For people struggling for justice in the United States today, this is a time of mourning and reflection.
Videos of the horrifying shooting deaths of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge are terrifying for people of color, particularly young black men, because they shout: “You can be killed by state actors anytime, anywhere, without recourse.”
The subsequent shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers, and the wounding of seven other officers and two civilians, by a man who said he was targeting white people, especially white police officers, are terrifying for police officers — and also people of color, because it raises the specter that some will wrongfully equate the Black Lives Matter movement with the heinous actions of a lone civilian actor.
As a first step toward healing, we must honestly acknowledge and address the history and persistence of systemic racial bias throughout the American justice system, from the police to the courts, from Baton Rouge to Boston.
So, what is to be done?
As a first step toward healing, we must honestly acknowledge and address the history and persistence of systemic racial bias throughout the American justice system, from the police to the courts, from Baton Rouge to Boston. Indeed, we must set aside the myth that Massachusetts is immune.
Let’s start with the law itself. U.S. schoolchildren learn the “Blessings of Liberty,” “Justice” and “Domestic Tranquility” in the preamble to the Constitution. But black and brown children must sometimes feel there are two sets of books. In one, they learn of the Constitution’s dedication to the rule of law. In the other, unprinted book, they learn how to try to stay alive, to fear the state, and how to avoid encounters with police.
As the United States Supreme Court said in its infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, blacks in America historically were "regarded as beings of an inferior order" with "no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
Today, some of those words could feel true to the Boyd, Garner, Crawford, Rice, Bland and many other families that have lost loved ones to state violence.
Recently Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor rang the alarm in her dissent from the court’s opinion in Utah v. Strieff, a case that upheld the use of evidence from a constitutionally impermissible stop:
We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.
The justice’s words are clear nods to the Black Lives Matter movement and the “I can’t breathe” pleas for life by Eric Garner. They also are a call for an expansive view of the protections covered by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Sotomayor supported the idea by saying:
… I would add that unlawful “stops” have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience suggested by the name. This Court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you. When we condone officers’ use of these devices without adequate cause, we give them reason to target pedestrians in an arbitrary manner. We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens.
The risk of treating members of our own community as second-class citizens is not some distant threat that only exists in places like Ferguson or Baton Rouge. Here in Massachusetts, the people have a constitutional right to record the police in the public performance of their duties, but, in practice, many civilians fear arrest and prosecution under the state wiretap statute for doing so. That’s why the ACLU of Massachusetts filed suit in court last week, seeking clarification from the courts to uphold this right.
Reform, however, is just a part of the change we need to move forward.
Healthy and lasting reforms will happen only if we first confront hard truths about ourselves, including the fact that Massachusetts also suffers from implicit and systemic racial bias.
To be sure, efforts at anti-bias training and community outreach are welcome steps in the right direction. Yet, persistent public denials and downplaying of racial bias by some flies in the face of actual evidence and the real-world experience of many youth of color in Massachusetts.
Facing hard truths will keep us safe and set us free.
Evidence continues to show serious racial disparities in police stop-and-frisk patterns, use of force and police hiring and promotion practices in Boston and other major cities in Massachusetts. In Springfield, Boston and Worcester, youth of color have been arrested for nonviolent public order offenses at vastly higher rates than white youth engaged in the same behavior. Marijuana arrests in Massachusetts and nationwide disproportionately have targeted youth of color, although white people use marijuana at higher rates.
The myth that Massachusetts doesn’t have a serious racial bias problem in our criminal justice system may make some folks feel better. But false narratives also can dissuade police, policymakers and the public from taking real action to address underlying systemic biases that infect our criminal justice system.
So, yes. Let’s come together, black, brown and white people, police and civilians, policymakers and activists. Let’s have hard conversations about racism, bias and violence in America. But, as we do, let’s be sure to reflect on the reasons for persistent racial disparities in our criminal justice system — including here in Massachusetts. Let’s prepare to be uncomfortable with what we learn, as the first step toward healing and change.
Facing hard truths will keep us safe and set us free.
This piece was co-authored by Carl Williams, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts.
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