Ideals Gone Missing

Incidents of racial and ethnic profiling are a persistent stain on the United States’ ideals

“Justice will bring peace,” Lesley McSpadden said during a television appearance this week. Ms. McSpadden is the mother of Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9. While the focus now is rightly on the circumstances of the death of the 18-year-old, whom friends called Big Mike, the anger in the streets appears to be equally about how those in authority in this country treat people of color, particularly young black men.

Incidents of racial and ethnic profiling are a persistent stain on the United States’ ideals. It was evident in the arrest of a black Harvard professor while he was trying to get into his own house and can be seen in the targeting of Latino drivers for greater scrutiny by police on patrol.

As unacceptable as the nights of destruction in Ferguson have been, they cannot be dismissed as the work of “outside agitators”; Al Qaeda or some other unseen hand is not at work in Missouri. The homegrown rage in the streets is genuine and deep, the product of a law enforcement ethos still steeped in the policies of repression.

Justice might indeed bring quiet to the streets of Ferguson, but it will do little to remedy the increasingly militarized police from coast to coast, which sees minorities and young men of color as adversaries. The list of those brutalized by police in racially tinged circumstances is long and should be a continuing source of shame. So, too, is the record of judicial imbalance in criminal sentencing and so-called “three strikes” laws.

Once Michael Brown’s death no longer commands the headlines, the key test will be if Americans will find a way to embrace one another and celebrate all of us — our differences and similarities alike. Teaching police to stand down and not view young black men as the enemy is one place to start.

Justice for Big Mike and the others, yes, but the re-examination of what we stand for as a nation must not and cannot stop there.