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Ferguson reveals US police's true colors

By Darnell Gardner Jr | China Daily | Updated: 2014-08-27 06:59

I was 9 when I began inheriting the wariness toward law enforcement that is ubiquitous within the black community. My mother gifted it to me in a ritual that's likely been repeated between mother and son since the first black foot pressed into American soil.

"You have to be careful around the police," she said. "Be so polite it hurts, never make any sudden movements, and always do whatever they tell you. If they stop you, do not ask questions, and certainly don't argue with them."

"Why are you telling me this?" I asked her.

"Because you're a black boy, and one day you'll be a black man. In this country, the color of your skin is reason enough for the police to mistreat you."

She repeated it many times, and for years I remained skeptical - blind to a painful truth: The American criminal justice system is inherently racist.

My attitude toward law enforcement hardened in high school. At 17, a friend was wrongfully arrested. Police said he fitted the description of a man wanted for robbery, but my friend said the only similarity between him and the alleged robber was the color of their skin. My friend was walking home from school when police picked him up, and he spent the night behind bars. The real culprit was arrested by morning and my friend was released, but without so much as an apology.

When he told me this story, I immediately thought about what my mother had said to me. I could feel myself walking in my friend's shoes, cast in the same swarthy skin, and suddenly racialized policing was real to me. Since then I have experienced deep discomfort in the presence of police, and rightfully so.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, with a mere 5 percent of the world's population, the US has 25 percent of the world's prisoners. One in 99 adult Americans is currently serving time behind bars. That's 2.1 million prisoners, most of whom did not commit a violent crime.

There is no evidence to prove that the rate of crime among blacks is higher than whites, and yet the proportion of non-whites is much higher in US prisons. Forty percent of American prisoners are black when only about 13 percent of the US population is of African ancestry. And US Bureau of Justice figures show that black motorists are more than twice likely to be arrested during a routine traffic stop than their white counterparts. Black motorists are also three times more likely to be searched during the process than whites.

A Namibian friend told me last week: "Americans are so quick to judge other nations, but they rarely talk about their own problems." Her words, true as they were, gave me pause. The US is an incredibly diverse but deeply fragmented nation, and its institutions continue to reinforce age-old segregationist policies and agendas.

We so often claim to be a nation that values equality. But how can we do so when so many of us refuse to acknowledge the fact that, after nearly 250 years, America is still unequal for the vast majority of its citizens without the right color of skin?

In what sort of society does a 9-year-old have to wonder whether police are his/her enemies or not? And in what sort of society does a 23-year-old feel criminalized for simply having dark skin?

The unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, triggered by the killing of an 18-year-old black, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, shows that there continues to be a gulf of trust between the black community and law enforcement officers. My question to the United States is: Will you allow another generation of black and brown children to grow up fearing those who've sworn an oath to protect them?

The author is a copy editor with 21st Century English Education Media of China Daily.

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