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Lessons of Ferguson

Unarmed black men are seven times more likely to be killed by police than their white or Hispanic peers

Ferguson, Mo., is under a state of emergency again. Officials are bracing for the possibility of unrest after charges were filed against an 18-year-old who was shot and critically wounded by police amid a gun battle on the periphery of a protest commemorating the first anniversary of Michael Brown's death at the hands of a white police officer. Arrests of some protesters on the steps of the federal courthouse in St. Louis only added to the fear that, a year after Ferguson became synonymous with racial unrest, nothing had really changed.

The standard response to the racial unrest in Ferguson and elsewhere — including in Baltimore following the death this year of Freddie Gray while in police custody — has been to acknowledge that police officers need better training in the use of force and that law enforcement agencies must adopt more effective policing strategies aimed at winning the trust of neighborhood residents. There's also been a growing recognition that the mass arrest and incarceration strategies of the past have only exacerbated tensions between police and minority communities.

Yet police killings of black men by police have continued despite moves toward reform, such as equipping police with body cameras or requiring officers to get out of their vehicles and walk the streets of they neighborhoods they serve.

So far this year, 24 unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police nationally — a rate of one every nine days. And because many police departments don't keep detailed records of officer-involved shootings, it's been left to civil liberties groups and the media to keep track of how common such incidents are. One recent report, for example, found that unarmed black men are seven times more likely to be killed by police than their white or Hispanic peers.

That difference mirrors the disparate punishment meted out to blacks at every level of the criminal justice system. Not only are African-American men more likely to be stopped and arrested by police for minor infractions such as loitering or traffic violations, they are also more likely to be charged by prosecutors and to receive more severe sentences than whites convicted of similar crimes. And once branded with the stigma of a criminal record, black ex-felons face a harder time finding a job that allows them to re-integrate into the community as productive members of society.

Nor is the criminal justice system the only place where such disparities show up. The pattern of unequal outcomes by race is evident in all the major institutions of American society, from public education and residential housing patterns to employment opportunities, credit ratings and health care.

No wonder the protesters in Baltimore and elsewhere feel the deck is stacked against them — or that they're angry about it. For them, the Black Lives Matter movement isn't simply about how the police treat black citizens but about the persistent, systematic injustices African-Americans endure at every level of American society, which, taken together, literally add up to matters of life and death.

The nation is finally paying attention to killings of unarmed black men, but it still hasn't acknowledged the continuing across-the-board institutional disparities that underlie such shootings and rob African-Americans of an equal chance at achieving the American dream. It's too easy to blame the problem on a handful of "bad apples" on the force who brutalize or kill black victims out of personal racial animus. Three of the officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray were themselves black and presumably had no such motivation.

The fact is that the police as an institution are particularly ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of systematic discrimination because the only real tool at their disposal is force, which often makes matters worse. Until the nation as a whole recognizes and deals with the persistent institutional discrimination that lies at the heart of American life, not only will there be no justice for the victims but no peace for anyone else either.

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