The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
After the race riots in the country in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson created the Kerner Commission. In the course of their study of the riots and their causes, the Commission produced a series of recommendations to combat the deep seated racism in American society which they highlighted as the major cause underlining the rioting. Specifically among their recommendations was that law enforcement officers as well as officials, receive better and more comprehensive education about this problem. As a result The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) was created and charged with improving police sensitivity and knowledge about racism in America, so that it might help reduce the prejudicial administration of law enforcement that was pervasive in the country. Policemen were paid to study and flocked to universities throughout the country to take courses in politics, sociology, criminology, criminal justice, etc.
Much has changed for the good since that time and African Americans and all people of color have made large strides towards achieving equality before the law and equal opportunity in the society. The election of an African American as president of the United States in 2008 was never even a dream in the 1960’s; however, the results of the grand juries investigations in both Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York raised serious doubts whether–despite the election of Barack Obama—very much has genuinely changed in America.
Without judging Michael Brown or Eric Garner’s killers as guilty or innocent or whether either could have been proven to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, most political observers questioned what these grand jury decisions say about racism in law enforcement. It certainly appears that there was a predisposition among a significant number of members of two separate grand juries to have concluded that in both of these cases no law enforcement officers were sufficiently culpable that this matter–at a minimum– deserved consideration in a full jury trial.
At a national level the situation is perhaps even more depressing. Almost 15 years after the Kerner Commission was established, angry people marched, rioted, vandalized property, and wounded innocent citizens because of what they saw and believed to be the continuation of a racially discriminatory law enforcement system and legal process. Rioting is never an acceptable response, but America appears in 2014 not to have learned or changed very little—at least on one level—about race relations.