The story of Laquan McDonald’s death is unfolding here in Chicago, with many egregious, but familiar, details: an African-American teenager was killed, by a police officer who fired 16 shots without provocation, his fellow officers became complicit by aggressively covering it up, the police brass and City Hall and State’s Attorney knew for months and dithered, the city had to be forced by a court to release the footage of the killing, and the prosecutor was driven by the impending publicity to hurry up an indictment that was already delayed too long.
This tragedy, one more in a string of police killings of African-Americans across the country, is a continuing affront to all of us, not just the people in Black and brown communities who are the immediate victims. It casts a shadow over the whole national project, where all of us enjoy equal rights and opportunities, including public safety.
It is evidence that people of color live under a different and far less protective Constitution, experiencing overt racial bias, less police protection, less presumption of innocence, and more danger of affirmative abuse of power from police, with no plausible explanation other than race. These things do not happen in white communities. Laquan McDonald was killed because he was Black.
Racial bias takes many forms and infects all systems in our society. The killing of racial minorities by police is but one violent example of racial injustice. But there are thousands of other examples of racial injustice that slowly and systemically deprive racial minorities of their rights, their opportunity, and of their belief in a free and just society.
Take poverty, for example, something the Shriver Center knows well. In our decades’ long fight against poverty, we have seen safety net programs, which help families escape poverty, ensure there is enough food in the home, and aid people in gaining employment, slowly dismantled under the guise that these programs promote a “welfare society.” This stereotype is indelibly linked with the image of an African-American single mother with children.
Or take the ongoing fact of residential racial segregation; the dramatic racial impact of the war on drugs that imprisons or burdens with criminal records astonishingly disparate percentages of African-American youths; or the stark racial wealth gap multiplied exponentially through the draining of net worth in the massive foreclosure crisis. On and on.
The fight against racism is at the heart of the fight against poverty in America at this time. Poverty and race are inextricable in this country. Although there are many racial disparities that must be addressed to fight poverty effectively, among the most important are disparities in public safety and in the police role in exacerbating rather than ameliorating that disparity.
Opportunity and justice for all people living in poverty, but especially African-Americans and Latinos, are connected intrinsically with public safety. Public safety is one of the core requisites for personal happiness and upward mobility through full engagement in family life, school, work, community, religious activity and other relationships.
We need to be able to trust the police to provide service that is effective, the same in all communities regardless of racial composition, and respectful of the rights guaranteed in our Constitution and laws. For too long, the members of communities of color have not been able to have that trust. In this sense, Laquan McDonald’s death is not unusual; it is extreme but symptomatic. We will not effectively address poverty or racial justice until we have trustworthy policing and the public safety to which it is indispensable.