Which cities in the US have no racism?

Racism in the USA : Why America's police force fail so often and so miserably

Jeffrey Sommers is Professor of Political Economy and Governance in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

George Floyd's death by the hand - and by the knee - of Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin has sparked a wave of peaceful protests and violent rioting in most major cities in the United States.

The incident, which was taped and made visible to the world, heightened the perception that African Americans are excluded from America's grand narrative of progress, which claims that living conditions are improving over time.

The data confirm this impression. According to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, as of 2016, "the net worth of a typical white family [...] was ten times greater than that of a black family".

And while the United States accounts for just 5 percent of the world's population, it is home to 21 percent of the world's imprisoned people, and a third of them are African American.

A society whose inequality is deepening

Hardly a week goes by without a new report that African Americans were killed at the hands of police officers or through vigilante justice. Each of these episodes is followed by hand-wringing in the media and calls for a reform of police methods. However, the problem is never resolved, partly because there are, in fact, many problems.

First of all, many Americans have accepted that they live in a deepening inequality society that only knows winners and losers. As the wealth and incomes of those at the top continue to grow, tens of millions of Americans can barely afford health insurance, childcare, and other basic goods.

This story has been told many, many times. But what often goes under is that responsibility for dealing with the social costs of this system has been placed on the police.

Every fifth police officer is a former soldier

Generally speaking, most urban police officers are white and have little or no experience dealing with the populations within their jurisdiction.

This familiarity gap is exacerbated by the fact that one in five police officers is a former soldier and has previously been involved in violent pacification efforts in Afghanistan or Iraq. These ex-soldiers are prepared to view the urban populations they oversee as a threat to their security - at best.

That too is confirmed by the data. In Boston, for example, between 2010 and 2015 there were 28 complaints of excessive use of force per 100 police officers who are ex-soldiers, compared with 17 complaints per 100 police officers who were not previously in the military. And Boston is not an isolated case.

Where are the de-escalation skills?

America has an obligation to place its ex-soldiers in meaningful work. However, clearly only those with a proven ability to de-escalate stressful situations should be allowed to serve as police officers in urban communities.

Chauvin is not an ex-soldier. But with 18 previous complaints filed against him, he embodies much of what is wrong with America's police force. After all, America also has obligations to its urban poor.

A multigenerational vicious circle

African Americans in Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and many other de-industrialized urban areas live in circumstances more similar to South Africa and Brazil than any other rich country.

A multigenerational vicious circle is at work in poor Afro-American communities suffering from economic insecurity. Children are born into an environment in which contacts with the police have long been characterized by confrontation rather than cooperation.

And the police, in turn, confuse suspicion and hostility with crime. Too often police officers assume that black men are suspected criminals and treat them accordingly. In return, many African American men take a suspicious and hostile attitude towards the police from the outset.

How the disparities can be repaired

The structures underlying America's ethnic disparities are partly the product of negligence and partly deliberate. Fixing them will require a multi-pronged strategy.

The first step is to meet Martin Luther King, Jr. take seriously and establish full employment as a core principle of economic policy. The Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, has indicated that the Fed is not subject to any de facto restrictions in its ability to fund public investments.

If so, it should take up spending proposals like the Green New Deal and employ disadvantaged workers at decent wages in clean energy sectors and other key sectors of the future economy.

[More on the subject: Racism allegations against the police - Saskia Esken breaks the truce in the SPD]

Those with no proven work experience should be referred to government urban beautification projects with entry-level wages where they can acquire basic skills.

The corona crisis has shown which professions are paid attention and which are not

The Covid-19 crisis has shown that much of what used to be considered unimportant work is actually indispensable. From health care facilities and food processing services to transportation and wastewater treatment, African Americans disproportionately often hold jobs that we pay least attention to and on which we ultimately depend most.

[If you want to have the most important news from Berlin, Germany and the world live on your mobile phone, we recommend our completely redesigned app, which you can download here for Apple and Android devices]

But if you take the federal minimum wage as a starting point, America's indispensable workers are among the worst-paid in high-income countries.

Although US GDP has multiplied over the past 70 years, the federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is only 75 cents higher than it was in 1950. The message to America's indispensable workers has long been: "You don't matter." That clearly needs to change .

Weapons exacerbate the already existing problems

Finally, Americans have grotesquely excessive guns, and this has only got worse since the Tea Party took over many state governments during President Barack Obama's tenure.

In a country with nearly 400 million privately owned firearms, gun sales regulations have been relaxed in many states. A city like Chicago is brimming with firearms despite sensible gun control measures because it only takes an hour to drive north to get a gun in the poorly regulated markets in Wisconsin.

Common ground for police and progressive politics?

For obvious reasons, America's gun problem adds to its violent crime problem. It also exposes the police to significantly greater levels of stress. Progressive politics and police organizations should recognize that they have a common ground on the issue of firearms control.

[With the “Twenty / Twenty” newsletter, our US experts accompany you every Thursday on your way to the US presidential election. You can register for free here: tagesspiegel.de/twentytwenty.]

There are clear steps that could be taken to ease pressure on both our local communities and the police officers who work there.

It is clearly in our power to improve the economic and social health of our cities while reforming police practices to encourage de-escalation and conflict resolution. There is no excuse to remain inactive.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020. www.project-syndicate.org. Translated from the English by Jan Doolan.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page