In 1944, the Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, published a landmark study of the United States titled “An American Dilemma.”
It was about the condition of blacks in America. He posited that over the course of American history, white prejudice kept African-Americans low in standards of living, health, education, manners and morals. But those low standards in turn confirmed and reinforced white prejudice, setting off a depressing spiral.
It is tragic to say that in 2016, 72 years later, those words seem strikingly relevant.
The first thing to say about the grotesque shooting of police officers in Dallas last week is that these are not simply cruel and abominable acts but deeply dangerous.
Civilization rests on the rule of law, and that rests on respect for officers of the law. I have never liked hearing marching crowds that chant slogans such as “No justice, no peace.” That is a not-so-veiled threat against the basic rules of civil society. We all rely on the police and other elements of the criminal justice system to maintain order, which is the building block of justice. Look at countries such as Iraq and Libya today, where order has collapsed. The rule of law has been replaced by the law of the jungle.
But it is also worth noting that the rule of law gains credibility when it is seen as fair, and that America has a problem in this regard. President Barack Obama last week cited some data that is worth repeating:
“According to various studies — not just one, but a wide range of studies that have been carried out over a number of years — African-Americans are 30% more likely than whites to be pulled over. After being pulled over, African-Americans and Hispanics are three times more likely to be searched. Last year, African-Americans were shot by police at more than twice the rate of whites. African-Americans are arrested at twice the rate of whites. African-American defendants are 75% more likely to be charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimums. They receive sentences that are almost 10% longer than comparable whites arrested for the same crime.”
Take a state such as Maryland, where blacks make up 29% of the state’s population but a staggering 72 % of its prison population. Something has gone wrong with the criminal justice system in America.
I don’t pretend there is an easy solution, but I do believe we need to all recognize that there is a bigger problem than we want to admit.
And there’s one final point to make: We need to keep numbers and statistics in mind after one of these traumatic weeks, just as we do after a terror attack. You can feel safe in America. Law and order exist — they do not need to be “restored.”
The vast, vast majority of cops in the country do their very dangerous jobs admirably and fairly. We should not generalize from a small number of incidents and police officers about the force in general. The same is true, of course, about African-Americans — the vast, vast majority of whom it should go without saying are law-abiding citizens.
If we can remember to see people as individuals and not as caricatures, that in itself will be a small step on a road to progress.