The killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who is black, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., has led to days of demonstrations and some rioting and looting. There has been criticism of the overwhelming police response, as well as charges that racism was involved in the death of this teenager. Beyond this, many have proclaimed the incident shows us that America is a racist society, and that talk of racial progress and a movement toward a genuinely "color blind" society is false.
Exactly what happened in Ferguson will be determined by a thorough investigation, including participation by the FBI and Department of Justice. If there was wrong-doing by the police officer involved, this will be documented and appropriate action will be taken. In the meantime, we can only withhold judgment on what actually occurred.
What we can properly lament, however, is the manner in which a chorus of voices is immediately heard after every negative event telling us that racism is alive and well in almost every sector of our society. The reality is far more complex.
Typical of this phenomenon is a column in The New York Times by Charles Blow, who is black. He declares there is "criminalization of black and brown bodies, particularly male ones, from the moment they are first introduced to the institutions and power structures with which they must interact ... Black male dropout rates are more than one and a half times those of white males, the bias of the educational system bleeds easily into the bias of the criminal justice system, from cops to courts to correctional facilities. The school-to-prison pipeline is complete."
Earlier this year, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released "the first comprehensive look at civil rights from every public school in the country in nearly 15 years." Attorney General Eric Holder said, "The critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students but actually begin during pre-school."
The fact that more young black men drop out of school, that they are over-represented in our criminal justice system and that they are more often subjected to school discipline is not necessarily an indication of "institutional racism" in our society, as Blow and so many others rush to proclaim. There are other, much more plausible explanations.
By 2004, federal data showed that black Americans, 13 percent of the population, accounted for 37 percent of the violent crimes, 54 percent of arrests for robbery, and 51 percent for murder. Most of the victims of these violent criminals were also black. If black men are over-represented in our prison population, the reason appears to be that they are guilty of committing an over-represented amount of crime.
Commentator Juan Williams, who is black, laments that, "Any mention of black America's responsibility for committing the crimes, big and small, that lead so many people to prison is barely mumbled, if mentioned at all."
In a column titled "Our Selective Outrage," The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, who is black, notes that, "The killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown has rightly provoked widespread outrage, drawing international media attention and prompting a comment from President Obama. The same should be true, but tragically is not, of the killing of 3-year-old Knijah Amore Bibb. Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri; Knijah died the following day in Landover, Maryland. Both victims were African American. Both had their whole lives before them. The salient difference is that Brown was shot to death by a white police officer, according to witnesses, while the fugitive suspect in Bibb's killing is a 25-year-old black man with a long criminal record."
Robinson points to statistics showing the dimensions of the problem. According to the FBI, in 2012, the last year for which figures are available, 2,614 whites were killed by white offenders and 2,412 blacks were killed by black offenders, similar numbers. "But," writes Robinson, "the non-Hispanic white population is almost five times as large as the African American population, meaning the homicide rate in black communities is staggeringly higher. ...We need to get angry before we have to mourn the next Knijah Bibb."
If it is not "white racism" which causes black-on-black crime, and it may be something other than racism which causes disciplinary disparities and the number of school drop-outs, the breakdown of the black family is a more likely cause for such disparities.
In 1940, the black rate of out-of-wedlock birth was around 14 percent. Now, it's 75 percent. In 1870, right after slavery, 70 to 80 percent of black families were intact.
Today, after segregation came to an end and the enactment of legislation making racial discrimination illegal, and myriad affirmative action programs, 70 percent of black children have single mothers and estimates are that an even larger percentage will grow up without a father in the home.
Blaming the problems we confront on "racism" misses the point of the real dilemmas we face. Attorney General Holder does black Americans no favor by ignoring the disintegration of the black family in explaining disparities in school drop-outs and disciplinary problems. White racism is not, somehow, compelling out-of-wedlock birth in the black community, a far more plausible causative factor in statistical disparities than blaming an amorphous "institutional racism."
What was missing in the response to developments in Missouri, which included rioting and arson, and cries of "No Justice, No Peace," was "the calming voice of a national civil rights leader of the kind that was so impressive during the 1950s and '60s," writes author Joseph Epstein. "In those days, there were Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the National Urban League, Bayard Rustin of the A. Philip Randolph Institute — all solid, serious men, each impressive in different ways, who through dignified forbearance and strategic action, brought down a body of unequivocally immoral laws aimed at America's black population."
The NAACP, the Urban League and the SCLC still exist, notes Epstein, "yet few people are likely to know the names of their leaders. That is because no black leader has come forth to set out a program for progress for the substantial part of the black population that has remained for generations in the slough of poverty, crime and despair. ... In Chicago, where I live, much of the murder and crime that has captured the interest of the media is black-on-black and cannot be chalked up to racism. Except when Bill Cosby, Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steele and a few others have dared to speak about the pathologies at work, and for doing so these black figures are castigated."
Soon enough, exactly what happened in Ferguson will become clear and the matter will be resolved through our legal system. It will take a much longer time before our society begins to confront the real causes of the racial disparities and pathologies which are all too easily, and falsely, attributed to "white racism." Until we do, the sad story of Ferguson is likely to happen again and again.