Over 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr’s historic ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, race relations are still a contentious issue in the US, with police forces and other public organisations being accused of acting unfairly toward African Americans.
The statistics seem to support such accusations, with black children in primary and secondary education three times more likely to be suspended and black young offenders much more likely to be considered adults by the court system than white young offenders.
One of the most widely publicised issues which has brought the debate over institutional racism to the fore once again in the US is the shooting of unarmed black men by police, with the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, provoking riots and clashes across the town after Wilson was not indicted to face murder charges as a result. Tensions escalated when the police militarised their response by using tear gas and SWAT teams. The US Department of Justice later found that the Ferguson Police Department had discriminated against African Americans, using racial stereotypes in a ‘pattern or practice of unlawful conduct’.
Since then, shootings of a similar nature have continued to occur. According to the Washington Post, black males accounted for 40% of the 60 unarmed firearms-related deaths in the US up to August this year, despite the fact that they only make up 6% of the entire population.
Suggestions as to why such a disconnect between politics, police forces and other public organisations and the black population exists in some towns and cities in America are numerous and varied. Some have pointed to the lack of minority representation in government, particularly at a state and local level as a potential reason. Using Ferguson as an example, 67% of the population is African American, while only one member of the city council is black.
The economic picture also indicates a level of discrimination or marginalisation for African American, with the unemployment rate among blacks remaining higher than other ethnic group despite a wave of national job creation policies. Surveys and research conducted among black job applicants in America by by the International Business Times has found that although black applicants often have the same level of qualifications as their white counterparts, they can be held back by factors as simple as their name or the level of professional contacts they possess, despite discrimination on the grounds of race in the recruitment process being outlawed.
However, it can’t be denied that progress in many areas has been made, with Barack Obama’s election as president a major step forward for equality both politically and symbolically. Research has shown that overall, most cities where the population is predominantly African American have a predominantly black city council. In terms of political engagement, black voter turnout is now on a similar level to white voter turnout in presidential elections, showing an increasing level of engagement with politics as a whole.
In a recent interview, Obama said he believed racial equality had improved during his period in office, pointing to changes made in healthcare, access to college and the justice system. He did, however, acknowledge the frustration felt by communities affected by police shootings after the decision not to indict the shooters on murder charges. This continuing frustration, particularly in relation to the police force, will have to be resolved if the accusations of institutional racism are ever to be overcome.
Feature image by Chester Frampton