When it comes to race relations, there is no doubt that we are at a crossroad. Events dictate what our conduct must be going forward, and there is no doubt that the recent killings of unarmed black men have forced America to come to grips with the fact that many of our fellow citizens suffer because of ingrained racism. President Trump has admitted that there is some systemic racism, but he doesn’t have the mind or heart to acknowledge that it is rampant in this country, and little has been done to bring it to a halt.
In my years in the Assembly, I learned a lot about racism from my colleagues, who told chilling stories about their sons or daughters being singled out for arrest just because the color of their skin invited different treatment. They spoke about failed health care systems that contributed to a higher mortality rate among black children. They spoke of overcrowded school classes with inferior teaching and a lack of basic supplies. While these stories were chilling, nothing they said prompted any dramatic action by the state.
A lot of us in office tried to find ways to help children of all kinds with pre-kindergarten programs, funding to reduce child mortality and extra state aid for school districts in heavily minority communities. But looking back over the years, these actions were a drop in the bucket, and didn’t really make a dent in the system that shortchanges millions of people.
If anything has forced us to confront the issue of race, it’s been the invention of the cellphone. It is showing us how minorities are abused on a daily basis in many different ways, including police officers shooting unarmed black men in the back. That’s recorded testimony to systemic abuse.
The demonstrations in the streets of this country and around the world bring out millions of young people of all races who are willing to speak out about conditions their elders have ignored. Police shootings that once were an occasional story that faded with time now go viral within minutes. The assault on a crowd outside the White House so the president could have a photo op showed how tone-deaf the leaders of this country are on issues of equality. The questions we now face is, what do we do to uproot this ugly system?
I understand the opposition to statues that glorify public officials who were slaveholders or generals from the South who fought for slavery. Most are symbols that no longer belong in the public space. Doing away with the Aunt Jemima syrup brand or Uncle Ben’s rice is pure tokenism, and doesn’t help a minority student get a job or stop a racial profiling incident. Congress and local governments around the U.S. have to come up with programs that defuse the tensions racism causes.
If you listen to the debate going on about banning chokeholds and a national system of reporting police conduct, you can see that there is still deep-rooted racism that dates back to the Civil War. There are probably some senators whose forebears were slaveholders, and growing up in a racist system has poisoned their hearts. Take a trip down to Richmond, Va., and you’ll see statue after statue glorifying generals who fought for the South. Elsewhere, some of our military bases do the same.
The two houses of Congress have to come together to pass laws that attack the problems that the policing of minorities creates. The suggestion that police departments be “defunded” is an overreaction by a relatively small number of people who don’t understand the challenges that law enforcement faces every day, but those departments have to be reorganized to deal more effectively with spousal abuse and rape allegations.
Policing in America hasn’t changed enough in the past 50 years. A commission appointed by President Barack Obama produced a road map for fairer policing, but federal law enforcement ignored its recommendations.
Now, in a very short period of time, local governments have sprung into action, passing laws banning chokeholds and acting against policemen who have serious disciplinary problems. Incidents captured on smartphones showing the use of unnecessary force have resulted in firings and suspensions. The New York State Legislature has passed a series of bills to address faults in the policing systems. Only time will tell whether they are all appropriate.
There is no doubt that passing new laws, firing rogue cops and funding important programs to stop racism are all important steps forward. Unfortunately, you can’t legislate what’s in people’s hearts. We can only hope that more open eyes will change enough people’s thinking to make a difference in the years ahead.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.