The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have stirred a heated national dialogue about racial disparities in law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and our society as a whole. I don’t claim any special wisdom or originality on these difficult subjects, but as the mayor of a city that prides itself on diversity — and as someone accountable for the conduct of a Police force — I feel a duty to speak out.
Let me acknowledge up front that it is hard for me to grasp how these incidents do not warrant an indictment, especially in the case of Eric Garner . . . yet I am reluctant to pass harsh judgment on the grand juries. By their very nature, grand juries are required to focus narrowly on the specifics of a case as presented to them, and to set aside broad social context. Moreover, every detail, from the physical position of hands, to an officer’s state of mind, to the distinction between surrendering and charging, is filtered through human memory and perception, which are always fallible and subjective. While each of us may be convinced of our opinions from afar, when you get deep into the weeds like a grand jury, things may look murky and ambiguous.
It is only when you zoom out that the murkiness disappears, revealing a picture that is crystal clear and deeply disturbing:
• Black males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males; black drivers are three times as likely as white drivers to be searched during a stop; black offenders receive longer sentences than white offenders convicted of the same crime.
Then zoom out even further:
• White households have a median income 72% higher than black households; the typical white family hassix times the wealth of the typical black family.
It starts almost immediately:
• Black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled from school; black students are four times more likely than white students to attend schools with under-qualified teachers.
And it shapes almost all of us:
• A mountain of psychological research shows that subconscious racial bias is widespread, even among those who do not knowingly harbor any racist views.
These are stark and brutal facts. And they pose a fundamental challenge to our nation’s core principles.
On a more personal level, nearly every African-American friend or colleague I’ve ever had reports first-hand experiences with discrimination, or unjustified suspicion, or unwarranted hostility. Many say it is a near constant in their lives.
So to sum it up: you can look at the Brown and Garner incidents narrowly and see contradictory details that may justify uncertainty and suspended judgment, or you can look at them broadly and see data points that confirm a clear-as-day big picture of different and dangerous standards for blacks in America. When the same cases can simultaneously illustrate and obscure the underlying problems, it’s no wonder even people of good will end up talking past each other.
What can we do?
First, on the most practical level, we can ensure that Police have the training and tools to approach every situation in a measured and effective way. From verbal tactics that can deescalate conflict, to protocols that calibrate the use of force along a continuum, to enhanced community relationships that can defuse crises before they occur, there are proven Policing methods that serve everybody’s interests. Even though New Rochelle has done quite a bit already in these areas, I have asked our Police Commissioner to brief the City Council next month on our PD’s training and community engagement methods, and to evaluate opportunities for improvement.
Second, we can work to make Police Departments more reflective of the communities they serve and, therefore, better positioned to engender trust and promote public safety. With this goal in mind, shortly before the most recent Police civil service exam a couple of months ago, I invited a broad spectrum of local African-American and Hispanic leaders to a meeting, where, alongside other City officials, I asked them to encourage more people of color to apply for a position in our PD and help us build a wider and more diverse applicant pool.
Third, we can make sure that a fair critique of a system does not become an unfair, broad brush attack on everyone within it. Police officers have an extraordinarily difficult job that requires sudden and unpredictable gear shifts from social worker, to diplomat, to soldier. They accept individual risk to uphold our collective safety. Their efforts have been instrumental in achieving a huge reduction in crime during the past twenty years, an especially important and positive development for our cities. The vast majority of Police officers I have known are dedicated, capable professionals, who deserve our respect and support.
Fourth, we can have an honest conversation about race with our friends, in our community, and as a nation. This will be the hardest part.
It will be hard emotionally, as anyone who has inadvertently given or unexpectedly taken offense from a statement about race can attest.
And it will be hard intellectually, because while there can be no disagreement about the statistical inequalities I noted above, there has long been a fierce debate about their cause.
Is it the enduring, poisonous legacy of slavery and Jim Crow? Is it a cultural or social breakdown? Is it persistent, institutional racism in housing, banking, employment, and criminal justice? Is it rooted in character and family structure or in education and class immobility? Does it cry out for greater individual initiative and personal responsibility or does it instead cry out for public policy that is more just and progressive?
For my part, I can’t understand why such perspectives are mutually exclusive. Each of these explanations has some validity, and each is present in different proportions, depending on where and when you look. A constructive discussion needs to have room for all of the above, and needs to begin with minds and ears that are fully open to competing views and experiences.
There is reason to be hopeful. In the past two generations, so much has changed for the better. I’ve shared before the story of my son Jeremy, at age four, reciting to me a portion of the “I Have A Dream” speech; it matters that little white kids in the suburbs are learning those words in pre-school, before they even know how to add or subtract.
More importantly, it matters that African-Americans cannot be excluded from the ballot box. It matters that African-Americans cannot be denied a seat at a lunch counter. It matters that African-Americans hold positions of genuine power, from statehouses, to Congress, to the Supreme Court, to the Justice Department, all the way up to the Presidency.
I think about our own New Rochelle, where many of our best known and admired residents — with some of the most impressive accomplishments in government, education, business, the media, the arts, and every other field — happen to be African-American. Without their contributions and examples, we would be a vastly diminished community.
And then, in a city like ours, there is the incalculable benefit we all derive from day to day interactions with neighbors representing disparate circumstances and traditions — all able to learn from each other, to better understand our differences and, in so doing, also better appreciate the humanity that binds us together.
This is real, and it’s encouraging.
It’s just not enough. And too often, especially for whites, pride in progress can stray into unjustified self-congratulation and complacency.
After all, in our same community of New Rochelle, public housing is occupied by a disproportionate number of African-Americans; the census blocks with the highest minority populations tend to have the lowest median incomes and the highest levels of crime; there are persistent racial disparities in four-year graduation rates and in public health conditions. The list goes on and on.
Race relations here and everywhere remain a confounding brew of hopes and disappointments and ignorance and heroism and resentments and achievements and injustices and promises and every other uplifting/dispiriting aspect of humankind. Our community and country have a long way to go to get things right. And in this context, problems of law enforcement, though real, look more like symptoms than causes.
I take heart in the essential goodwill of most Americans and in our seeming desire, even at a moment of painful division, to find a way to achieve common purpose and understanding. Dr. King’s great line still applies: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” If we approach this challenge primed to listen and learn, then perhaps we can make that arc shorter and bend it more quickly.
Noam Bramson is the Mayor of New Rochelle