I spent Wednesday night following a gaggle of protesters through the streets of downtown Chicago. The air was unseasonably warm, but the sentiment in the air burned with a rage and revulsion.
Disturbing video had been released of the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Shortly before releasing the tape, the Cook County state’s attorney announced Officer Jason Van Dyke would be charged with first-degree murder.
Broad discontent rippled through the crowd of protesters as people suggested a wide-ranging cover-up. One young man with a megaphone led the protesters in a chant that went in part: “The whole damned system is guilty as hell.”
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Truly, there are many troubling aspects to this case. But having covered so many of these cases in the last couple years, it strikes me that we may need to push back and widen the lens so that we can fully appreciate and understand the systemic sociological and historical significance of this moment in our country’s development.
While police departments definitely have distinct cultures, in a way they are simple instruments that articulate and enforce our laws and mores, which are reflections of our values.
The only reason these killings keep happening is because most of American society tacitly approves or willfully tolerates it.
People try to pitch this as some sort of ideological argument, but that is simply a way of refusing societal blame for a societal defect: We view crime and punishment with an ethnocentric sensibility that has a distinct and endemic anti-black bias.
When black people are the focus, punishments seem to be more severe than when whites are the focus of the very same circumstances.
Let me give you one example: During previous drug epidemics, lawmakers were falling all over each other to see who could be tougher on crime, in the process enacting racially skewed sentencing guidelines.
But, now we see a move toward sentencing reform, because as I noted in 2009: “According to the most recent data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, admissions of white teenagers to drug treatment centers for crack and cocaine abuse soared 76 percent from 2001 to 2006. Crack and cocaine was the only illicit drug category in which the number of admissions for white teens grew over this period, and in 2006 the number was at its highest level since these data have been kept. By contrast, admissions among black teens for crack and cocaine over the same period held steady. By 2006, white admissions outnumbered those for blacks by more than 10 to 1.”
Presidential candidates like Chris Christie have rallied on the gentler side of the drug debate. Christie lamented, “Somehow, if it’s heroin or cocaine or alcohol, we say, ‘Aah, they decided it. They’re getting what they deserved.’”
Where were these people when young black and brown people in the inner city were being steamrolled by the ridiculous war on drugs and having the book thrown at them? We make choices about what and whom we value and ask police departments and judicial systems to put those values into action. Police shootings are simply an extreme example of our disparity in valuation.
This can be overcome, but it requires a transcending of self-interested racial tribalism.
As long as people who look like McDonald are disproportionately affected, and those who don’t look like him are not, it is likely and even predictable, based on historical precedent, that the terrible silence of enough people will continue to sanction this carnage.
Charles M. Blow writes for the New York Times.