Needed Now: a Fresh Look at Racism


Washington.-- When an injustice goes uncorrected, it becomes an evil -- and the Rodney King verdict is evil.

Only the most foolish among us could say that 56 blows with metal batons is not excessive force for a swarm of officers trying to fix handcuffs on one kneeling man already dazed from the shock of a stun gun. The fact that the jury reportedly came to its conclusions early makes it all the more revolting.

This is one of the most disgusting displays of courtroom injustice since 1955 when a southern jury set free two men who later -- when they were beyond the reach of the law -- casually confessed to the murder of Emmett Till.

Still, the particulars of the case are not as important as the reverberations across America, for if we are lucky, this might cause all America to take a fresh look at racism -- long after it seems to have grown weary of black charges of discrimination and complaints of second-class citizenship.

I believe there has always been the expectation on the part of the larger society that if opportunities were provided, African-ancestored Americans could work themselves out of poverty. Some Americans feel we have been given that opportunity and believe that racism has been subdued in this country and that affirmative-action programs are sufficient to overcome the residue of past discrimination. Such people may be alarmed to see one of the most obvious examples of overt institutional racism since the 1960s.

This might persuade them that we have not graduated from the entrenched racism of our past, because anyone who saw the Rodney King beating and heard the verdict knows that racism is unfortunately alive and well in America, and imposes enormous barriers on African Americans seeking justice.

Among some, there seems to be a conspiracy to deny this.

Recent federal-court cases show the Reagan-Bush judiciary now requiring African Americans to "prove" that affirmative-action programs, minority-scholarship programs, and court desegregation orders redress inequities that are due to past discrimination.

In our own state, for example, the University of Maryland at College Park has been told by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals that its race-based scholarship program is unconstitutional unless the school can "prove" that the scholarships remedy the lingering effects of past discrimination.

How in the world can African Americans prove that they are the victims of past discrimination if Rodney King cannot prove he was the victim of excessive force?

Additionally, the language of recent court opinions focuses on remedying "past" discrimination -- as if it's the only kind that exists. It is not.

The King verdict has just shown us today's discrimination in the criminal-justice system.

A recent Federal Reserve Board report shows today's discrimination in mortgage lending. The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act revealed that African Americans are two to four times more likely to be rejected for mortgages than similarly situated whites, and that higher-income black people are rejected for mortgages more often than lower-income whites.

In schools, county by county per-pupil expenditures show today's discrimination in public-school funding formulas, which are rigged to guarantee rich schools for rich students and poor schools for poor students.

Among the few weapons we have to combat this pervasive, institutionalized discrimination are affirmative-action programs and race-based scholarships that are now under fire from a growing segment of our nation and an increasingly conservative judiciary.

Rodney King was beaten excessively for no good reason. If there is any good to come from his beating and this acquittal, let it be that America stop talking about "past" racism. Let this trial force all of us to confront present racism, and understand that affirmative-action programs, minority set-asides and desegregation plans are not meant to redress "past" racism -- they are not sufficient even to redress the racism of today.

In fact, we would happily sacrifice every one of those programs if we could be guaranteed that from this point forward there would be no more discrimination in school funding, mortgage lending, employment opportunities and other traditional paths out of poverty and despair.

Kweisi Mfume represents Maryland's Seventh Congressional District.

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