Op-Ed: State-sanctioned discrimination threatens democracy

Monday, January 29, 2018 - 6:29pm

If you’re white, you may not see it happening, but I want you to know our democracy is in a real crisis. By definition, a democracy is a government in which people participate. People of color are living with unimaginable oppression, and while you may say, “I’ve heard this before,” I contend you may be mistaken.

I consider myself somewhat aware, compassionate and even active in trying to make the world a better place for all of us. I’m currently taking a course on international human rights, and our textbook is “Human Rights in World History” by Peter Stearns. In the textbook’s introduction, Stearns writes “the United States government regularly produces reports on other countries’ human rights record…” However, rather than analyzing other countries, we need to pause and, instead, take a serious look inward.

On Jan. 19, I attended an event hosted by the University of Michigan focusing on the “lived experiences of Black Americans.” Rackham students Steven Moore and Hakeem J. Jefferson were the organizers and shared information with me regarding the panel on mass incarceration, writing in an email on Jan. 23, “We hope (to) drive home the massive impact this has on the everyday lives of so many black and brown people in the U.S.”

The news wasn’t hopeful. Racism continues to grow deeply while almost all of us well-intended white people continue to look away — liberals, moderates, conservatives, even many activists who take on different causes. Just ask Charnesia Corley. Andrea Ritchie, a nationally-recognized expert on policing issues, told us what happened just two years ago to Corley when she was a 20-year old African-American student. She was pulled out of her car for failure to stop at a stop sign and forced down to the ground while a female police officer pulled off her pants, forced her legs open and probed her vagina for 11 minutes in the parking lot. This happened on what started out as a regular day in June to an innocent young woman just going about living her life. The unjust, cloaked term for this is a cavity search. Putting your fingers in someone without their consent is, by definition, rape. It was done by the police, making it state-sanctioned rape. I am hard-pressed to believe this would have happened if she were a white woman in Ann Arbor — if she were me. This should concern all of us for the obvious humanitarian reasons, but also because of the impact on our democracy.

I also learned just how egregious Driving While Black, or DWB, is. Again, you’ve heard this before, right? But Frank Baumgartner, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has analyzed 55 million traffic stops in every way possible. He and his team of researchers demonstrated not only the incredibly high number of times people of color are pulled over, but they also correlated voting behaviors and outcomes of this kind of treatment by the state. In the study, the researchers found that “a mere interaction with a police officer (not resulting in arrest) is associated with a reduction in the probability of voting of almost 10 percent.”

You may be thinking to yourself (because you certainly wouldn’t say it out loud), “Yeah, this is all really horrible, but what does it really have to do with democracy?” We allow skin color to continue to be counterfactual markers of social differences and resulting life experiences. White people need to acknowledge the word that makes so many of us cringe: privilege. I’m speaking here of the specific privilege to simply possess the desire to engage in our government. A very real outcome of state-sanctioned discrimination is a group of people who lack a desire to engage in anything having to do with that state. When our state disempowers and discourages civic engagement of the Black community, we cannot claim to have a functioning democracy. Why would Charnesia Corley want to participate in a government that not only allows something like this to happen to her, but was the perpetrator?

Stearns has this to say about revolution: “People in various societies at various times, had attacked reigning governments because of economic deprivation, injustice, corruption, unfair property distribution.” I say, make no mistake; we may just require a revolution.

Holly Honig is an LSA junior.