In Charlotte, as in every other community in America, children of color are arrested, charged as delinquents, incarcerated, suspended from school, and removed from their families to foster care at rates significantly out of line with their percentage of the population. The research shows that behavior differences are not the reason. Race Matters for Juvenile Justice (RMJJ) addresses the manifestation of this problem in our local juvenile justice system.
A variety of public and private participants – from judges to police, the schools, and child welfare agencies – formed RMJJ in 2010. Our goal is to learn why racial disproportionality exists and how to address it so we can live in a community where involvement and outcomes in the juvenile system cannot be predicted by race or ethnicity. Together we identify the institutional, systemic and implicit biases that produce disparate treatment for children of color, and, working together, we implement policy and practice changes to reduce inequities.
The recent tragedies in Dallas, Baton Rouge and other cities have caused some to draw absolute lines of allegiance. Because RMJJ honestly accounts for the effects of race across agencies, including law enforcement, some have asked us, “Which side is RMJJ on?” Our answer is both “expansive and unifying,” as Senator Tillis wrote in a recent Observer column he desires for our national conversation: we stand with the police against violence or disrespect directed at police, and we stand with our fellow citizens against violence and harassment by the police.
Standing with CMPD does not mean that we trivialize the painful interactions people of color too often experience with police. We stand with CMPD because they stand with us, acknowledging institutional bias and working to make our community better.
Standing with advocates like Black Lives Matter who shine a light on the disparate law enforcement treatment suffered by people of color does not mean that, as Senator Tillis wrote, we “indiscriminately cast all law enforcement as enemies.” We stand with Black Lives Matter because our society must hear and acknowledge the voices of suffering before our community can make the unifying changes necessary to achieve the justice of RMJJ’s vision.
Our national conversation cannot produce the unification Senator Tillis desires if we do not honestly account for the effects of race, which Senator Tillis avoids entirely, and we must acknowledge both that the disparate treatment suffered by people of color is not “rare” and that it is not isolated to “a small number of officers who have not lived up to” the necessary standard.
The “us vs. them” Senator Tillis depicts is a false choice. It creates an illusion of law enforcement under siege to justify his concentration on protection for police, his reduction of the problem to the acts of a few bad apples, and his avoidance of discussing racial bias. The truth is more complicated. Just as CMPD does not embody “black hate,” Black Lives Matter does not promote “blue hate.”
It is only when we all concede the legitimate concerns of both black and blue that we can find our way forward together. We must start with honest and uncomfortable conversations about systemic, institutional, and implicit bias – and then we must move beyond difficult talk to the even more difficult work of implementing sound, evidence-based strategies to effect real change.
This is the model that RMJJ has built in Charlotte; it is the model America needs to achieve our national aspiration of real justice for all.
Bob Simmons is the executive director of Council for Children’s Rights and a member of the Leadership Team of Race Matters for Juvenile Justice.