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Aug 22, 2014

Race Matters in Ferguson—and in Modern America

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri are a painful reminder about how the government often treats its black citizens.  At times, it appeared the police were using the Bill of Rights as a checklist of laws to violate rather than the restraint on their powers it is supposed to be. And while it may be easier or more comfortable to think of this strictly as a government-citizen problem, the ever-present spectre of the past is worth remembering, as I have written previously:

Most criminal laws since Reconstruction are facially “colorblind,” but enforcement clearly is not and has never been. Context matters, and in the American context, race matters.

The chasm between the black and white reactions to the stories of isolated looting and nearly nightly assault en masse by police with tear gas and other heavy-handed tactics is no mere coincidence. Countless video and photographic images of police officers pointed loaded weapons at unarmed civilians exercising their constitutional rights were on full display and broadcast around the world. Yet, many people—particularly white people—believe such appalling actions were justified, undercutting the notion put forth by many libertarians that requiring police to wear body cameras will be sufficient to stem police abuse of citizens regardless of color.

The lack of empathy is not isolated to the Ferguson protests either.

Unpleasant as it is to recognize, race continues to play a role in American society. For this reason, libertarians should be cognizant of how policies affect black people, often disproportionately, and think about how that blatant unfairness might affect communities who have and will continue to face abuse by their government and by society at large. Changing the weapons—be it the Drug War, the militarization of police, or “Stop & Frisk”—won’t eliminate the longstanding antipathy between many communities and their police. Those policies should be eliminated, for sure, but the underlying problems of disproportionate enforcement and abuse will remain unless we purposefully address them. Ignoring racial disparities will not make them go away.

I’ve written on these issues here and here, and my libertarianism.org podcast on this topic can be downloaded or streamed here.