July 14, 2000


The State of Race Relations Keeps Us Going

by Theodore M. Shaw

This year the NAACP Legal Defense Fund is celebrating its 60th anniversary. As the country's oldest civil-rights law firm, actually we would like to go out of business. Unfortunately, we can't.

Issues of race continue to plague America. To a large extent, your race still determines where you live, where your kids go to school and the quality of education they receive, and what your job prospects are.

Race also plays a large role in how the police and the criminal-justice system treat you. If you are a minority, you are often viewed as a suspect, and you are likely to receive harsher penalties than white Americans if you are convicted of an offense.

Police brutality is a huge problem for black people in the United States.

In February, an Albany, N.Y., jury acquitted four white New York City police officers of all charges in the killing of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant. The plainclothes members of the Street Crimes Unit had fired 41 bullets at the unarmed street vendor as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment house on Feb. 4, 1999.

The officers testified that Diallo had behaved "suspiciously" and that they mistook him for a rape suspect and his wallet for a gun.

After the verdict, the jurors, who included four black women, stated that race was not even mentioned during their deliberations. That is like saying that nobody noticed the 5,000-pound elephant in the back seat of the Volkswagen Beetle.

On March 16 this year, Patrick Dorismond became the latest tragic addition to a long line of unarmed black New Yorkers to lose their lives at the hands of the police. As with Diallo and Abner Louima, who was savagely tortured in a New York police station by officers in 1997, Dorismond's name has become a rallying cry against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has purposely antagonized the black community by implementing aggressive law-enforcement policies which treat innocent people of color in a harsh and oppressive manner. But this problem is not limited to New York City. It's nationwide.

Political commentators tell us that outside of black communities these issues have little resonance. If so, that is a devastating indictment. A society that sanctions police harassment, torture or killings of its members, whether randomly or by unwitting design, forfeits its moral authority and its moral authority and its leadership on human rights.

We at the Legal Defense Fund believe that most Americans, including the overwhelming majority of law-enforcement officials, do not sanction a society that tolerates police brutality.

The challenge is to stir all Americans from their complacency and force them to confront racial and social injustice. The American experience with race has been painful and tortured. It remains so. But even though it has been painful, it has been a story of progress.

In the year 2000, the struggle for racial progress continues despite those who would summarily declare it to be over. At the legal Defense Fund, we wish we all didn't have so much work ahead.

Theodore M. Shaw is associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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