Police Problems America Can’t Breathe

Widespread racism is suffocating the sense of justice in the United States, writes Handelsblatt’s Washington correspondent.
We cant breathe afp DISTORTED
We cant breathe afp DISTORTED

“I can’t breathe,” gasps the man eleven times. Then he dies. Suffocated lying on the ground in the chokehold of a police officer.

“We can’t breathe,” chant the masses of people on the streets of New York. Latent racism, even in America’s most cosmopolitan city, is slowly smothering the sense of freedom and justice across the United States.

Yet another case of police brutality has gone unpunished, raising the question whether America’s law enforcement and courts systematically treat black people unfairly. It’s a question eating at the nation’s conscience.

What happened? Just one week after a grand jury decided not to try a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri for killing the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by shooting him six times, another jury in the New York borough of Staten Island came to a similar conclusion. There will be no charges brought against the officer, even though a video shows him choking Eric Garner to death.

The risk of being shot and killed by a police officer is 20 times higher for blacks than whites in America.

Mr. Garner sold cigarettes for 50 cents a piece in violation of tax laws. When the police attempted to arrest him for his transgression, he refused to go with them without becoming violent. That was enough to seal his fate.

Both Mr. Garner and Mr. Brown were big men and they were both black, making them a threat in the eyes of many white police officers.

The case of Mr. Garner will be a test for Bill de Blasio, the liberal mayor of New York, who is white and married to a black woman. One of his campaign promises was to end the daily injustices many minorities are subjected to in America.

But more than anything, it will be a test for Barack Obama, whose historic presidency was celebrated as the beginning of “post-racial America." It was a dream from which America has now started to awaken. “We can’t breathe” has become the wakeup call, urging people to see the harsh reality in front of their eyes.

“We are a nation founded on the rule of law,” admonished Mr. Obama last week. The only problem is that the rules are different depending on the color of your skin.

The white majority has solid faith in both the country’s law enforcement and the justice system based on the fact that the crime rate has plunged over the past few decades. Minorities, in particular African Americans, feel a deep distrust of them – also based on the facts.

The probability of spending part of your life behind bars is six times higher for blacks than whites – a statistic that has actually worsened since the 1960s. But even worse, the risk of being shot and killed by a police officer is 20 times higher for blacks than whites.

And the chasm between the two races is not just about how they are treated by the justice system.

The wealth disparity between them has gotten worse since the Great Recession and the bursting of the real estate bubble hit blacks particularly hard. On average, their wealth was not as diversified as that of whites. Often, a house was all they had.