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Desegregate and educate

Michael KniggeAugust 14, 2014

Michael Brown's death is tragic and only the latest example that the US, like most nations, is far from being a post-racial society. Solutions are hard to come by, but two steps are essential, says DW's Michael Knigge.

Police officers watch as demonstrators protest the death of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Image: Reuters

In his poignant remarks after the fatal shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and the ensuing controversial court ruling that cleared the shooter, US President Barack Obama #link:http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/07/19/remarks-president-trayvon-martin:declared# that while America was not a post-racial society, "when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they're better than we are. They're better than we were on these issues. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country."

Tremendous progress has been made towards racial equality in recent years. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act became law, more African-Americans finish high school and college, fewer live in poverty, and more own a house than in 1964. And in a real sign of political participation, in the 2012 presidential election African-American voter turnout - for the first time - surpassed that of the white electorate.

Two sides of the coin

Still, those hopeful statistics are only one side of the coin, as is Obama's remark that race relations in every community he visited are better than even just a decade ago. Other statistics clearly show that true equality is still much more a lofty goal than an actual reality. The unemployment and income gaps between African-Americans and whites remain stark and a disproportionate amount of African-Americans still live in poverty.

Deutsche Welle Michael Knigge
Michael Knigge reports on the United States and transatlantic issues for DWImage: DW/P. Henriksen

Equality has been especially elusive for many African-American men. According to a Pew #link:http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/06/incarceration-gap-between-whites-and-blacks-widens/:study# from last year, the incarceration rate for African-American males is now higher than in 1963, with African-American males six times more likely to go to prison than white males.

If current trends continue, one in three African-American men born in 2001 will go to prison during his lifetime, compared to a rate of one in 17 for whites. And while there is no definitive study, research also suggests that African-American men are more likely to get stopped and shot by police than their white counterparts.

Not an isolated case

Since last month alone as detailed by "Mother Jones" magazine - including the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri - four unarmed African-American men have been killed by police across the United States from New York to Ohio to California under disputed circumstances. That does not mean that each and every case turns out to be an illegal killing, but it does clearly suggest that there is a problem with overreach and racial bias in many sectors of US law enforcement.

Suggesting that there are quick fixes to deep-seated issues like racism and inequality is disingenuous. There are no easy solutions to do away with entrenched racial bias and stereotypes towards African-Americans or other minority groups. There are also no easy answers on how to quickly improve the substandard economic conditions that many African-Americans still face today.

But one thing can and must be done quickly: Desegregate US law enforcement. Ferguson, the Missouri city in which Michael Brown was shot, is predominantly African-American (67 percent), but its police force have 53 white officer and three of other races and the town has reportedly been plagued by racial tensions for some time.

Ferguson is not the exception

Ferguson is not an isolated case. As the "New Republic" #link:http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119070/michael-browns-death-leads-scrutiny-ferguson-white-police:wrote#, a 2007 Justice Department survey found out that "the average for a city of Ferguson's size -21,000 - is an 87.5-percent white police force, and 5.6-percent black. The national average for all local police stands at 75-percent white."

That is simply not tenable and has to be changed.

The other long-term measure has to be to significantly invest in and improve the education for today's African-American boys in order to give them a real shot at overcoming the dire statistical prognosis for their cohort.

Both measures, desegregation and education, won't guarantee that cases like Michael Brown's don't happen again, but at least they will improve the odds.