WASHINGTON, July 16, 2016 — A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in July shows that 69 percent of Americans believe race relations are bad in America. This is in the wake of well-publicized shootings of black men by police, most recently in Baton Rouge and in Minnesota. Those were followed by the murder of five Dallas police officers, with nine others wounded, by a black sniper, who said that he wanted to shoot white people.
The overheated rhetoric in the political arena obscures a more complex reality. According to that Times/CBS poll, six in ten Americans say race relations are growing worse. That’s up from 38 percent a year ago.
Relations between black Americans and the police have become so brittle that more than half of black people say they were not surprised by the Dallas attack. Nearly half of white Americans say that they, too, were unsurprised by the episode.’
While the particulars of recent killings of black men by police officers are subject to differing analyses, and police officers have often been found innocent by federal and state authorities of any wrongdoing, there is no doubt that a real problem exists.
Sen. Tim Scott, a conservative, black, South Carolina Republican, has told his own story.
The first black senator elected in the South since Reconstruction, Scott reports many run-ins with police officers over the course of his life. He recalls drawing the suspicion of a Capitol Police Officer last year who insisted on seeing identification even though he was wearing the distinctive lapel pin worn by senators.
“The officer looked at me, full of attitude, and said, ‘The pin I know, you I don’t. Show me your ID,’ he said. I was thinking to myself, either he thinks I’m committing a crime, impersonating a member of Congress, or what?”
Scott goes on:
“While I thank God I have not endured bodily harm, I have, however, felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted. I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you are being targeted for nothing more than being yourself. The vast majority of time, I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood, or some reason just as trivial. Imagine the frustration, the irritation, the sense of a loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops.”
When it comes to the question of the use of lethal force by police, most people believe that blacks are most often the victims. The rhetoric and reality are at odds.
A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently by law enforcement. In encounters between police and the public, blacks are more likely to be treated violently: more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by the police, even controlling for the nature of the encounter.
But there is no racial bias when it comes to lethal force. “It is the most surprising result of my career,” says Roland G. Fryer, Jr., a professor of economics at Harvard and the study’s author.
Fryer, who is black, contradicts the popular view of police shootings. He says that anger after the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and others drove him to study the issue.
“You know, protesting is not my thing, but data is my thing. So I decided that I was going to collect a bunch of data and try to understand what really is going on when it comes to racial differences in police use of force.”
The argument that race relations are approaching the divisiveness of the 1960s is a stretch. President Obama said,
“When we start suggesting that somehow there is this enormous polarization and we’re back to the situation in the 1960s, that’s just not true. You’re not seeing riots, and you’re not seeing police going after people who are protesting peacefully.”
The progress made by black Americans since the 1950s is impressive. In 1950, only 13.7 per cent of adult black Americans (25 and older) had completed high school or more; by 2014, this was 66.7 percent, according to the Department of Education. Over the same period, the number of African Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher went from 2.2 percent to 22.8 percent. The black upper-middle class, defined as households with incomes of at least $100,000, has grown from 2.8 percent of households in 1967 to 13 percent in 2014.
In every area of American life, blacks have been advancing dramatically. When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, five African Americans served in the House and Senate; now there are 44 House members and two senators who are black. Over a similar period, the number of black state legislators grew from about 200 to 700.
We have elected and re-elected our first black president.
Attitudes toward racial intermarriage have changed dramatically. NORC, an academic polling organization at the University of Chicago, periodically explores intermarriage in its surveys. One question asks whether those polled would favor or oppose a marriage of “a close relative” to a person of the other race. In 1990, only 5 percent of whites favored interracial marriage; 30 percent were neutral and 65 percent opposed. By 2014, only 16 percent were opposed. Blacks have been even more open to interracial marriage; since 2000, roughly 90 percent have either approved or not objected.
According to a recent study by the U.S. Census, residential segregation has been dramatically reduced. The study of census results from thousands of neighborhoods by the Manhattan Institute found that the nation’s cities are more economically integrated than at any time since 1910. All-white enclaves “are effectively extinct.”
Prof. Reynolds Farley of the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center, says that, “There is now much more black-white neighborhood integration than 40 years ago. Those of us who worked on segregation in the 1960s never anticipated such decline.”
There are major disparities between black and white Americans. Yet, to argue that “white racism” is the cause of all such disparities is to overlook a larger reality. The fact that 70 percent of black births involve unmarried mothers has serous consequences.
As Child Trends, a research group, puts it, “These children tend to face unstable living arrangements, life in poverty and … have low educational achievement.”
When it comes to the large number of young black men killed in shootings, Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, who is black, notes “More than 95% of black shooting deaths don’t involve the police … Sadly, rates of murder, rape, robbery, assault and other violent crimes are 7 to 10 times higher among blacks than among whites.”
In Riley’s view, high crime rates “obviously underlie tensions between poor minority communities and cops.”
Those old enough to have lived through the years of segregation remember an era of segregated schools, segregated bus and train stations, “white” and “black” restrooms, water fountains reserved for “white” and “colored.” In many parts of the country blacks could not vote or sit on juries.
Black travelers never knew when they would be able to stop for a meal. There was no pretense that racial equality of any kind existed. The history of Jackie Robinson’s travels from Brooklyn to training camps in Florida is filled with stories of him and his wife being forced to de-plane to allow White travelers on and other indignities.
We live in an imperfect society, but one in which it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of race. Men and women can go as far as their individual abilities can take them. Black Americans hold every conceivable position in our society: from CEOs of major corporations to chiefs of police in major cities, like Dallas; from university presidents, governors, secretaries of state and defense and attorneys general, to President of the United States.
No one should pretend that racism does not exist. But look how far we’ve come and put these problems in perspective. “The sky is falling” is not an appropriate response to our problems, although in this political season, speaking before thinking is the norm. Our reality is far more positive and hopeful than the political debate we are forced to endure would indicate.