Protesting Police Brutality in the Bronx South Bronx, protest against biased policing practices. Samantha Grace Lewis/Flikr February 2012.

Ending Racial Disparities – Law Enforcement and Blacks in America

The Ghosts of Jim Crow today and ‘White Flight, Slurs, Profiling, Police Brutality and Tracking’


Protesting Police Brutality in the Bronx  South Bronx, protest against biased policing practices.  Samantha Grace Lewis/Flikr February 2012.
Protesting Police Brutality in the Bronx
South Bronx, protest against biased policing practices. Samantha Grace Lewis/Flikr February 2012.

President Barack Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative in February that promised to provide educational and employment opportunities for impoverished minority male youth. This initiative, the first of its kind on a federal level that targets young black and Hispanic males, is a good first step, but much more needs to be done and for many more deserving recipients.

The statistics that prompted this initiative are alarming. By fourth grade, over 80% of black and Hispanic boys are reading below proficiency levels compared with 54% of white fourth-graders. By the time these boys become young men, they are six times as likely to be murder victims as their white counterparts. Those who survive the violence of their neighborhoods are twice as likely as white males to drop out of school, be unemployed or become involved in the criminal justice system.

The desire to eradicate these disparities motivated me to spend a decade gathering and analyzing data for my recently released book, Ghosts of Jim Crow, which not only explains how these disparities were created, but also offers a solution to eliminate racial inequality. While much progress has been made in reducing racial barriers since the demise of Jim Crow some 50 years ago, progress does not mean post-racial. Progress does not mean that race is no longer a significant factor in opportunities provided or in hardships endured. As recent high-profile comments — such as the revelation in April that Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers professional basketball team, would prefer that his girlfriend not bring blacks to any Clippers games, and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s comments that blacks were better off during slavery — starkly demonstrate, racism persists.

While President Obama should be commended for creating My Brother’s Keeper, as minority male youth clearly need assistance, it is critical to recognize that racial inequality today transcends age, class and gender. Racial disparities for impoverished minority female youth and middle- and upper-class minorities, irrespective of age and gender, while smaller than those that exist for minority male youth, are also alarmingly wide. The reading rate of black female fourth-graders is equally low compared with their black male counterparts. Not surprisingly, gaps in educational accomplishment and unemployment remain for high school, college and graduate school. Black unemployment is nearly twice that of white, regardless of whether one is examining white-collar or blue-collar jobs, and education does not significantly reduce the gap.

In difficult economic times, black women are hit particularly hard. During the recent recession, the percentage of jobs lost by black women was higher than any other group. Black high-school graduates have a higher unemployment rate than whites who did not finish high school. Black college graduates have a higher unemployment rate than whites who did not complete college. At all levels, irrespective of gender, blacks with the same educational degrees make less than their white counterparts. Disparities are similar for Hispanics. So even today, middle-class minorities, male or female, are more likely to be underpaid, have a mortgage foreclosed or suffer diminished wealth accumulation.

My own experience confirms this disparate treatment. Growing up in some of America’s wealthiest neighborhoods and attending some of the world’s top schools, and being respectful of laws and codes of conduct, I was subjected to profiling, police brutality, tracking, epithets, “white flight” and other indignities of black status.

In 1964, when my family moved to Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy suburb of Cleveland, I experienced the betrayal of white flight. I was 9 years old and attended Lomond Elementary School, a good school in an excellent school district. At the time, only 15 of the 550 students were black. My best friend was a white student, and it surprised me when his family abruptly moved two suburbs away in 1969. By then, 164 black students attended Lomond Elementary, roughly a tenfold increase since I enrolled, and there was a rapid decrease in white students.

My friend’s family was one of many white families that moved to far-flung suburbs in the late 1960s and ’70s, fleeing the growing black population of America’s cities. While racially isolated schools in suburban Cleveland and elsewhere had good facilities and teachers, they did not match Lomond’s recognition or accolades. This suggests that many white families relocated not to seek educational excellence for their children but because they felt a need to isolate themselves from a racially diverse community. Black enrollment at Lomond has increased from 1% in 1964 to over 60% today due to massive white flight and reluctance by many whites to reside in neighborhoods with significant numbers of blacks. Today, 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that prohibited government-imposed segregation, many schools are just as racially isolated as they were in 1954.

Today, over 75% of black and Hispanic students attend hyper-segregated schools where over 90% of students are black or Hispanic.

In the fall of 1969, I felt the pain from racial slurs when I enrolled at University School in Shaker Heights, an exclusive private school requiring entrance by examination. There were only a few black students at the school, and during my first week, one of my classmates referred to me as a “nigger.” I never expected to have to confront racial slurs at my new school, where all the students were smart and accomplished. I thought racism was something only ignorant and uneducated people espoused.

