning, Time.com revealed the police incident report in the Michael Brown shooting contains relatively little information of value, extending the shroud of mystery around what may have actually transpired between Brown and the police officer who shot him. Meanwhile, Media Matters had already run a story last Monday attacking “right-wing media” for ostensibly pushing a "Black-On-Black Crime Canard” to deflect from the Michael Brown shooting. According to MM, references to crime statistics highlighting “the supposed prevalence of ‘black-on-black’ violence in response to the shooting death of unarmed black teen,” were intended to “take the crime statistics out of context in order to hype the racial aspect.”

The irony is hopefully not lost even on those who enjoy Media Matters constant criticism of conservative outlets. References to black-on-black violence were not a preemptive sidebar but rather, a response to the all-too-familiar activities of Rev. Al Sharpton, whom, to no one’s surprise, has inserted himself into the debate as a champion of civil rights and a needed presence to ensure justice is served…that is, justice for Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a white police officer.

Indeed, we can all rest easier knowing that if any of our civil rights are violated in the future, Rev. Al will be close by to make sure everything is on the up-and-up…that is, based on appearances, as long as the alleged perpetrator is white and the victim is black.

Roughly 2 ½ years after Trayvon Martin was tragically killed by George Zimmerman, who was later acquitted of criminal charges, the country is again caught up with national attention given to a crime where the narrative seems to be driven by those who are more interested in preconceived notions than the actual facts of the case. As a result of the killing of Michael Brown, an African-American, by a white police officer, the Department of Justice has sent Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate possible federal civil rights violations.

The story brings into question once again what the focus of our attention should be. In a world where Martin Luther King once envisioned “a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” we still seem to be struggling, but not necessarily in the way we have in the past. One can’t help but wonder if Dr. King is turning over in his grave watching Sharpton doing the very thing King committed his life to ending. As Alfonzo Rachel pointed out during the Trayvon Martin proceedings, young black men—even young black men named Trayvon—get killed all the time and no one seems to care.

Sharpton and others, including Pastor Robert White, of the Peace of Mind Church, have made national headlines demanding justice for Michael Brown and accusing Officer Darren Wilson of violating his civil rights while themselves denying Wilson one of America’s most basic rights: the presumption of innocence. It is clear in the minds of some, Officer Darren Wilson is guilty until proven innocent. After originally criticizing Sharpton, White walked it back and argued Wilson is “guilty of the unrest that has been caused by his actions because he was called to serve and protect and he didn’t give us our due justice, he didn’t give Mike Brown his due justice.”

It is well understood that the vast majority of blacks view our justice system as unfair and believe that they are treated unfairly in comparison to whites. Nearly half of those asked in a Pew poll said blacks are treated unfairly in virtually every other aspect of their lives as well. Our country has a shameful history in regard to the treatment of minorities in the past; the question is how much of that legacy remains today?

While it’s true that perception may lead to some racial profiling in an effort to prevent crime and the rate of incarceration for blacks is considerably higher than for whites, the statistics are fairly clear that the incidence of violent crime among minorities is disproportionately high, as found by numerous studies including The New Century Foundations “The Color of Crime." Regardless, many local authorities have passed laws to correct what they believe to be police bias and that can't change analysis of actual statistics of crimes committed that reveals a racial disparity.

With two divergent stories about how Michael Brown died and no results of an impending investigation yet revealed, Al Sharpton has already organized a “Justice for Michael Brown” campaign without any confirmation of whether or not Officer Darren Wilson was justified in using lethal force, even as reports have come out that Wilson suffered serious injuries as a result of the confrontation. The Missouri governor Jay Nixon himself has weighed in calling for a prosecution, a statement so unorthodox coming from an elected official he subsequently had to clarify his remarks.

State Senator Jamilah Nashid went a bit further, writing prosecutor Robert McCullough, “if you should decide not to indict this police officer, the rioting we witnessed this past week will seem like a picnic compared to the havoc that will likely occur,” even though an indictment is the grand jury’s responsibility. She has demanded the long-term Democratic prosecutor step away from the case because of potential bias due to his life experience (his father was a police officer who was killed by a black man), but has no similar request for Eric Holder to do the same despite his experience that might influence him in Brown’s favor.

The problem arises when the issue of race (either legitimate or not) obscures the two most important questions that need to be answered based on the shooting.

First and foremost, this needs to be treated as an individual incident. Both Michael Brown and Darren Wilson deserve a thorough and impartial investigation based on the specific circumstances of their confrontation, irrespective of race. The perceived and championed “needs” of the community as a whole are insignificant compared to the actual needs of the families of both Brown and Wilson, as well as the obvious importance to Wilson himself, whose life will likely be adversely affected even if he is not indicted and will certainly take a dramatic turn if he is, regardless of the eventual outcome.

Secondly, there is a growing perception in this country that we are turning into a police state with a militarization of local authorities. The existence of video cameras in cell phones has provided a means for individuals to record situations where they believe the police to be overstepping their authority. Unfortunately, there is very little data to back up such a claim, largely because no consistent collection of data.

Although Congress voted to institute this kind of reporting in 1994, there is no database about violent or deadly encounters between police and the public. Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told the Kansas City Star, “Given the size of our highly decentralized law enforcement, contrary to popular belief, we do not have that many incidents that would justify having such a centralized database.” The Uniform Crime Report compiled by the FBI relies on voluntary reporting by law enforcement.

These two important issues are being swept under the rug in favor of shining a light on a supposed perceived possibility of a race-based civil rights violation, the very thought of which incited riots and looting. The danger remains in allowing the seeds of discontent to continue to grow without addressing the real source of the problems. In fairness, Sharpton and others have represented many of their comments as scrutiny of the actions of overly zealous police against all citizens. Unfortunately, there is no indication he would be present if the roles were reversed.

As health and society scholar Merlin Chowkwanyun points out in a Washington Post op-ed, “We keep pledging to study the cause of riots like Ferguson’s. And we keep ignoring the lessons.”

Riots in years past were understandably the result of institutional racism and later, old wounds and the deep resentment in the African-American community from those who were not enjoying the fruits of the post-war economic boom or a proportional share of the American dream.

Today, with a black president and numerous wealthy and influential celebrities, athletes and business leaders, much of the angst still remains. Why is the situation so ripe for exploitation for Sharpton and similar opportunists, who typically ignore the tragic loss of life as a result of black-on-black crime in favor of the spotlight of a potential cry of injustice based on race issues?

Chowkwanyun argues, Ferguson is “a majority-black suburb of St. Louis where nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty” and “reminds us of what happens when mounting racial inequality and economic deprivation are allowed to fester with few checks. “

That is a storyline worthy of our attention and should garner Sharpton's as well. Unfortunately, it seems he’s not going there.