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Julie Delegal: Being black matters, researcher says

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Some whites’ approach to the #BlackLivesMatter movement presumes a zero-sum game: If one group is “awarded” national attention on any issue, the reasoning goes, then other groups by contrast, necessarily must lose something.

But #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean that only black lives matter. It means, rather, that we can no longer pretend that institutions in our country, like our criminal justice system, are race-neutral. It means that we can’t turn a blind eye to disparate treatment for African-Americans, especially when that disparate treatment ends all too often in death.

“The data is unequivocal,” writes economic researcher Sendhil Mullainathan for The New York Times. “Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin.”

The twitter meme, #BlackLivesMatter was born out of painful events in Sanford, Jacksonville, Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, Charleston, and other, countless places where black men – women, too, but mostly men – are imperiled by virtue of being black: Driving while black. Walking while black. Playing music while black.

Studying the Bible while black.

President Barack Obama explained it best in an article that appeared in The Washington Post:

“I think that the reason that the organizers used the phrase Black Lives Matter was not because they were suggesting that no one else’s lives matter … rather what they were suggesting was there is a specific problem that is happening in the African-American community that’s not happening in other communities,” Obama said. “And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.”

Sometimes the horrors occur at the hands of white Floridians “standing their ground.” Other times, the fault lies with domestic terrorists who are affiliated with racist hate groups. All too often, however, the tragic loss of black lives happens in police encounters, in environments that appear to some to be setups for racial oppression.

Harvard professor Mullainathan doesn’t exclude officer racial bias as a factor in police shootings. But, he says, we’ve got much bigger problems.

The very way our society is structured, he writes, leads to vastly more encounters between police officers and African-Americans. More encounters, Mullainathan says, will increase the risk of lethal police actions—with or without personal racial bias among police officers.

He notes that although 13.2 percent of the U.S. population is African-American, 31.8 percent of all individuals shot by the police are African-American.

So why are police officers interacting more with black citizens?

Mullainathan methodically traces the phenomenon back to facts about economic opportunity in our country. He quotes University of Chicago economics professor Jens Ludwig, about who exactly is poor in the United States:

“Living in a high-poverty neighborhood increases risk of violent-crime involvement, and in the most poor neighborhoods of the country, fully four out of five residents are black or Hispanic.”

The long and the short of it is that “poverty” still overlaps “minority” way too much in the United States.

We didn’t get here overnight, though. Decades ago, many cities began crumbling as a result of white flight to suburbs, in part as a reaction to school and social integration efforts. Neighborhoods decayed, leading to “redlining,” the banking practice of not lending money to businesses in certain zip codes. Or, when money did get lent, it went to rich, white “redevelopers” who ended up pricing poor people out of the neighborhood.

Add to those phenomena the near-total abandonment of racial and socio-economic desegregation efforts in schools. School desegregation, when coupled with housing desegregation as done in Montgomery County, Maryland, can lift all boats. Florida’s own Pinellas County is a classic example of what just a few years of resegregation and neglect can do to public schools. They become “failure factories.”

The criminal justice system acts to reinforce the overlap between “minority” and “poor” with policies that disproportionately target African-Americans. Whether those policies are intended to create disparate impact or not, the fact is, they do.

For example, Mullainathan writes, even though black people are only slightly more likely to use drugs than whites, they’re more than twice as likely to be arrested on drug-related offenses. That statistic reflects a policy bias toward prosecuting drug sellers over drug users, and the former are more likely to be found where economic opportunity is scarcest, and, as we have seen, that means they’re more likely to be black.

Mullainathan asserts that instead of focusing on erasing racism in the hearts and minds of individual police officers, we need to examine how our societal policies lead police to interact more with black people in the first place.

Given the numerous historical factors that got us here, that’s a tall order. For all of us.

Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida. 

For more state and national commentary visit Context Florida.

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