It’s one of the best-known lines of any English-language poet — Robert Burns’ reflection on the upper-class church lady who doesn’t realize there’s a louse crawling around on her bonnet. “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!”
I had an opportunity to see how others see us while vacationing in Italy when news broke of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for killing teenager Michael Brown. Across Europe, the news coverage was nonstop. And it wasn’t pretty.
For most Europeans, the failure of the grand jury to indict, and resulting riots in Ferguson and other cities, was just further proof that a country that brags of its human rights record has itself a serious, continuing problem with racism. On German television, a special program on racism in America opened with the chilling observation: “For half a century, the land of the free has been trying to overcome racism and discrimination — with doubtful results.” French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira summed up her impressions on Twitter: “Racial profiling, social exclusion, territorial segregation, cultural marginalization, firearms, fear, fatal cocktail.”
Of course, nobody enjoyed rubbing our nose in it more than Russia. After years of our condemning the Russian government for its denial of basic human rights, this was their chance to get even. Russia’s foreign ministry, which dubbed the unrest a “color revolution,” cited the riots as evidence of “systematic shortcomings of American democracy.”
It’s uncomfortable to hear such criticism, especially from nations that are hardly paragons of virtue. Yet, they are right! We do have a lingering problem with racism in this country. We might as well admit it, and we’d better start dealing with it. We saw it in Los Angeles with Rodney King. We saw it in Sanford, Florida, with Trayvon Martin. We saw it in Ferguson with Michael Brown. And now we see it, once again, on Staten Island, with Eric Garner. Add to these cases that no doubt go unreported every day nationwide.
As shocking as the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson might be, the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict is even worse — because they were presented with so much more evidence. Starting with a video of the entire incident, on which Garner can be heard repeatedly warning “I can’t breathe,” as Officer Daniel Pantaleo locks him in a chokehold while four or five other police officers hold him down, face pressed into the sidewalk. They then leave him lying there for more than five minutes — handcuffed, not breathing, without administering any aid — until an ambulance arrives. And there’s no doubt how he died. The medical examiner ruled that Garner’s death was a homicide caused by the chokehold — the use of which is banned under New York Police Department rules.
Yet, despite such clear evidence of police abuse, the grand jury refused to indict Pantaleo, who thereby joined Darren Wilson as the latest white police officers to kill an unarmed black man and get away with it. Garner, meanwhile, joined Michael Brown as two of their latest victims, neither of whom deserved to die. Michael Brown’s crime? Walking down the street in Ferguson. Eric Garner’s crime? Allegedly selling loose cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island without a license. Would a young white man have been killed by police for such minor offenses?
Hopefully, the back-to-back deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner will serve as the two-by-four between the eyes necessary to wake all of us up to the need to confront the issue of race head-on — and not forget about it until the next headline-grabbing event. Yes, we’ve made a lot of progress since the days of Jim Crow. But the evidence of continuing racial discrimination is overwhelming: in racial profiling of young blacks by law enforcement, in the disproportionate number of blacks in prison, in a lack of representation in elective office and executive suites and in court decisions upholding restrictions on voting rights.
President Obama should take the lead by appointing a National Commission on Racism to hold hearings around the country, study the problem and make recommendations for action at the federal, state and local level. We can no longer accept a reality where an African-American occupies the Oval Office, yet a young black man can’t walk down the street without being stopped and questioned — merely because he’s black. It sounds harsh to say it, but it’s true. More than anyone else today, black men have much to fear when confronted by white cops.
Bill Press is host of a nationally syndicated radio show, the host of Full Court Press, and the author of a new book, The Obama Hate Machine, which is available in bookstores now. You can hear “The Bill Press Show” at his website: billpressshow.com. His email address is: email@example.com.
Photo: Tony Webster via Flickr