The following year, my family relocated to the West Coast. On my first day in Beverly Hills, California, in 1970, I began exploring my new surroundings by bicycle. Two white police officers stopped me for questioning, without cause, assuming that because I was black, I did not reside in the area. Before the officers let me go, they warned that there was a curfew for children in the jurisdiction and said they had better not see me out again at night without adult supervision. Not long after this unwarranted stop, I was at a pool party, the only black kid among white children who had lived in Beverly Hills for years. As it became dark, I announced that I had to be going. “Why?” my new friends wanted to know. “Because of the curfew,” I replied. “What curfew?” they asked. Their candid question exposed the real motive behind the police officers’ “warning.”

Discriminatory treatment by law enforcement officials continued the following year when I feared that I would be the victim of police brutality while riding home from school with a friend’s father. My parents had warned me about police brutality after a series of allegations by blacks against law enforcement officers in Southern California. Six years prior, Leonard Deadwyler, a black man driving his pregnant wife to a local hospital was shot and killed by a Los Angeles police officer during a traffic stop. When my friend and his father were driving me home, the father pulled into a closed Hollywood gas station needing to pick up something from the station office. He knew the owner and said he would walk to get him from his house nearby. He told my friend and me to wait in the car, which was parked in front of the gas pumps.

Shortly after he left, a Los Angeles police car pulled into the station. Two white officers got out of the car with guns drawn and told my friend, who was also black, and me to get out of the car with our hands up. After they checked the license plate and our identification, my friend told the officers why we were there. The officers then searched the car. Upon finding nothing suspicious, the officers told us to continue standing while they went back to their vehicle to verify our story. I nudged my friend and said jokingly, “They think we are robbing the station.” Several seconds later, one officer returned, said our story appeared to check out, and asked me what I was smiling about. He then took out his billy club, and after slapping it in his hand several times, asked, “How would you like me to take you behind the station and knock that smile off your face?” Before I could answer, the other officer came out of the police car and said, “Let’s go, we have another call.” In that brief moment, I saw the reality of the tense dynamic between black detainees and white police officers — whether “walking while black,” “driving while black,” or in my case, “smiling while black” — frequently experienced by blacks all over the country.

I experienced this same duality in Beverly Hills public schools when officials would not place me in an accelerated academic track even though my transcript qualified me for such a placement and, on several occasions, would not respond to requests for supporting documents by colleges interested in having me apply.

In the fall of 1975, as a member of the freshman football team at Brown University, I learned about the subtleties of race in the post-Jim Crow era. While there were 60 members on the team, only five players were black: two recruited players and three “walk-on” players, including me. Forty-four of the members played regularly during team scrimmages, including several white walk-ons. None of the black walk-ons played in the preseason scrimmages. A week before the first game, it was announced that all members of the first and second teams would play an equal amount of time. All three of us black walk-ons were third-string and would not play. However, the day before the game, the first-team flanker broke his ankle and was out for the season. As I was suiting up for the game, the first-string quarterback and several other players said to me, “Now you are going to get your chance, let’s see what you can do.” Previously, when a player quit or was injured, his backup was automatically selected to replace him. But, in this precedent-setting instance, when the depth chart listing starting rotations was posted three hours before kickoff, I was still third-string. Despite not knowing the plays or having practiced in the position, a white player was moved from third-string defensive-back to second-string flanker for the first game of the season. I did not play in that game against Yale, even though I was entitled to under the established criteria.

This is when I first realized that race was no longer the only factor in discriminatory treatment against blacks as it had been under Jim Crow laws; it was now one of several factors. Discrimination frequently involved race plus something else: race plus poverty, race plus lack of education, race plus lack of political power or race plus not being recruited. Under this approach, not all blacks would be excluded from schools, neighborhoods or participation in activities, but most would. Recruited black players could play in games, but walk-on black players could not. When the five black players confronted the head football coach concerning the disparate racial treatment, he said, “One of the five blacks on the team is a starter, so why are you guys crying racism?” Our white coach truly believed that blacks could not be victims of racism if one was allowed to start.

I hear this argument often today to support the position that racism has ended. When one black is being treated fairly, how can denial of opportunities to other blacks have anything to do with racism? It is important to understand however, that the mere fact that one individual has been treated fairly does not warrant the conclusion that all others have been. In the post-Jim Crow era, individual assessment is critical.

In 1977, during my junior year at Brown, 13 years after Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination in public accommodations, I was surprised to see that some whites would choose to lose profits rather than serve black clientele. I attended the opening of the Shamrock Cliffs nightclub in Newport, Rhode Island, in a mansion on the beach of Millionaire’s Row. The club was packed; only three blacks were in attendance, including the disc jockey, who played rhythm and blues music. Over the next several months, as word of the club spread, there were progressively more black patrons without any decline in overall numbers. By the sixth month of operation, the clientele was approximately 60% black. At that point, the white owner approached the disc jockey and requested that the music be changed from rhythm and blues to rock. Given the high attendance, the disc jockey was surprised by the request and questioned the change. He was told that while profit was high and no security problems had arisen, the owner preferred rock music. The disc jockey quit rather than change the format. He recognized that the change in music was really meant to shift the racial makeup of the crowd. Attendance dropped significantly over the next several weeks and there were fewer black patrons. The owner, however, was much happier with a lower profit but predominantly white clientele. Long after passage of antidiscrimination laws, some white proprietors resisted the spirit of those laws by adopting more covert practices, like drastic changes in music format, which hindered interaction between blacks and whites, especially if whites were not predominant in numbers.

