We do not understand what it means to be black in America

Sign seen at the Oklahoma City Black Lives Matter rally, by Liz Sholar. Photo provided.

by Rob Howard
Political Columnist

I guess we just don’t get it. And surprisingly, Newt Gingrich does. After the horrific police shootings in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, after the tragic assassination of five police officers and the wounding of seven more in Dallas, Gingrich said, “If you are a normal white American the truth is you don’t understand being black in America. And you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”

All three events are tragedies. All three left grieving families. All three left communities in turmoil and fear. And we react with demonstrations, prayer vigils, visits by President Obama, promises of action – and nothing happens.

In July, I wrote about gun violence and the tragic toll it takes on America every year. And the easy access to guns is part of the problem. But it is far from all of it.

The force of history in our country is against solving the problem of how the races get along in our country. From the earliest days of European colonization of North America, there were African slaves. When we became a nation, we didn’t view black people as human. In the Constitution, enslaved laborers were counted as three-fifths of a person for congressional representation.

We fought the Civil War to get rid of slavery, and replaced it with repressive laws that diminished the lives and futures of black citizens. It took another hundred years before we had a national Civil Rights Act.

And fifty years later where are we? We have institutionally criminalized black people with mandatory sentences, the “war” on drugs and mass incarceration. Of the 1.4 million male prisoners in federal and state prisons, 37.2 percent are black, roughly three times the 12.2 percent of our population that is African-American.

It doesn’t stop there. 22.3 percent of imprisoned males are Hispanic. So our prison population is nearly 60 percent people of color.

We ignore the fact that people of color are segregated in our schools. We ignore their poverty and focus on crimes, many of them non-violent.

And then we wonder why people in the black and Latinx communities are mad. As Newt Gingrich says, we “instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”

America’s greatest problem is race, and how we treat people who are different than us. And the problem is most obvious in our criminal justice system. The front end of that system is our police departments. Those of us who aren’t people of color have just become aware, in the past few years, of the problem of unarmed, young black males being killed by police. People of color know that it has been going on a lot longer – certainly decades, maybe centuries.

It is sad, and ironic, that the murder of five police officers happened in Dallas. The Dallas Police Department under the leadership of Chief David Brown has established a reputation as a leader in police/community relations. Chief Brown, since he became the department’s head in 2010, has transformed a police department that had a very bad reputation.

Brown, who is African-American, grew up in Dallas, and saw much of what was wrong with the Dallas police department when he was growing up. In 2009, the year before he took over the department, there were 147 excessive force complaints; in 2015 that number had dropped to 13.

In 2012, Dallas police shot 23 people; the number declined to 11 in 2015, and so far in 2016 there has been one. Brown changed the requirement for lethal-force training from once every two years to once every two months.

He instituted a program of transparency in relations with all communities in Dallas, including minority communities. He is very proactive in having officers communicate with the community.

Solving the problems of race relations doesn’t end with police departments, but a big first step would be for the 18,000 police departments across the country to pay attention to what Chief David Brown is doing in Dallas, and do the same.

Copyright 2016 The Gayly - 8/13/2016 @ 11:40 a.m. CDT