Race Relations
May 20, 2015
Are they getting better or worse?

Halfway through the second term of the United States’ first black president and 50 years after a civil rights movement survived bloody repression to win passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, racial tensions have burst into the open again. A series of episodes that began last year when at least four unarmed African-American men, and one boy, died at the hands of police officers, most of them white, pushed race back into the headlines. Relations between police and African-Americans represent only the tip of the iceberg where race relations are concerned. But coinciding as they did with the half-century anniversaries of major civil rights victories, the police incidents showed that the racial divide persists.

An American University student in Washington, D.C., protests a grand jury’s decision on Dec. 3, 2014, not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. A U.S. Justice Department report in March documented a pattern of racist behavior by the St. Louis suburb’s police department and local courts. (Getty Images/Anadolu Agency/Samuel Corum)   An American University student in Washington, D.C., protests a grand jury’s decision on Dec. 3, 2014, not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. A U.S. Justice Department report in March documented a pattern of racist behavior by the St. Louis suburb’s police department and local courts. (Getty Images/Anadolu Agency/Samuel Corum)

In Ferguson, Mo. — where debate over police conduct in black communities preceded a more recent flareup of tension in Baltimore after the death of a young black man in police custody — two officers were shot in mid-March during a protest. That demonstration followed the resignation of the police chief and the release of a blistering Department of Justice report documenting a pattern of racist behavior by the police department and local courts. These latest incidents stemmed from the fatal police shooting last August of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American, in the St. Louis suburb, whose population is about two-thirds black. Brown was walking in the middle of the street when he argued with an officer, Darren Wilson, who had ordered Brown to walk on the sidewalk; the two fought, with Wilson later saying he feared for his life in the struggle. After the shooting, police left Brown’s body in the street for about four hours, further fueling the community’s rage over the incident, which triggered days of protests as well as burning and looting.

The March Justice report said Ferguson’s police department singled out black people for arrest, routinely used force (including with police dogs) against them and issued an excessive number of tickets to African-Americans for traffic and other offenses to rake in revenue. And the report cited emails in which unnamed "police and court supervisors" forwarded racist jokes. 1In announcing the report, then-Attorney General Eric Holder said that although discriminatory policing issues "may be particularly acute in Ferguson — they are not confined to any one city, state, or geographic region." 2

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