The death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American, shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on 9 August 2014, sparked protests and allegations of institutionalized racism in the country’s police force. Although witness testimony is conflicting, Brown was described by some as holding his hands up while he was shot repeatedly. In the ensuing weeks, the streets of Ferguson were filled with demonstrators who believed that Brown’s death reflected widespread ethnic discrimination among law enforcement personnel. Though there were incidents of looting and arson of local businesses, the response by police was also criticized as excessive. Within a week a state of emergency was declared in the suburb and a midnight curfew was enforced.

The demonstrations and violence in Ferguson have led to ongoing discussions about ethnic profiling and the incidence of homicide by police while on duty in the United States. This is a particular problem in its cities, where ethnic minorities are often concentrated – in 22 of the country’s 100 largest urban areas, they now make up a majority of the population – as evidenced by statistics on police stops and street interrogations in New York City. Data collected by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) since 2002 on the use of ‘stop-and-frisk’ by the New York Police Department (NYPD) shows that, of those individuals engaged by the NYPD officers, 54 per cent were African-American despite them making up just 25.5 per cent of the city’s population. Nearly 9 out of 10 of those targeted were completely innocent, a fact corroborated by the NYPD’s own reports.

Recent research, drawing on data between 2010 and 2012, has revealed that African-American young men and boys are 21 times more likely to be killed by on-duty police officers than their non-Latino white counterparts. In 2014, some of those killed were Akai Gurley, Ezell Ford and Rumain Brisbon. One of the most high-profile incidents was the killing of 43-year-old Eric Garner by an NYPD officer on 17 July in Staten Island, New York. The arrest and fatal choking of Garner, who was unarmed, were captured on video and quickly spread across the internet. In the video Garner can be heard pleading ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times. This plea, along with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, soon became rallying cries of the anti-police brutality and equality movements in the United States. Popular outrage was further inflamed by grand jury rulings towards the end of the year that closed criminal proceedings against the officers involved in the Brown and Garner killings, triggering further protests in cities across the country.

One contributing factor to the tensions that arise in urban areas between minority communities and law enforcement agencies is the involvement of some members in violent crime, including gang membership. However, this occurs among the complexities of social, political and economic exclusion that fuel criminal behaviour – factors that are often overlooked in public discussions of urban violence within minority communities. The simplistic and discriminatory representation of these issues was reflected in comments by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who stated in an interview in the wake of Ferguson that ‘93 per cent of blacks are killed by other blacks’. He argued that attention should be focused on reducing crime within African-American communities rather than the killing of Brown by a white police officer, which Giuliani regarded as ‘the significant exception’.

While Giuliani’s comments were criticized by many commentators as harmfully reductive and misleading, evidence suggests that crime affecting African-American communities is disproportionately high, with African-Americans being four times more likely to die from homicide compared to the national average. However, in addressing urban violence it is neither useful nor effective to reinforce the inaccurate notion that members of minority communities form the overwhelming majority of perpetrators. New research on gang membership is evidence of this. A joint report from the US Department of Justice (DoJ) and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reveals that the use of law enforcement data creates incorrect perceptions about the ethnic make-up of gangs. The National Gang Center, which relies heavily on this dataset, reports that 84 per cent of gang members are from ethnic minorities. However, when these statistics are combined with self-reporting studies, the demographic of gang membership changes considerably. This is the case in the evaluation of the Gang Resistance Education Training (GREAT) programme, which indicates that nationally about 25 per cent of gang members are non-Latino whites. The report further notes that the factors driving gang membership should not be simplified in these terms: ‘most risk factors cut across… ethnic lines, including the negative consequences associated with poverty, immigration, discrimination and social isolation’.

For instance, decades of research has tried to determine the extent to which spatial segregation impacts on minorities in urban areas and issues such as educational attainment, social isolation, housing, poverty and health. In Chicago, a 2012 joint report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Center on Human Needs at Virginia Commonwealth University found that ethnic segregation in the city’s neighbourhoods caused as much as a 33-year difference in life expectancy between non-Latino white residents and certain minorities. However, other recent studies based in Chicago and elsewhere have suggested that African-American and other non-Latino minorities were more likely to report poorer health while living in predominantly non-Latino white neighbourhoods compared to those living in segregated minority neighbourhoods. One rationale given for this, substantiated by past studies, is that social isolation of minorities living within non-Latino white neighbourhoods leads to higher incidence of poor health.

Another issue that is especially acute within urban areas is educational inequality, with new evidence demonstrating continued school segregation, particularly within the country’s inner cities. A report from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights from March 2014 identifies that African-Americans on average have less access to rigorous educational programmes and are more frequently taught by lower-paid teachers with less experience. Furthermore, African-American students are four times as likely as non-Latino white students to attend schools where one out five teachers do not meet all state teaching requirements. The same Department of Education report found that ethnic minorities are more likely to be suspended or expelled overall, and that African-American students are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled compared to their white peers. Though the reasons for the increasing segregation within the schooling system are diverse, there are clear indications that school zoning policies favour affluent neighbourhoods, leaving minority students from poor inner-city areas disadvantaged and forced to attend under-resourced schools. The movement towards privately funded charter schools is also exacerbating unequal access to quality education among the country’s youth.

Sub-standard education for poor students attending schools in less affluent neighbourhoods, as is the case for many minority children, has a lifetime effect on their future economic wellbeing. Furthermore, limited educational opportunities for minority students have been associated with a phenomenon known as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’, particularly as the expansion of the presence of police officers inside schools has led to increased contact with the criminal justice system. Infractions that were previously dealt with by teachers and school administrators now lead to fines and even incarceration in juvenile facilities. This experience has long-term ramifications, as children and adolescents sent to juvenile facilities are 37 times more likely to be arrested again as adults. Students with criminal records are further marginalized in some school districts through the use of alternative schools, which segregate them from the general student population. The discrimination within the school system is borne out in their disproportionate incarceration rates in the country’s prisons, with African-Americans accounting for 41 per cent of those imprisoned though they make up just 13 per cent of the national population.

While stronger institutional safeguards and a steady process of rebuilding trust between African-American community members and the police force are urgently required, greater efforts must also be invested in tackling the root drivers of inequality, alienation and disenfranchisement that have perpetuated violence and social exclusion in American cities. Only by recognizing and addressing the disparities experienced by many African-Americans in education, employment, housing and other areas will the long-term situation of the community be improved.

Read the full article at Minority Stories.