Race and the Police: Can a Black President change the game?


The fact that the country has elected its first black male president, does not shield black men from unwanted police contact.


On November 4, 2008 Barack Obama, a black man, was elected to the position of President- Elect of the United States of America and delivered an acceptance speech in Chicago, Illinois. On December 8, Billey Joe Johnson, Jr., a black man and star high school athlete, was killed during a traffic stop on the border of Mississippi and Alabama.

During the early morning hours of January 1, 2009, Robert Tolan, Jr., a black man, a minor league baseball player and son of a retired major league baseball player, was shot by police in the front yard of his suburban home in Bellaire, Texas. He was shot twice while unarmed and laying facedown on the ground.

At very near the same hour in a different time zone, Oscar Grant, a black man and father of one daughter, was shot by police in the back, while lying on a subway platform in Oakland, California.

President Obama is 47. Billey Joe Johnson, Jr. was 17. Oscar Grant was 23. Robert Tolan, Jr. is 23.

The number of young black male murder victims rose by 31 percent between 2002 and 2007; and the number of young black male perpetrators rose 43 percent, said a stark report by Northeastern University Professor, James Fox, which documents an increase in young black males' involvement in the offense of homicide both as victims and perpetrators.

Dr. Fox calls for a reinvestment in “prevention and crime control.”

The deaths of Billey Joe Johnson and Oscar Grant and the shooting of Robert Tolan, Jr. are not among Professor Fox's crime statistics. But, their names are among a growing list of mistakes, tragedies and occasional criminal convictions for officer involved shootings of innocent or minimally criminal civilians. Some have suggested that Professor Fox's statistics justify a heightened level of fear and suspicion that officers may experience during encounters with young black men. Others, including me, suggest that the misuse and misinterpretation of such statistics result in a virulent form of racial profiling that destroys lives, ends careers, depletes public treasuries, and decimates public trust.

The fact that the country had elected its first black male president, did not shield these black men from unwanted police contact; and, for at least two of them, being perceived as dangerous. Contrary to the optimism of some, the mere presence of a Black president has not changed the racial perceptions or behaviors of some others. As the new Attorney General takes over the Department of Justice, that agency will need to reassert the federal government's position against the use of racial and ethnic profiling by law enforcement officials and demonstrate through meaningful intervention, its intention to protect individual civil rights.

The Fox report and each of these incidents suggest that the control of guns must be high on the Obama administration's priority list when it comes to Criminal Justice policy. The death toll in urban, minority, poor communities cannot be reduced without effectively minimizing the flow of illegal guns into them. The crisis that is primarily concentrated within communities that suffer from social and economic disadvantage, cannot be used as an excuse for the careless or intentional misuse of legal guns, by sworn public servants, in any setting.

Dr. Delores Jones-Brown is a Professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice

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