A New Era of Racial Tension?

On Tuesday July 5, Alton Sterling (from Louisiana) died from bullets fired by the police. Barely 24 hours later, it was Philando Castile (from Minnesota) who died after receiving injuries from a policeman’s bullets. Partially complete videos of the tragedies have been widely circulated and shared on social media networks. After these two incidents, peaceful protests under the aegis of the Black Lives Matter movement were organized in several major cities. In Dallas, the demonstration turned into a tragedy. A shooter, Micah Xavier Johnson, coldly shot down five police officers and injured nine other individuals, seven of whom were members of law enforcement. According to Chief of the Dallas Police Department David O. Brown, shortly before dying the suspect stated he was “upset” over the deaths of Sterling and Castile. “He wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.” These excessively broadcast events feed the ghost of a United States that has been torn apart, where citizenship exists on two different levels.

The Question of Police Brutality

The massive circulation of videos showing the live deaths of young African-Americans under suspicious circumstances during altercations with police raises a growing awareness of the phenomenon and incites politicians to act. The pressure exerted by activist movements, like BLM following the Trayvon Martin case, has challenged police practices, notably the training given at police academies.

After the death of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, Obama brought civil rights leaders, leading members of the black community and members of law enforcement together into a working group (The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing). The goal: promulgate a series of recommendations to improve relationships between police and communities. Results remain limited because only 15 of the 18,000 police departments have adopted the program. However, several states have reinforced control systems on ground interventions, such as the use of security cameras on uniformed police officers.

Some Statistics

According to a compilation published by the Washington Post, members of law enforcement have killed 509 people since the beginning of the year. Forty-seven percent are white, with 258 deaths, and 24 percent are African-American, with 123 identified deaths. This statistic is particularly high given the fact that blacks represent just 13 percent of the United States’ population. For that matter, the governor of Minnesota confirmed that race was doubtlessly a factor that played a decisive role in the death of Castile. “Would this have happened if those passengers and the driver were white? I don’t think it would’ve. I’m forced to confront — and I think all Minnesotans are forced to confront — that this kind of racism exists.”

Between the same period in 2015 and 2016, the number of police officers finding themselves at the heart of judicial proceedings following the death of an individual under questionable circumstances has increased by 6 percent. Blacks have been affected twice as much by this phenomenon as whites. It should be noted, however, that in more than 90 percent of cases the suspects were armed, which fosters stressful situations.

Furthermore, the number of filmed events has increased: 105 in this year compared to 76 in 2015. The majority of these images (63) come from cameras installed on the uniforms of police officers; these have almost doubled with respect to last year. These recordings constitute crucial elements for judicial proceedings in which police officers are involved. Excessive broadcasting of these tragic events leads one to believe that the situation of African-Americans has scarcely evolved since the end of racial segregation in the United States during the 1960’s. Yet, even if the balance remains fragile, interracial relations continue to evolve in a positive manner on a national level.

A Fragile Balance

Ethnic communities are affected the most by police brutality. One of the factors explaining this phenomenon is the frequent concentration of their populations in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Here crime reaches an elevated level that sets off a disproportionate deployment of police forces. This multiplies exponentially the risks of confrontation. Even so, events such as those of the past week are more the exception than the rule.

Thanks, among other things, to the measures of affirmative action put in place during the 1960’s, the percentage of African-Americans belonging to the middle class has quadrupled in the space of 40 years, going from 13.4 to 51 percent at the beginning of the 21st century. Economics and access to education are at the heart of preoccupations felt by the new generation of African-Americans. The question of civil rights becomes a “symbolic” issue and not a priority. According to a study led by the Pew Research Center in 2013, 55 percent of African-Americans younger than 40 years of age consider blacks to be responsible for their own socioeconomic situation. To this is added the symbolic election of Barack Obama, a sign of evolution of mentalities.

Interracial relations are calming down to a certain extent, which for now does not signify that tensions are disappearing. Despite the improvement in conditions for African-Americans, equality of opportunity is far from being a reality. For the black community, access to education remains more difficult and biases persist. Tragic events such as those of the past week illustrate the point at which the balance between communities remains fragile.

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