Huston: GOP Agnosia in Ferguson

August 19, 2014

For the use of the membership only (708 words)

TOO MANY REPUBLICANS miss a fact central to the disturbance playing out in Ferguson: Quite a few people get shot and killed by police officers in America every year; not many of them, however, are unarmed. Suspicions rightly arise when an unarmed individual is killed by the police.

Those suspicions are greater in circumstances in which the police officer is white and the victim is black, and it is not because the Reverends Sharpton and Jackson rush to the scene or Attorney General Holder reverts to form. Nor is it because the Democrats and their media allies pour fuel on the fire. The frustration and anger that routinely erupt among blacks of all classes in circumstances such as those playing out in Ferguson are not ginned up out of partisan furies or racial paranoia. Rather, suspicions by African-Americans of hostility and maltreatment by the police are rooted in their shared history and their common experience as black people in America.

Things have changed greatly for the good since the era of Bull Connor. Some veterans of the civil-rights movement who stood up to Connor and his ilk, for reasons of partisanship or nostalgia, are reluctant to admit as much. They do their cause no favor. Fifty years ago, a large segment of the public would have been indifferent to an incident such as that which occurred in Ferguson. Today, the reason the Brown shooting arouses such interest and fuels such emotions is because such shootings are rare and the country cares.

During the 1970s, I supported racial-preference hiring in public services (police and fire departments) because I believed that racial integration of those critical institutions was imperative in the shortest possible time in order to preserve the public peace. Ferguson is two-thirds black. Its police force is virtually all-white (only three black officers). Would the people in Ferguson have reacted in quite the same way if the police force more closely reflected the demographics of the community?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t buy the notion that white police officers are inherently racist, but public confidence is predicated on perception, intuition and experience, not peer-reviewed surveys of the racial attitudes of law-enforcement personnel. We are long past the time when we can justify vast racial disparities in our public-safety forces, but not yet to the time when the color of a police officer doesn’t matter to the community he or she serves.

It is, as some credible observers point out, unnatural for any demographic group in a two-party political system to cast 90 percent of its votes in favor of one of those parties. It is also politically unhealthy because it renders a difficult social situation the more difficult to solve because of inevitable partisan considerations. Those who believed that the election of Barack Obama would be helpful to race relations in this country have been disappointed. As long as African-Americans are viewed as a captive constituency crucial to Democratic political success, there is a political incentive to maximize fears of racial bias and injustice.

For some of those calling for justice for Michael Brown, the definition of justice is “guilty, and don’t bother me with the evidence.” Troubling as this is, it is more so when the Department of Justice encourages rather than tamps down demands for vigilante justice.

The police officer who shot Michael Brown is presumed innocent and is entitled to a fair trial. Those facts should be kept in mind amid justified concerns about the militarization of local police forces and the necessity of fair representation of all segments of the community in police and fire departments.

All of us rely on our local police for our safety. The men and women in blue put themselves at risk to protect us. For that we should be grateful and supportive of all those who serve with courage and honor.

— Tom Huston

(The author, an adjunct scholar of the foundation, is retired from the private practice of law in Indianapolis. He served as an officer in the United States Army assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency and as associate counsel to the president of the United States.)

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