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The question of race in Biden’s America

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: Members of the D.C. National Guard stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial monitoring a large crowd of demonstrators participating in a peaceful protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. Protests continue to be held in cities throughout the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.   Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP
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WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: Members of the D.C. National Guard stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial monitoring a large crowd of demonstrators participating in a peaceful protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. Protests continue to be held in cities throughout the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP == FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY ==

With the din and noise of Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th U.S. President behind us, what was striking about the horde of analyses that greeted the occasion was their disproportionate focus on the need to quickly contain the COVID-19 pandemic and to pull the economy out of the current morass. This is unexceptionable under the current, extraordinarily harrowing times. It is slightly disappointing, however, that many observers have chosen to either underplay or ignore the January 6 attack by Trump supporters on the Capitol in Washington, and the symbolism it carries for citizens.

There is a persistent fear that the rampage will launch further strikes at unexpected places and against soft targets. The ease with which the mob gained entry into the Congress precinct is an index of its destructive might. These elements do not trust the Constitution and are not reconciled to a government that vows to heal a fractured society.

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A fragmented agency

The Capitol attack also highlighted the chinks in the armour of the fragmented law enforcement agencies, especially the police at the grassroots. The U.S. has more than 15,000 standalone forces under local Mayors, each of whom belongs to a political party. How can one standardise law enforcement procedures and responses in desperate situations like the one on January 6?

Federalism can no longer be an excuse for inaction in a country that is growing increasingly divided, disorderly and violent. The 50 States in the country will have to rise together to strengthen the hands of the Biden government in its efforts to unify the police and make them a reliable tool to root out lawlessness. Mr. Biden’s bipartisan approach alone can bring about this reform, which cuts across crass politics. Therefore, a huge challenge awaits the Biden administration in extirpating the kind of terrorism that was fuelled by white supremacists at the cusp of the shift in the power centre. Domestic terrorism seems to have gained roots, and it cannot be allowed to grow if the U.S. wants a respectable place within the comity of nations.

The new regime would be assessed on its success in stemming the rot and in mending, at least partially, a criminal justice system that is widely perceived as lax and weighed against minorities, especially African-Americans. This is particularly so in the context of Mr. Biden’s assurances that he will work to remove the glaring inequalities in American society. In his inaugural speech, he pulled no punches in referring to the burgeoning black-white divide.

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Vice-President Kamala Harris, with her rich experience as a prosecutor and Attorney-General in California, and her multiracial identity, may be able to inject more fairness into the system. Incidentally, a few years ago, she also unveiled her own criminal justice reform measures that addressed the twin problems of mass incarceration and drug abuse.

What is predominant now in the country is the perception that African-Americans are unfairly treated by security agencies, especially the police. The healing process that Mr. Biden talks about cannot ignore the deep mistrust of most African-Americans over the alleged discriminatory treatment received by them at the hands of police and prison officials.

Criminal justice history in the U.S. is pockmarked by outrageous police and prison atrocities on hapless citizens, like the assault on Rodney King in 1991 in the heart of Los Angeles. And who can forget the most recent of all such incidents, in which George Floyd, 46, was killed on May 25 last year, by one of the Minneapolis policemen who arrived on the scene after a shop owner tipped off the police that Floyd was walking away after tendering counterfeit currency for cigarettes? The incident triggered countrywide protests, confirming that the relationship between the average African-American and the police had gone far beyond repair.

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Disproportionate incarceration

The U.S. population is currently over 320 million. Of them, African-Americans account for around 45 million. Though they make up a large portion of the population, the crushing poverty within the community has a disturbingly negative impact on the criminal justice system. Crime is generally — if not always — believed to be proportional to economic status. Over the years, an impression, albeit not wholly supported by raw statistics, has therefore gained ground, that it is African-Americans who commit more crime per capita than the whites. This is often cited to explain the high number of African-Americans in prisons. According to recent official statistics, although incarceration rates have been coming down, at the end of 2019, there were still 1,096 African-Americans in prisons for an aggregate of 100,000 black residents. The corresponding ratio for whites was just 214.

A similar phenomenon was witnessed decades ago, when the New York Police Department (NYPD), under its famous Chief William Bratton, introduced the controversial ‘Stop-and-frisk’ procedure to bring down crime. It got wide backlash from African-American leaders after it was found that more from the community were being searched than others. In the course of time, the practice had to be withdrawn for its blatant unfairness. This is another example of the lack of faith in the police’s efforts to handle crime. African-Americans strongly believe that all anti-crime measures are aimed at them. This is the dilemma that faces those who believe in stern policing.

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The Biden government will have to deal with this while handling disorder on the streets. While policing is essentially within the domain of States, the Federal government cannot be a mute spectator.

A non-inclusive force

There is another problem that both Federal and State governments face. Mr. Biden believes in diversity in governance. In this respect, there is no arm that needs greater attention than the police. Despite all efforts over the decades, the police remain a heavily white-dominated force. African-Americans are unwilling to join the police for several reasons, the most important of which is the fear of harassment at the hands of their white supervisors. A magical formula will have to be worked out to make police forces reflect the diversity of the country.

One can go on expanding on the list of reforms that are needed for criminal justice agencies in the U.S, but what is most urgently needed is restoring the police’s credibility in the eyes of African-Americans. This is more easily said than done. A bipartisan approach alone can manage to achieve this.

The author is a graduate in criminal justice from Temple University, Philadelphia and a former visiting fellow at the Harvard Law School and Rutgers University


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Printable version | Sep 26, 2022 2:39:10 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-question-of-race-in-bidens-america/article33777163.ece