Racial inequality today is much more complex. Sixty years ago, laws imposed discrimination, and violence was used to maintain the divide. Today, the “ghosts of Jim Crow” are individual and societal choices — like white flight, slurs, profiling, police brutality and tracking — that reduce education and economic opportunities and increase interaction with the criminal justice system.

Bari-Ellen Roberts understands this phenomenon all too well. In the 1990s, she was a senior financial analyst at Texaco who was denied opportunities for professional advancement because she was black. In one outrageous incident, Roberts’ job performance rating was lowered after she challenged the ideas of another executive during a meeting. Roberts, who filed a class-action discrimination suit, wrote about her experiences in “Roberts vs. Texaco: A True Story of Race and Corporate America.” Based on secretly taped conversations in which executives at Texaco used racially derogatory language and complained about blacks being hired at Texaco, evidence against the company was so overwhelming that Texaco agreed to pay $176 million to 1,500 black employees.

Equally reflective of current racial disparities is the pattern of property ownership, and the fact that whites continue to embrace the “tipping point” notion in housing integration. Tipping-point bigotry inspired Jeremy Parady, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to conspiracy to commit arson in a series of fires in a new housing development in southern Maryland. Parady admitted that he set fire to this development because many buyers were blacks and the surrounding neighborhood was mostly white.

Another ghost of Jim Crow involves inequities in the criminal justice system. Tim Carter and Richard Thomas were arrested three months apart in 2004 for separate incidents in nearly the same location — St. Petersburg, Florida. Police found one rock of cocaine on Carter, who is white, and a crack pipe with cocaine residue on Thomas, who is black. Both men claimed drug addiction, neither had prior felony arrests or convictions, and both potentially faced five years in prison. Carter had his prosecution withheld and the judge sent him to drug rehabilitation. Thomas was prosecuted, convicted and sent to prison. Their only apparent difference was race. Harsher punishment for blacks is common, even today. Statistics indicate that nationally, blacks are prosecuted and imprisoned at more than five times the rate of whites.

Another ghost of Jim Crow involves social segregation. In 2009, the Valley Swim Club in a Philadelphia suburb allowed local day camps access for a fee in an effort to generate additional revenue. A camp providing activities for 50 black children paid $1,950 for the children to use the pool once a week. News reports indicated that when the black children showed up on the first day, the white children in the pool immediately exited the water and a white parent was heard to say, “What are all these black kids doing here?” A club attendant asked all the black children to leave, which they did, some in tears. Refunding the payment, the club president said the reason for the cancellation was “concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … of the club.”

Politically powerful minorities are not immune from disparate treatment. Just a few months ago, in early 2014, Elijah Cummings, a black Congressman from Maryland, was disrespected by Darrell Issa, a white Congressman from California, when Issa refused to allow his colleague to comment or ask questions at a congressional committee hearing and abruptly shut the meeting down rather than accede to Cummings’ rightful request. A similar incident of disrespect of a high-level African-American government official occurred during President Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address when Congressman Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!” in response to Obama’s characterization of recent immigration legislation. While no overt reference to Cummings’ or Obama’s race was made, the fact that such outrageous disrespect in public by high-level officials is rare causes one to suspect that it played a role.

These examples reflect the current reality that minorities with resources and position are discriminated against just as impoverished and politically powerless minorities continue to be. Further, successful blacks and Hispanics are seen as the exception and the troubled as the rule.

Three things must happen to destroy current disparities. First, we must recognize that inequality due to racism continues. Next, minorities must become empowered educationally, politically and economically to eliminate disparities in graduation rates, electoral representation and employment. Too many minority youth have turned to gangs, drugs, crime and hopelessness. Valuing education and other legitimate vehicles for upward mobility will change that. As a society that professes equal opportunity, we owe these youth much more than this disparate treatment. Finally, we must integrate and equalize schools, neighborhoods and the criminal justice system through legislative initiatives that balance funding for education, criminalize private racial discrimination and end racial profiling, and increase diversity efforts in housing and transparency efforts in employment salaries. Legislative initiatives like the American Jobs Act that target residents of areas of high unemployment for job creation and training can help facilitate empowerment. Similar legislation can be drafted to address political and educational disparities.

While these disparities have been persistent, they need not be permanent. The My Brother’s Keeper initiative should be expanded to include a wider array of minorities. A much broader initiative is necessary to significantly reduce persistent racial disparities that prevent America from fulfilling its promise that “all men are created equal.”

This article was printed in the TIM Spring/Summer issue titled “Can America Ever Move Past Racism.”


  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor
    F. Michael Higginbotham

    F. Michael Higginbotham is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and the author of “Ghosts of Jim Crow.” (NYU Press 2013)

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on