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Edelman: Root causes of racial unrest run deeper than shootings by police

April 28 was supposed to be primary election day in Maryland, but foreseen circumstances, namely COVID-19, led to pushing back voting to today. Presidential primaries are mostly a formality, but plenty of important decisions remain: a judgeship and seats on the Board of Education are on the ballot. Candidates for seats in the House of Representatives need to be chosen.

If you haven’t already mailed your ballot, you still have time to go to a post office and get it postmarked today or you can drop it off at a designated drop spot — the Board of Elections, the Westminster Senior and Activities Center, or the South Carroll Swim Club. And if you need or prefer to, you still may vote in person. Vote as if our democracy depends on it, because it does.

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The last week of May was pretty rough on our nation. It began with yet another in a long, painful and unjustified string of unarmed black men dying at the hand, or in this case the knee, of a white police officer. George Floyd’s dying moments were captured on video and are on display for all to see. Whatever crime he may have committed did not rise to the level of capital offense, but he was put to death as if it was. Three Minneapolis police officers watched and did nothing to stop a fourth one from applying lethal force to clamp Floyd’s windpipe and suffocate him, long after whatever threat he might have posed had been neutralized. Reactions were predictable. Street protests occurred, first in Minneapolis, then in at least 40 other cities across the country. Inevitably, violence followed, often incited by looters who had nothing to do with the protests. If Floyd’s death was the spark that ignited this tinderbox, what was the kindling for these flames of protest turned violent?

You may remember some names: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile. They were all black men or children and, although charges were filed in many of the cases, to date no one has been convicted for taking their lives.

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You cannot count the number of black men stopped by police for no other reason than being black. Ask Sen. Tim Scott about that. Every time an incident like one of these occurs, fear, anger and resentment increases, accumulates, builds up; distrust of police among minority communities is frequently well-founded. Systemic racism is the term for institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes. It most emphatically does not mean that all cops are racist. But the statistics are plain. Being black in America puts you at greater risk of incarceration and harsher sentencing than white people. This is nothing new.

Go back in time to the 1990s and Rodney King, beaten to within an inch of his life by Los Angeles police. Travel further back to Jim Crow, redlining, an economic caste system, segregation and systemic deprivation of opportunity for people of color. If you think those are all part of the past, reread last week’s Carroll County Times reporting of KKK hate messages distributed across much of Carroll. Or you could read the President retweeting “first the looting, then the shooting” or threatening to unleash “vicious dogs” on the “thugs” who protested incidents like the Floyd killing. Even by Trumpian standards, those comments are vile and inflammatory.

It’s easy to understand black Americans taking to the streets, especially when they perceive, and so frequently rightly so, that for them, justice just does not exist.

Police work is stressful. It’s also filled with risk, on and off the job. Cops run the highest risk of suicide of any profession. That puts the burden on government and police departments to do their best to weed out bad cops when they turn up in police forces. It means the screening process for hiring cops needs to be better at discovering applicants who cannot handle the stress. It means that police need more support in dealing with stress than they receive now, and it means police officers need to learn their limits and their prejudices (all of us, not just cops, have them) and how to manage them on the job.

The root causes for racial unrest are deeper than police misconduct and must be addressed. We need to start somewhere. Taking steps to reduce the killings is a pretty good first step.

We are an optimistic nation. Let’s hope this week turns out better than last one. We can help that hope along with our ballots. Go vote! And if you have already voted, thank you for doing your civic duty!

Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at mjemath@gmail.com.

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