Race in America (Circa 2015)

Race in America (Circa 2015)

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

For many people it is very difficult to fathom the extent to which race has re-emerged in 2015 as an exceedingly polarizing issue in America. Many people who experienced the changes that have occurred in the place, status, and opportunities for African-Americans over the past 60 years—culminating in the election of a Black American as president–have been not only disturbed but shocked at the depth of racial prejudice which still pervades American society. While it has clearly been encouraged by an extraordinarily polarizing presidential primary season—about which more in another post—the depth of racism and gross insensitivities in America today began to bubble up after the shooting and subsequent acquittal of Trayvon Martin, a black 17 year old, by a neighborhood watch guard, George Zimmerman, in Sanford Florida in February 2012.

The uproar which that case subsequently released after the verdict was handed down in July 2013 was fanned further since then. More recently there were incidents of excessive police actions in the killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island in July 2014, the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, and the apparent fatal beating by the police in Baltimore, Maryland, of Freddie Grey in April 2015. All of these heinous incidents clearly indicate a persistent pattern of racial prejudice by many, different law enforcement agencies in multiple of jurisdictions throughout the country. (None of these incidents diminish the murders of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and seven congregants at a Bible class in Charleston, South Carolina, or the protests by the University of Missouri football players at the repeated racial bias exhibited by the University Administration in Columbia, Missouri.)

Nothing, however, brought the problem into such deep relief as did the release just before Thanksgiving of video taken one year ago in Chicago of sixteen shots being fired by Jason Van Dyke, a White police officer, against a 17 year old Black man Laquan McDonald, who was brandishing a small, three inch knife at the time. The incident apparently was covered up and mishandled by various authorities and only released under pressure from numerous places; meanwhile, the officer had remained on desk duty.

The cumulative effect of these horrific events only point to the depth of persistent racial bias throughout the country and especially among law enforcement agencies and institutions. Prejudice may never disappear but there remains an enormous amount of work to be down to eliminate it from the criminal justice system. Electing a Black president is a momentous moment in American history but he—especially—cannot do the job alone. Until there is increased sensitivity among law enforcement, improved education of police officers, and a willingness to address bias, justice delayed will continue to be justice denied.  

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