Widgets Magazine


Keeping the focus where it belongs: Condemning racial injustice is a stepping stone towards progress

Johnathan Bowes’ column “Stone by stone: Refocusing the Ferguson protests” raises a few valuable policy points but falls a stone’s throw away from addressing the heart of the issue: the widespread belief that black men are inherently more criminal than the rest of society. Protestors are not simply “reacting,” as Bowes puts it, but instead making a valuable effort to get us as a society to acknowledge racial prejudice. The consequences of not doing so are, quite literally, life and death for too many young black men.

Though, to many, Michael Brown may seem to be an imperfect poster child, it is wrong to suggest that he is a poor illustration of a violation of rights. Ultimately, he was a human being with human rights, and petty theft and rudeness towards a police officer would not have conceivably culminated in a fatal shooting for anyone besides a black male. Asserting that black lives matter means that the lives of all black people matter, not simply those who society deems to be respectable.

This message was not always clear in the civil rights movements of the past. Most of us know that, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, but we know nothing of Claudette Colvin, who did the exact same thing nine months prior to Parks. The reason for the discrepancy is simple: Colvin was a poor, pregnant teen with darker skin, whereas Parks was a well-respected member of her middle class community. The rest, so to speak, is history. The recent protests offer us the opportunity to assert that the way someone dresses, talks or looks does not take away from his or her humanity.

Bowes’ call for the demilitarization of the police force is a needed one. However, the police do not only need to be demilitarized in terms of equipment, but in their mindset towards minority communities. A ban on military-grade equipment would not have saved Akai Gurley, who was fatally shot by a rookie NYPD cop who entered a Brooklyn housing project with his handgun drawn. Walking into a residential area with a drawn firearm seems extreme even for a Marine in Afghanistan, let alone a police officer merely patrolling a building.

Similarly, police body cameras, while necessary, would not have prevented the death of Eric Garner, whose last muffled words were “I can’t breathe.” The officer who placed Garner in an illegal chokehold told a grand jury that he did not mind being filmed, since he was sure that he was doing nothing wrong. Apparently, the grand jury agreed, as Officer Pantaleo was not indicted.

The cases of Garner and Gurley illustrate that new policies are ineffectual when they are not accompanied by new attitudes on race. There is something fundamentally and deeply flawed with the way that many police interact with young black men as well as the way that we are viewed by society as a whole. Some will read that statement and think, “Yes, I understand, now can we stop the protests and start generating solutions?” However, the protests provide precisely the moral and social pressure that is needed to hold policymakers accountable. Protests and conversations centered on policy are not mutually exclusive, but instead go hand in hand to affect change.

Bowes seems to express frustration at the longevity of the protests as well as the fact that protestors have dared to interrupt the daily lives of many Americans. However, business as usual should not be accepted in a world in which blacks are shot, incarcerated and sentenced to long-term stints in prison at vastly higher rates than the rest of society. Specific policy prescriptions will only be meaningful if we first acknowledge the painful truth of the current status quo, and we should all join the protestors in the effort to do so.

Jonathan Wosen

Jonathan Wosen is a 2nd-year graduate student in immunology. He can be contacted at jwosen ‘at’ stanford.edu.

  • Stanford09

    Nailed it! Great op-ed. One concrete issue that the legal system could change to address racial disparities in the age of colorblindness (see J. Roberts opinion in Parents Involved) is to allow legal remedy for disparate effect rather than requiring intent/ racial animus. (Especially given the implicit bias test data that shows racial animus need not be present for extremely biased and disparate results.)

  • anonymous

    Disparate Effect? No.

    By that theory, it is the outcomes that matter, not behavior. It essentially assumes that no group has statistical differences from another that drive criminal behavior e.g. poverty, single-parent households. Even if the legal; system were 100% fair in its treatment of each individual, those statistical differences would still lead to different outcomes. Disparate Effect would incorrectly say this shows bias, while the reasonable individual wants fair & color-blind justice at an individual level.

  • AfroMan

    Thumbs-up to this article, made my day! I think the story goes back 500 years down the Wheels of Time, to the African Holocaust. America needs some reality-check, eye-opener, and maybe soul-searching – for a country who aims to be the beacon of freedom, policeman of the world.

