Between the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, there has been much discussion about police brutality and systemic racism in America. While their deaths were the catalysts, it’s important to look at what makes them possible on a larger scale as well as how police brutality and systemic racism are related to each other in order to truly understand why such problems still exist today. Consider these facts about police brutality and systemic racism in the United States of America.
The Problem with Police in America
Research shows that people of color are disproportionately affected by police brutality. In 2013, although Black Americans made up 13% of the U.S. population, they accounted for more than a quarter (26%) of police shooting victims . In fact, young Black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts . Although Black males represent only 1% of all males, they account for 40% of all arrests . This is not because African-Americans are committing crimes at much higher rates than any other racial group in America; indeed, crime rates between Blacks and Whites have been converging since 1991.
To understand why so many black men are arrested today, it’s important to look back into our nation’s history and see how police have functioned as an enforcement arm of systemic racism throughout American history. The origins of modern policing in America can be traced back to slave patrols who were put into place to protect property rights over human rights. In essence, slavery needed protection from slaves.
Why Racism and Police Brutality Go Hand in Hand
There is a reason why we need to have a conversation about police brutality and systemic racism. Police officers are most likely to brutalize black men, but that’s not the end of it. A recent study found that there is indeed a pattern of racial bias in policing, with black people being stopped more frequently than whites in all sorts of neighborhoods. The issue runs much deeper than being pulled over: nearly one-third of unarmed black people who were killed by police in 2015 suffered from mental illness or disability. And while there is no evidence to support racial profiling as an effective tactic, African Americans and Hispanics still receive longer prison sentences for drug crimes despite similar rates of drug use across races.
Some studies also show that police are more likely to follow through on nonviolent arrests when searching for minorities. One major takeaway from these findings is clear: if you want to avoid police violence, you should probably just be white.
The Effects of Institutionalized Racism on People of Color
In order to truly understand how systemic racism affects people of color, it’s important to know what institutionalized racism is. Institutionalized racism refers to a set of policies that benefit one group over another in areas such as education, housing, criminal justice, employment, health care, and banking.
For example, in recent years there has been an increase in so-called stop-and-frisk policing tactics by some law enforcement officers. This includes targeting individuals based on their skin color and criminalizing them even when they have done nothing wrong. As one study suggests, blacks are stopped at more than five times their rate compared with whites. This isn’t right; no one should be profiled or mistreated based on race—or anything else for that matter.
Police brutality takes all forms, from unjustified shootings and physical abuse to excessive force during routine stops. And regardless of its form, it happens far too often. Moreover, police shootings aren’t limited to black men; all communities of color see too many lives cut short due to police brutality or racial profiling. Bystanders who witness these injustices shouldn’t just stand back and accept them either.
Some Solutions to Overcome the Problem
What to do if you witness police brutality: One of your most powerful weapons as a citizen against police brutality is that camera on your phone. Use it. Politely ask to see someone’s badge number before they start questioning you, so you can report it accurately in case something goes wrong down the line. Make sure your videos have time/date stamps so there’s no dispute about when things occurred.
There are lots of things that can be done to put pressure on politicians to change policing practices in America. Call your senators and House reps by dialing tel:844-6-RESIST. Donate to grassroots organizations—like Families United, which is working to build a more just society for black Americans—fighting systemic racism.
If you see police brutality taking place, or have already experienced it firsthand, there are some concrete things you can do to help keep yourself safe and make sure your voice is heard. Call 888-988-8143 to speak with a trained legal professional at your local ACLU affiliate. The organization’s lawyers will be able to provide legal advice over the phone or connect you with people in your area who can help protect your rights.
What We, as Individuals, Can Do About This
Each of us has a responsibility to put pressure on our government officials to create meaningful change. Signing petitions, calling your representatives, protesting in person—all of these things send an important message that we won’t tolerate these kinds of horrific acts being committed by those who are supposed to be protecting us. Now is not a time for silence. Now is not a time for apathy.
Now is a time for action. Now is a time to stand up against police brutality, racial profiling, systemic racism, and all of these other tragedies that continue to plague our nation’s values. We have a responsibility to do everything we can to create meaningful change in our communities—and we have a chance to start right now.