Writing a New Chapter on Race in America

  • August 3, 2015

A case outside St. Louis sparked a national conversation about race and racism, ignited a movement, and eventually led to a new chapter in American history. Not the Michael Brown case, but rather Dred Scott. In that remarkable history, which originated in Missouri, the Supreme Court shamefully wrote in 1857 that black men had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Although Dred Scott served as a catalyst for the Civil War and the eventual adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, we cannot deny that the reprehensible decision is part of our legacy. Nor can we deny that we enslaved black communities for centuries or that for decades Jim Crow laws segregated society and relegated African Americans to an underclass.

We must recognize, too, that our history of racism bleeds into the present. Today, black students are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school as their white peers. Discriminatory laws still prevent hundreds of thousands of people of color from voting. And unless current policies change, one in three black babies born today will be incarcerated during his lifetime.

In the year since the killing of Michael Brown, a national spotlight has focused on the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. Just as we cannot gloss over our societal history, we cannot deny the role that law enforcement too often played in enforcing those shameful policies and oppressing communities of color. We cannot forget that during Jim Crow law enforcement frequently failed to protect African-American communities. We cannot celebrate the achievements of the civil rights movement without recalling images of police officers using dogs and fire hoses against peaceful protesters.

As the history of racism and inequality continues to infect society, Department of Justice investigations this year found “substantial bias” in police and court staff in Ferguson, and most recently, civil rights violations and racial bias in the St. Louis County Family Court. Beyond the St. Louis region, the list of names of unarmed black men killed by police grows longer. Recent tragedies have spurred the proclamation that “Black Lives Matter” not because other lives don’t, but because for so long black lives have been devalued.

The temptation to condemn all law enforcement serves no purpose. And condemning all law enforcement is unfair to those who go out of their way, every day, to protect everyone in their communities regardless of race or other status. We should be as outraged that police are vulnerable to attack just for wearing the uniform as we are when unarmed black youth are killed in police interactions we simply cannot understand. Most join law enforcement because they genuinely want to serve and protect. The way to move forward from tragedy is to draw lessons from the past while committing to working towards a better future.

For 10 years the Anti-Defamation League in St. Louis has presented training for law enforcement with the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, exploring what happens when police lose sight of the values they swore to uphold and their role as protectors of those they serve. By contrasting police in Nazi Germany, and exploring the role that law enforcement should play in our democracy, Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust underscores the importance of building trust and safeguarding constitutional rights. We know the program is only a part of what policing needs to consider as these issues confront the country daily.

Learning from history is a start, but alone it is not enough. Moving forward, we must each commit to confront our past, grapple with our present, and chart a better way forward. If we can do that, someday we may say that the death of Michael Brown, and too many others like him, served — as Dred Scott did — as the catalyst for a better chapter in American history.

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