  • Stanford13

    Thank you for this great op-ed.

    It’s also important to note that in addition to young Black men, many older Black men (Eric Garner was 43), Black women, and Black trans* folks have lost their lives to police violence, racism, and mass incarceration.

  • C’mon

    Tuned out as soon as they forgot to mention that Garner assaulted two people- the shopkeeper and the cop. That’s a felony- nothing petty about it.

  • C’mon

    Brown*, Garner was the one with thirty-eight misdemeanors who was resisting arrest.

  • skeptic

    These people are idealists who think people are all exactly the same, while simultaneously complaining that they are actually different. Skin color is not the only difference between African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, etc.
    Also, you can’t simply assume all differences in results are based on racism and “oppression”. Even if people don’t have genetic predispositions, Asians for example have a more hardworking culture so they won’t have the same result as another culture even if treated exactly the same way.

  • skeptic

    This is bullshit. Police brutality is not about race. Police can be brutal to white people. It’s just black people are usually poor and thus into crime more often. Plus, African americans have a culture of fighting the police and complaining about white oppression. This leads them to resist arrest, and tobpolice violence.

    White people are not usually committing crimes and resisting arrest or fighting the police. That’s why you won’t see tis kind of anti-police war among whites.

  • skeptic

    Nope. Not racism. Police violence yes.
    Racism is not attacking someone who resists arrest. Racism is attacking someone based on their race. Big difference.

  • maddogsfavsnpiks

    skeptic, you’re living in some ivory tower where history and past attitudes have no effect on the present…
    The nearly 80 *unarmed* black men, women and children killed by police in the last 15 years are glaring examples of racially motivated violence and injustice towards people of color… if you don’t think racial stereotypes played a BIG and decisive role in those killings you’re just delusional and in denial…
    Likewise our imerial wars, invasions and “interventions”, — it’s no coincidence the US conquered this continent of dark-skinned native peoples who’d been living here for thousands of years by way of brutal massacres and genocide… then killed millions in Vietnam, the Phillipines, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, Chile, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Sudan, and the list goes on…
    Meanwhile, ask yourself why our gov’t hasn’t invaded Canada or Australia… ?

  • Wake up call

    Statistics are like assholes… everybody’s got one, and they all stink.

    80 unarmed black men, women, and children over 15 years? Is that number supposed to be low or high? The US has over 300MM people, and you’re complaining that police kill roughly 5 unarmed black people each year.

    From Wolfram alpha:
    In 2012 (data wasn’t available for 2014), there were 14,827 incidents of murder or nonnegligent manslaughter.

    Since I couldn’t find the data, let’s just say that black’s account for 12.85% of those murders, since they make up 12.85% of the population (hint, they account for much much more than that).
    –> Black murders = 1853 murders.

    Even by those (very) conservative assumptions, we have–for every 370 black murderers, 1 “unarmed” black person is killed by police.

    Of course, the fact that they were “unarmed” doesn’t speak definitively to anything about whether the police officer thought they were armed, or to whether they assaulted and subsequently charged at the police officer as was the case with the Michael Brown incident. Certainly, the fact that they were “unarmed” says nothing about whether their race had anything to do with their death.

    Rather than trying to find statistics that prove your political agenda (indeed, there are much better ones than the one you picked), I suggest you keep an open mind to other conclusions you might draw from the numbers you see.

  • maddogsfavsnpiks

    Police officer : “…is that guy armed ?… don’t know, but since he’s black, can’t take the chance.. BAMMM !… oops, no gun, no weapons ? …oh geez, my bad.”
    Furthermore, i can guarantee you that doesn’t happen if the guy’s white. And it has nothing to do with my non-agenda, just reality on the streets. Ask the Oscar Grant family how they feel about it.
    Also, i note you have no response re the imperial wars of aggression our great white leaders have engaged in for the enrichment of the war industry: the Halliburtons, the General Dynamics, the Lockheed Martins, the Northrup Grummans, plus other giant corporations, during the past 125 years, killing millions of human beings, nearly all non-Caucasians..
    — unfortunately for those people and their families, keeping “an open mind to other conclusions” is now out of the question.