As Texas and the rest of the nation celebrate the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth — when enslaved Africans in Texas were notified that the Civil War had ended and they were free — we should take this opportunity to reflect on current race relations in Texas and the nation.
Although the ending of slavery came more than 2½ years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans should nevertheless commemorate June 19, 1865, as a significant moment in the course of race relations in American history.
Fast forward 150 years and one of the most obvious ways to gauge the pulse of race relations is to examine the relations between police and communities of color. The repeated killings of unarmed black men and women by police officers have heightened racial tensions across the country.
Texas — like Baltimore, Cleveland, New York and South Carolina — is not immune from these tensions. Police in McKinney recently found themselves in a volatile and racially charged situation, another in a series of public relations nightmares for law enforcement agencies across this country.
A pool party turned ugly after a police officer used unnecessary aggression when he tackled a 14-year-old black girl and later brandished his weapon toward concerned onlookers. Soon after protests began, the officer was placed on administrative leave and later resigned.
Austin has had its share of negative interactions between police and communities of color, including the case of Larry Jackson, an unarmed black man who was shot to death in 2013 by a white former Austin police detective. Civilian deaths at the hands of the Austin Police Department have been racially disproportionate, with the majority being black and Latino. Between 2002 and 2012, 10 of the 18 people who died as a result of police use of force did not have weapons and were not a danger to the police.
Many thought the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president would mark a new era of positive race relations.
However, the racial animus toward Obama has been unprecedented and relentless, including images juxtaposing Obama with monkeys and other vile racist imagery. Beyond being the focus of intense racism, Obama has been blamed for making race relations worse. According to the latest Economist/YouGov poll, 55 percent of Americans believe race relations have worsened since Obama took office.
So as we commemorate Juneteenth, how do we improve race relations in the midst of pessimistic poll numbers and simmering tensions between police and communities of color? There is a silver lining to be found.
Relations between the police and communities of color will always be a litmus test of race relations. As long as racial minorities fear and mistrust law enforcement, democracy has failed to live up to its ideals. As the holders of ultimate power, the police are responsible for easing tensions and improving community relations.
Fortunately, there are positive examples. In the McKinney incident, it should be noted that 11 of the 12 officers responded appropriately and professionally, and most of the black bystanders say they did not feel racial bias from these officers. In Fresno, California, community policing has greatly improved the relations between officers and residents through partnerships and problem solving. In turn, residents have increased trust toward the police.
Police agencies must also be actively committed to weeding out racist officers from their ranks, as the Fort Lauderdale Police Department did when they fired four police officers for racist texts and making a KKK video.
For race relations to improve, more white Americans need to have the moral courage to acknowledge systemic racism, speak truth to power and most importantly take action and fight racial injustice. African Americans and other people of color should not automatically assume that the actions of police and white Americans are always motivated by racism.
The racial divide indicated by the poll results, especially involving police shootings, is disheartening. While we are commemorating Juneteenth, I hope we take the opportunity to use it as a platform to talk about the ways we can continue to improve race relations.
Kevin Cokley is a professor of educational psychology and African and African diaspora studies, a Public Voices fellow and the director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News, Fort Worth Star Telegram and the McAllen Monitor.
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New op-ed by @LiberalArtsUT prof about race relations, police and #Juneteenth: http://t.co/abjHCuVk1S
— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) June 19, 2015