California Forum

Mark T. Harris: America’s racial divide demands honest debate

Protesters hold up their hands while chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot” outside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks inside to members of the community during an interfaith service in December. Unrest over police shootings begs an honest debate on both sides of America’s racial divide.
Protesters hold up their hands while chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot” outside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks inside to members of the community during an interfaith service in December. Unrest over police shootings begs an honest debate on both sides of America’s racial divide. The Associated Press

During July 2013, my wife and I were teaching graduate students in Shanghai, China. Joining us was our youngest son, Martin, an accomplished scholar-athlete. During most evenings, Martin was adrift in the currents of Shanghai’s surprisingly “Westerner-friendly” nightlife. He would often stay out until daybreak, yet, I felt no worry.

But that would not be the case at all if my son stayed out all night in our hometown of Sacramento, or in any other major American city. In America, Martin, or any other young African American male, could well become a victim of violence either at the hands of a violent, corrupt police officer or another young African American male.

At the time, George Zimmerman’s exoneration for the killing of Trayvon Martin, to me, illustrated the continuing dehumanization of African American males and the notion that they all are considered “armed and extremely dangerous” simply by virtue of their black skin.

To be a large African American male, as am I, creates the illusory impression of a double-barreled menace. Witness the brutal killing in New York of Eric Garner. The deaths of Garner and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., brought to mind a few nagging thoughts that appear to be missing in the current debate on race in America.

Sadly, I can’t escape the fact that my two 20-something sons are much more likely to be the victims of a violent crime at the hands of another African American male than they are at the hands of law enforcement. There, I said it. Every night they go out in Sacramento, or in Oakland or Los Angeles, I find myself unable to sleep until I hear the respective door lock turn, as I whisper a silent prayer of gratitude that some young black thug didn’t choose that night to harm my child out of spite or jealousy, or some other inexcusable behavior based on some incomprehensible perceived slight.

Comedian Dave Chappelle once riffed that, as black people, we sometimes “keep it real” way past logical. Here are a few observations in response to the question of where America’s current debate on race and crime might go from here.

First, it makes no difference what a law enforcement officer’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or faith is. What should matter is that brutal, racist cops should be summarily removed from service once they are discovered.

The systems that allow unfit officers to serve in law enforcement must be reformed. Why not have members of the communities where these law enforcement officers serve participate in the screening of those whom they will depend upon to “protect and serve”? Why not give a preference in hiring and promotion to officers living in specified neighborhoods?

Second, let’s be honest on both sides of America’s great racial divide. Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani were both right in points they espoused during an explosive exchange in a recent “Meet the Press” episode.

Giuliani called attention to the unacceptably high level of crime carried out by and against black people by other black people. Dyson challenged Giuliani’s observation, pointing out that the mayor’s comments seemed to draw a “false equivalency” between “black-on-black” crime and improper police tactics.

Police are sworn to uphold the law, which includes ensuring each person is treated equally under the law. Profiling and other means of applying stereotypes to certain types of persons on the basis of how they appear, as opposed to how they behave, is inimical to the very foundations of our democratic republic.

However, African Americans must be the leading edge for the calls to reduce the unacceptably high levels of crime to which we are subjected at the hands of other blacks. Nothing Giuliani said offended me because it was the truth, which I was told as a child, sometimes hurts. How he said it was inflammatory, not what he said.

My family and I returned to China in October to accompany the Sacramento Kings. Both of my young adult sons accompanied me. Although they traveled around China largely on their own, during all hours of the day and night, I slept each night without worry.

I find it reassuring to my American patriotism that the media have been full of videos and photographs showing a kaleidoscope of a uniquely American amalgam of diverse ethnic faces underneath outstretched arms holding up “Black Lives Matter” banners while chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” As an ongoing tidal wave of unrest envelops our nation, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty” resonates in my head as I attempt to reconcile how I, as a black man, continue to embrace the red, white and blue, while time and time again it fails to embrace me back.

It is because of the faith I have in America that I have a higher expectation of America.

Mark T. Harris teaches management at the University of California, Merced, and is an attorney in Sacramento, where he is president of New Faze Development. He is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. As a Berkeley student, he served on the City of Berkeley Police Review Commission.

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