Bernard Lown, MD
Election of a first black President evoked much wishful thinking that the US had entered a post-racial era. It took 45 years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, but at last we had arrived, if not to the promised land, at least to a more equitable social order. The arrest of the distinguished Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr charged with disorderly conduct by a police officer investigating a possible break-in at the Gates home in Cambridge, Mass. An outstanding academic was being herded to a police station like a common criminal just for being black.
As Glen Loury argued in an Op Ed in the New York Times, this is but a tempest in a teapot.(1) Extensive media coverage of the Gates incident ignored the experience of millions of black men who are racially profiled and harassed daily by the police. Black people are frequently stopped, searched, publically demeaned and arrested. During the past 30 years, Loury pointed out, with massive popular support, the US has enacted an extraordinarily punitive and brutal criminal justice system. Since 1980 the numbers of those arrested had quintupled; these are mostly black and Hispanic men, who now constitute two thirds of those jailed. As of mid 2008, about 4.8 percent of black men compared to 0.73 percent of white men are imprisoned. While whites by far exceed the use of illicit drugs, blacks are imprisoned 13 times as frequently. (2) The US is the world’s largest jailer spending three times more for jail than for public education. The likelihood of a black child at age seven ending up in prison during a life time is one in three, while for a white child it is one in seventeen.
Three strike drug laws target disproportionately the poorly educated, permanently unemployed, segregated inner city under class blacks. These jobless young men, hailing form dysfunctional families, gravitate to gang activity, drug trafficking and petty crime. The constantly brewing violence is largely self-directed against their own kith and kin. For the white community, the police serves as the front line to contain what is regarded as a ferocious beast. They are unwilling to confront the social and economic policies that beget the evil system.