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Racial discrimination in America, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act

September 9, 2014

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

Though it is the year 2014, one would be excused to think, with the United States once again ablaze with the flames of racial politics, that it was really 1964. The death, this summer, of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American youth, by the hands of a white policeman, became for many the latest reminder that injustice continues to linger in this country today. It’s as if racial segregation and discrimination, banned from the courts beginning with the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, have somehow metastasized across the fabric of American society and surreptitiously taken over American institutions large and small.

The timeline of the latest tragedy is well known, though details of what actually happened remain, intentionally or not, rather murky. Under yet to be explained circumstances, Darren Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, shot Brown multiple times on August 9th, killing him on the spot. The incident unleashed a wave of street demonstrations, which were largely peaceful but did degenerate into violence at various junctures. They in turn triggered what many observers have described as an excessively forceful response by law enforcement, which, especially since the terrorist attack of September 11th 2001, has been heavily armed in the US, or “militarized”. This provoked even more protests. In an attempt to bring the situation under control, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon first established a curfew, which never really worked, then sent in the National Guard, though troops have since withdrawn as things in Ferguson at least partially calmed down.

Brown’s funeral was held on August 25th. Reverend Al Sharpton, a prominent civil rights activist and the last to speak at the ceremony, talked about “fairness” in the US, or the lack thereof. “America is going to have to come to terms when there’s something wrong, that we have money to give military equipment to police forces but we don’t have money for public education and money to train our children,” he said. The day of the funeral was also the opening of the academic year in many communities in the US and students at universities across the country marched, with their hands up in the air as it has become customary, in support of Brown, who had been scheduled to start classes at Vatterott College in Missouri the same week he was killed.

The justice system, the media and civil rights groups are now digging into every detail of the events leading up to, and following, Brown’s death – How many shots were fired? From which direction? Had Brown attacked or provoked Wilson in any way? In the meantime, a larger picture emerges of a sad state of racial affairs in America.

Just last summer, a jury sparked national outrage when it acquitted George Zimmerman, a volunteer security guard at a gated community in Florida, of the murder, in 2012, of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American high school student in, once again, unclear circumstances. In September of 2013, Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man who had been involved in a car crash and was looking for help in nearby houses, was reportedly mistaken for a robber and shot and killed by a white policeman in North Carolina. In July of this year, 43-year-old Eric Garner, a black man that was arguing with white policemen trying to arrest him for illegally selling cigarettes on the streets of New York, was put in a chokehold and died as a result. The episode was caught on video, just like it famously had been in the case of the deadly beating of Rodney King by five police officers in Los Angeles in 1992, which ignited riots that killed 53 people. It is a script with a long history in America.

The fact is that the US justice system and law enforcement continues to be skewed against blacks and ethnic minorities in general. In Ferguson, where 67% of residents are black, there are only three black policemen out of a total force of 53. Maybe not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of traffic stops and arrests (respectively 86% and 92%, according to official figures first published by BuzzFeed) are of black residents. The same unbalanced racial make-up is also found in the city’s government, which is almost entirely white.

This is where deeply rooted institutional arrangements come into the picture, as Clarissa Hayward, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, recently explained to me. The abysmal level of political representation of minorities, for example, is most likely a direct consequence of a tradition, dating back to the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s), according to which local elections are held, in Ferguson like in a majority of municipalities across the country, in odd-numbered years. For example, voters there last went to the polls to elect their local leaders in April of 2013 rather than in November of 2012, when the latest round of national elections took place. As the Washington Post recently pointed out, this system was originally designed to protect local-level democracy from the political noise that comes with presidential and congressional campaigns. But, in practice, it has actually been proven to suppress the turnout of lower-income, less-educated voters, and of more transient renters relative to homeowners. A socio-economic profile that obviously applies to black Americans more than to white Americans. In practice, the latter get to dominate local elections and therefore the local political and legislative agenda.

Additionally, though the US today sports a number of large, metropolitan areas, these are racially and economically diverse only on the surface, but are not really cohesive cities from a legal and political standpoint. They are simply the sum of hundreds of smaller entities. The St. Louis metro area in Missouri is one of the nation’s most fragmented, comprising roughly 390 municipalities – Ferguson being one of them. Many important decisions, including how to collect and distribute tax revenue for things such as education, are taken at this hyper-local level. The public policies that emerge from this system are extremely heterogeneous, often diverging along income lines. In fact, restrictive zoning laws determine the proportion of a city’s available real estate that can be put to residential versus commercial use and the percentage that must be subsidized. By doing so, they influence housing prices and make it relatively easy for a municipality to keep the least desirable residents, i.e. poorer people and ethnic minorities, out. For all intents and purposes, if not legally, this ensures the de-facto segregation of a metropolitan area.

As a result, hugely different perceptions of reality emerge among groups, regardless of an individual’s personal values, beliefs and politics. Even the most well-intentioned whites – and of course there are many of them – who believe in equality and justice, have little direct experience of mistreatment at the hands of authorities and tend to underestimate the effect it has on their black neighbors. On the other hand, blacks feel constantly under siege and always on alert for yet another instance of racial discrimination and police brutality. A poll conducted in the days immediately following Michael Brown’s shooting by the Pew Center for the People and the Press highlights this profound perception gap. 80% of black respondents thought that this case raised important issues about race in America, but only 37% of whites agreed. 65% of blacks described the police response to the protests triggered by Brown’s death as having gone too far, but only 33% of whites held the same view. 76% of blacks said they had either not much confidence, or none at all, in the police investigation into the shooting, while 52% of whites gave law enforcement at least a fair amount of confidence.

Basically, white Americans and black Americans continue to live, fifty years almost to the day from the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, in two parallel universes, often right next to each other but never really side by side.

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