Saturday 26 November 2022
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Convene a national commission on race and poverty

Op/Ed ByJesse Jackson


Jesse3When the Founders wrote the Constitution, blacks were considered three-fifths human. In a compromise at the constitutional convention, the Constitution was written to allow slave states to count each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of the census and for elections. Slaves couldn’t vote, but they could increase the population and thus the representation of slave states.

We’ve come a long way since then. The Civil War — the most brutal in the nation’s history — ended slavery. The Civil Rights Movement ended segregation and gave African Americans the right to vote.

But we still have a long way to go. It used to be said that blacks carried twice the burden of whites. Unemployment rates among African Americans are generally twice those of whites.

Poverty is nearly three times that of whites. Homeownership is about 60 percent that of whites.

But in critical ways, African Americans rank even lower. The typical African-American household, for example, has about 1/10 the wealth of the typical white household, a disparity that has tripled over the last decade.

Now a study by the New York Times documents what we know to be true: Driving while black is dangerous. African Americans are significantly more likely to be pulled over while driving for traffic violations than whites. When pulled over, they are twice as likely to be searched, even though police are far more likely to find drugs and weapons in the searches of whites than blacks.

In Chicago, blacks are five times more likely to be searched when stopped than white drivers, even though the police are less likely to find contraband when searching them.

Part of the reason, police argue, is that African Americans are more likely to live in impoverished neighborhoods. As the Washington Post reported, poor African Americans are 10 times more likely to live in high poverty census tracts than poor whites. In Chicago, about 35 percent of poor African Americans live in poor neighborhoods while about 4 percent of whites do.

Housing discrimination, zoning patterns, redlining by banks, public housing construction all combine to pen poor African Americans in poor neighborhoods. And then the police are assigned to patrol aggressively in what quickly become “high-crime districts.” This is a recipe for tension, suspicion and violence. And as distrust rises, crimes go unsolved as residents don’t trust the police enough to cooperate.

This is the “whereas”: whereas racial disparity is clear and destructive. The real question is the “therefore”: therefore we will act. Too often the complaint ends with the whereas and little or no attention and resources are devoted to the therefore.

Therefore we need reform of our criminal injustice system. Better monitoring and training of police, who should live in the neighborhoods that they patrol.

But police reform is not sufficient. We need a transformation of housing policy to spread low-cost housing across metropolitan areas. We need aggressive enforcement of laws against redlining, a crackdown on banks and auto companies that target African Americans for the highest rate and trickiest loans. We need real investment to put people to work, to provide public transport that can take them to where the jobs are, and to give children a fair start from the beginning.

President Barack Obama is in Chicago this week at a gathering of police chiefs. It is important to keep pushing for police and criminal justice reforms, but the “therefore” must go far beyond. It is time to convene a National Commission on Race and Poverty to go beyond reporting on the whereas and start detailing the therefores.