By Marc H. Morial
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963
What is the state of Black America in 2015? In short, and on many fronts, Black America remains in crisis – and we see justice challenged at every turn.
A few weeks before the launch of the 39th annual 2015 State of Black America® report – “Save our Cities: Education, Jobs + Justice,” the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing, and perhaps for some, startling report on the systemic racial bias inflicted upon the African-American citizens of Ferguson, Mo. by the city’s police department. The report’s tragic catalyst was – and sadly remains – an all-too-familiar story in Black and Brown communities dotted across our nation: an unarmed black male was approached by an armed police officer and lost his life in the encounter.
The National Urban League’s analysis of the relevant data told much the same story: the Ferguson narrative could be the narrative of so many U.S. towns, but within that dark cloud we discovered strands of silver linings.
Today, fewer African Americans are the victims of violent crimes, there are more Black lawmakers in Congress than ever and the U.S. Department of Justice is actively working to confront police misconduct and improve police-community relations. Yet, we cannot easily forget the images of anger and despair we have seen in communities rocked by protests over the killings of unarmed Black males at the hands of law enforcement.
These encouraging and necessary strides in our struggle for equality in justice are overshadowed by justice miscarried, with outrage spilling onto our streets as a seemingly endless parade of police officers are not held accountable by grand juries for their actions. We are also witnessing a continual assault upon our voting rights, as several states prepare to pass legislation that would erode access to the ballot box for people of color.
The state of justice in Black and Brown communities is very often a shameful tale of injustice and clear racial disparities in the implementation of the law.
The tragedy of Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson, Eric Garner’s death in New York, and the deaths of so many others, should underscore a difficult truth that should not sit well with any American: law enforcement, in too many cases, provides neither equal protection nor equal justice in far too many communities of color. And this is no blanket indictment of police officers. There are, and will always be, good police officers who put their lives on the line to keep law-abiding citizens safe. As the heated debates and protests continue, we know that police officers have become victims of violence, most notably the two officers in New York City late last year and police officers in Ferguson this year. But this should not – and cannot – silence our call to action in communities besieged by police officers who treat the people they are intended to serve and protect as presumptively guilty.
The exoneration of the police officers in those deaths of unarmed men by grand juries signaled that police accountability for the taking of Black and Brown lives was reaching a modern-day low. Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the family of Mike Brown, penned an essay in the 2015 State of Black America® report: “It’s Time to Pass the Grand Jury Reform Act of 2014.” The bill calls for judges to determine if the State should bring criminal charges against police officers who fatally use deadly force and calls for governors to appoint special prosecutors for those hearings. Deciding whether or not to indict would be a judge’s decision, not a grand jury’s, and the proceeding would remain open to the public, unlike grand juries that are, by law, secret proceedings.
Following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strip preclearance from the Voting Rights Act, allowing states to bypass federal approval before changing their voting rules, 40 states are now in line to codify into law new ways to make it difficult for people to vote—laws that would disproportionately affect communities of color. Voting is a powerful tool for any individual or group in a democracy to influence their government and create change. Without this right, you have no voice. The National Urban League and others will continue to press Congress to pass the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014. This legislative fix would create new rules to determine which states require federal approval before making any changes their voting rules. Truth be told, we cannot maintain our commitment to democracy as a nation while, at the same time, deny the ballot box to so many of our citizens.
There are tremendous challenges ahead of us in what should be our national fight for equality under the law, because to deny justice to one is threaten justice to all, and as long as justice is challenged on any front, we must—as a nation— keep pushing on every front.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.