For most African Americans, and for many liberals, the fatal shooting last week of a young, unarmed black man by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri, was both heartbreaking and deeply troubling. The militarized crackdown by the predominantly white Ferguson Police Department on people protesting the shooting has been alarming, as well. However, a significant number of white Americans, particularly conservatives, do not view the killing and the unrest in Ferguson in that way; they do not believe race had anything to do with the shooting, nor do they think that Ferguson police have overreacted since it occurred.
This is more than just a stark disagreement between blacks and whites or liberals and conservatives. It’s a seemingly intractable conflict that goes to the heart of why white cops in the United States continue to shoot and kill young people of color — and then get away with it. Indeed, the belief, held by a substantial number of Americans, that the death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown last week was not about race and that it’s okay for police to fire rubber bullets and toss teargas grenades at political protesters is why we’re destined to keep experiencing these events again and again — whether they take place in Ferguson, Missouri; Sanford, Florida; or Oakland, California.
For those who haven’t been following the most recent case: Officer Darren Wilson attempted to stop Brown for jaywalking in Ferguson, and then shot the young man six times, including twice in the head. Brown was supposed to begin college this fall.
It was a tragic occurrence, but recent poll numbers illuminate more of the story. According to a survey released earlier this week by the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of African Americans nationwide say the killing in Ferguson “raises important issues about race that merit discussion.” But only 37 percent of whites feel the same way about the fatal shooting. Instead, 47 percent of whites said that “race is getting more attention than it deserves” in the Ferguson case.
Similarly, 68 percent of Democrats said the shooting raises important issues about race, while only 22 percent of Republicans agree that it does. Instead, 61 percent of Republicans said they think race is getting more attention than it deserves, while only 21 percent of Democrats believe that this is the case.
Whites had a similar reaction last year after a jury found white vigilante George Zimmerman not guilty in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black teen, in Sanford, Florida. After the verdict, 60 percent of whites said the issue of race received more attention than it deserved, according to a Pew poll.
In addition, a near supermajority of African Americans — 65 percent — say that “police have gone too far in responding to the shooting’s aftermath” in Ferguson. But just 36 percent of whites think police have overreacted.
At the same time, more than three-quarters of blacks — 76 percent — also say they have little or no confidence in the multiple investigations of the Ferguson shooting that are now taking place. But 52 percent of whites say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in these investigations.
In short, according to White America, particularly Conservative White America, everything is just fine in Ferguson — police are just doing their job and racial profiling is just a myth.
And people wonder why cops keeping shooting young people of color.
But this not just about Missouri or Florida. Oakland has similar conflicts involving police and race. Earlier this year, a report from the Oakland Police Department showed that officers are still disproportionately targeting young black residents despite a decade-long, court-ordered reform effort designed to eliminate racial profiling. The report showed that African Americans accounted for 62 percent of all traffic stops by police in Oakland during a seven-month period last year, despite the fact that blacks represent just 28 percent of the city’s population. Moreover, blacks were more than twice as likely to be searched after they were stopped than whites — 42 percent versus 20 percent — even though the searches were no more likely to turn up illegal items.
Robert Warshaw, the independent court monitor who oversees the police department, said the report represented proof that OPD needs to do more to “identify any disparities in its treatment of its citizens.” (According to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, racial profiling in Ferguson is also rampant: 92 percent of all police stops and 86 percent of all stops last year were of black people, even though just 67 percent of the city’s population is black.)
Similarly, a 2013 City of Oakland report found that 74.5 percent of the people arrested for marijuana offenses in 2011 were African American. By contrast, just 5 percent of such arrests were of white people, even though whites make up about 26 percent of the population, and whites, in general, report higher rates of pot use nationwide.
Yet despite this evidence of ongoing racial profiling in Oakland, and despite the fact that OPD officers have shot and killed numerous young black men over the years, many of whom were unarmed, the general response to these issues among the city’s political leadership has been muted — and similar to White America’s reaction to the Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin shootings.
At a mayoral debate earlier this year, many of the candidates argued that OPD does not have a problem with racial profiling — and that city cops were justified in targeting African Americans at disproportionate rates because the police actions had taken place in predominantly high-crime areas.
But, in truth, going after innocent people because of where they live or work is never justified. No one should be subjected to police stops or searches just because they’re in a high-crime area. Nor should they be stopped or searched because of the color of their skin. It’s that kind of thinking that leads to deadly shootings by police.
Clarification: The original version of this story stated that Michael Brown was trying to get away from Officer Darren Wilson when Wilson shot him. But the exact circumstances of the shooting have not yet been determined.