We can no longer speak of the “United Snakes of America,” a phrase mockingly used by Nina Simone*, a woman embittered by a life of segregation. But we’re not living in a post-racial era. We were reminded of this by thousands of protesters after a grand jury decided not to indict the Ferguson police officer who killed Michael Brown, a young unarmed black man.
There have already been Fergusons and there will be more. The American powder keg is still full for two reasons: inequality and the prejudice that accompanies it, and the increasingly militarized fight against crime, a fight that profiles minorities.
Of course, there has been undeniable progress. The median income of black households is increasing. In 1980, black households earned only 57 percent of what white households earned. Black households now earn 62 percent of what white households earn. Moreover, poverty is decreasing. In 1980, 32.5 percent of black individuals lived below the poverty line. This figure has dropped to 27.2 percent, but it remains much higher than the 12.7 percent rate for whites living below the poverty line. Finally, diversity is increasing within neighborhoods and among personal relationships. Fifteen percent of marriages are interracial, the highest level in American history.
And of course, the president is an African-American. Just like the CEOs of Xerox, Merck and American Express. Despite this, there remains a wide gulf.
The black unemployment rate is 10.7 percent while it is 5.3 percent for white individuals, the same gap that existed four decades ago. Studies have shown that employment resumes with African-American names are less appealing to employers.
As for education, 31 percent of young blacks do not finish high school within a regular time frame, compared to 27 percent of Hispanics and 14 percent of whites.
While the war on drugs lit the spark in the powder keg, that was not what set things off in Ferguson, although the war on drugs often leads to the same bleak results. In this absurd war, the police target users or small-time dealers. This leads to things like New York’s “stop-and-frisk” policy by which citizens are randomly stopped — especially visible minorities. Though marijuana usage rates are equal, blacks are arrested nearly four times as often as others. And there are 10 times as many blacks in prison as others.
Everyone on the streets is on guard. Citizens face police officers that are sometimes armed with the Pentagon’s military surplus, the police believing that they can eradicate drugs this way. And these police officers fear, with reason, that the citizens before them are armed.
The wounds of segregation have left scars, but the slow march toward equality would be faster if the war on drugs ended and gun control was enacted. A U.S. police officer’s work should not seem like a bad western.
*Editor’s Note: Nina Simone was an African-American singer, songwriter, pianist, jazz stylist and civil rights activist, who died in 2003.