The recent events in Ferguson have caused a nationwide discussion about how the role the police play in systematic racism. The facts of the case are vague with few exception. We know Michael Brown (18), an unarmed black man, was shot six times (four times in the arm and twice in the top of the head) in the street by police officer Darren Wilson (28). The vagueness of the facts has the country divided about whether or not racism played any substantive role in this situation. One camp of people whole heartedly believes it was an issue of racism, citing the long history of racism in our country and vastly disproportionate persecution of black and latino men that continues today, while the other believes that people are playing the "race card" when in fact it was an issue of a lack of personal responsibility. They say, if Michael Brown had obeyed the officer, he'd be alive today. Both sides are deeply entrenched in their view and, though this is a large scale discussion of morality, oddly these views are politically divisive with Republicans more likely to support the officer Darren Wilson and Democrats more likely to side with Michael Brown the unarmed man who died after resisting arrest and being shot. It appears that Michael Brown's death has become a Rorschach Test exposing people's world view of the causes of continuing social inequality. This is about whether black people are "personally responsible" for being disproportionately targeted by the police or if our society at large is responsible for using the police to do the dirty work of enforcing a racist social hierarchy.
Among the reasonable and informed there is no disagreement about whether personal responsibility is the cause of the massively disproportionate rates of incarceration, punishment, arrest, and search. Blacks, in Missouri in 2011, were pulled over more often, searched more often, arrested significantly more, and yet were less likely to have committed a crime than whites. The fact of the matter is that we enforce "personal responsibility" more strictly for black people than whites. We have a culture of legal permissiveness for whites and harsh legal enforcement for blacks. That is the systematic work around for racism in the era after Jim Crow.
When we talk about systematic racism in the US, which is a large scale social problem, it's important to focus on the fact that evidence of ugly side effects of it does exist. And, to do this we can simply look at the life expectancy of blacks vs whites, the leading cause of death for black men, and understand the effects of low status in a strictly enforced social hierarchy and the stress it causes. The work of Dr. Robert Sapolsky is incredibly important here. His research of baboon hierarchy and stress hormone levels showed that the baboons on the bottom of the social hierarchy were more likely to experience much higher levels of stress, elevated adrenaline levels, suffered from hypertension, and hardening of arteries. This meant that being low status had major health implications and lowered life expectancy dramatically. We encounter the same social effects from an enforced hierarchy. And, the effects of stress on our bodies are complex and cause a multitude of serious problems from a brain that literally shrinks to hypertension and a shortened life span. Given the fact that black men have the lowest life expectancy in our society, it fits the theory that our enforcement of social hierarchy has had lasting impacts on the lives of black men.
When talking about systematic racism it's also important to talk about the role police and laws have traditionally played in racism. It might seems obvious but people don't seem to realize that "obeying the law" and being personally responsible two hundred years ago meant staying a slave. Fifty years ago, "obeying the law" and taking responsibility for their actions meant never sitting at the front of the bus, drinking from a clean water fountain, or looking at a white woman in the south. Now, "obeying the law" and being personally responsible means letting a police officer search you without cause or in a situation where white people would not be and being held to a higher standard than whites. It's also important to think back to before the Holocaust began when Jews were placed forced from their homes or shot to death for resisting persecution. Do we think of the person that runs at the SS officer as being responsible for his own death? I don't think so even though we can all see that the logical safe choice is to comply but, in that situation, we know what happens at the end and that everyone should have joined with that guy and resisted the law. In those moments, we all understand that the enforcement of injustice is evil. But, we have a hard time seeing it when we are the one's who make the laws and believe our moral superiority.