Resolving American Racial Injustice
August 28, 2020
The pattern is all too familiar:
1. White police officer kills or seriously injures a young Black man on the flimsiest of pretext, and it is caught on video;
2. Prosecutor hold the predictable press conference to say that they need to investigate all of the facts before deciding what to do about the police officers involved;
3. Protests erupt in the streets of the city where it happened, with some associated violence;
4. News reports focus on:
a. Violence in the streets
b. Specific, instant-by-instant analysis of the black man’s background, actions before being killed or injured, whether he had a weapon
5. Two weeks pass and the incident fades into the blur of the whirlwind of the 24-hour news cycle.
I am troubled about the focus on the specifics of each case. As a lawyer, I understand that prosecution of the police officers or the victim requires an excruciatingly detailed analysis of the evidence available to establish the facts. But the fact that this pattern has become unfathomly routine takes us beyond the individual case and requires much more discussion of the societal breakdown that forms the root cause of the recurrence.
No one focuses on how to resolve the problems of systemic discrimination, the disheartening nature of generational poverty, the lack of educational opportunities in many urban communities, and the long history of American racism from slavery through the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow, to widespread implicit bias. Even in the march on Washington this week, there were heartening generalities, but little in the way of specific goals for change.
The only way to keep this cycle from repeating over and over and over is to break the cycle of poverty and there have been few new ideas on that front since the 1960s. The problems are massive and interrelated making them difficult to grasp.
Here is my effort to start to define a concrete plan of action.
1. Congress must create a Racial Reconciliation Commission, learning from the experience of South Africa:
a. The Commission will have 25 members, 12 appointed by each major political party with the criteria that at least 6 members appointed by each party be Black Americans; within 30 days, the Commission is to elect a Chair who is not currently on the Commission; if the Commission does not elect a Chair within 30 days, the Chief Justice appoints a Chair;
b. The Commission will, within one year, hold two sets of hearings which will be highly publicized, televised and streamed;
c. The first round of public hearings will focus on why we have such a racially segregated society (building on the basic conclusion of the 1968 Kerner Commission: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal”), the current impediments to reducing or eliminating segregation and discrimination, and the social, medical and economic impact of such racial segregation;
d. The Commission will hold a second round of public hearings to allow minority Americans to describe how segregation and discrimination have affected them, allow white supremacist Americans to describe why they believe in white ethnic superiority, allow Black business owners, victims of police brutality, police officers, incarcerated Americans, corrections officials and prison guards, and other ordinary Americans to describe how their lives are more or less defined by their race;
2. The Commission will be charged with developing a plan, requiring approval by 75% of the members, within 24 months to:
a. How to invest in K-12 public school infrastructure in economically deprived areas so that they are equivalent to or better than current schools in economically wealthy areas;
b. Create innovation grants for K-12 teachers to identify and implement techniques to address educational needs of Black students in the public schools;
c. How to eliminate the barriers to homeownership for Black Americans, including financial incentives for landlords to sell homes to their tenants;
d. How to bring a wide variety of middle-class jobs to urban, predominantly Black neighborhoods;
e. How to create financial incentives for minority entrepreneurs or supermarket chains to open full-service food stores in predominantly Black neighborhoods;
f. How to create new judicial systems for alternative resolution of criminal activity that results, primarily, from poverty, racial discrimination or drug abuse;
g. Create educational opportunities for those currently in prison with the incentive that their sentence will be commuted upon completion of the next level of education (technical school, academic high school, college, graduate school);
h. Reduce the role of police and increase the role of other professionals in dealing with non-violent criminal activity.
We need to shift the focus from individual incidents, from police stops for “driving while Black” to deaths of Black youth at the hands of white police, to honestly facing the historic, widespread and continuing racism that have caused America to reach this cliff. If we do not, I fear that racial violence will, at some point, spin out of control with horrific consequences for all Americans of every race and economic status.