Racism, Public Safety, and the Legacy of Dr. King

We remember and celebrate the life, leadership and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., today, amidst the turmoil of police killings of Black and Hispanic youths, apparent cover-ups, and stark racial imbalance in the negative outcomes of our criminal justice system.  Paradoxically, on the day of Dr. King’s birth, the manner of his death—gunned down in public in in the midst of inescapable racial tension—resonates loudly in light of recent events. 

There is a lot to be said about the parallels between then and now: radicalized violence, unlimited access to guns, and an atmosphere of irresponsibly cranked-up, fear-mongering, hate-inducing rhetoric that mainstream leaders allow themselves to use, all but inviting or excusing in advance these atrocities. Those are the conditions that incubate, if not actually cause, things like the King and Kennedy assassinations of those days, and the bombings or health clinic massacres of today

Aside from the politics and ideology, however, is another parallel—the failure of our police and criminal justice systems to produce safety in low-income and minority communities. Dr. King’s killing was not just the shocking act of an armed zealot; it was an example—a heightened and special example, and yet at its core not all that unusual—of the role that the chronic lack of safety in lower income minority communities plays in blocking economic and social justice.

The analogy here may not be perfect, but the resonances are strong. At the time he was shot down, Dr. King was on a path to win economic justice for people in poverty (of all races), and a path that clearly laid out the inextricable relationship between economic justice and racial justice.

In Dr. King’s case, this fight for upward mobility—economic justice—was being conducted on the highly visible plane of politics and activism, and the breach of public safety that cut it short was also on that plane. Yet it was only unusual because of its visibility. Community violence as a blocking force against upward mobility was a fact then as much as now. It mattered then, as it does now, to individuals trying to take a bus to work or school or church or trying to operate a business. Racial, economic, and social causes producing lack of safety all existed. And, yes, there was a role for law enforcement in this problem, not just when it failed to produce public safety, but when it contributed to the lack of public safety through such scandals as rigged convictions and unjust punishment (including Dr. King’s own jail time), complicity in lynchings, protection of racial power structures, and more ordinary corruption.     

The failure to ensure public safety during Dr. King’s day resonates today as we deal with the incidents of police killings of minority youths. To be sure, each of these incidents is a puzzle to solve, from which we can learn lessons that produce justice across a range of issues. But they are also important examples of the larger challenge of public safety as an essential component of economic justice, and the essential role of policing (among other strategies) for producing and maintaining public safety, as opposed to contributing to a lack of it. In seeking justice, we should not forget to address the larger issue of public safety and how to train, deploy, and discipline the police to help accomplish it.


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