Honesty about our racism is best hope for change

By Frank Erickson
Guest Commentator

“The case against defendant Johannes Mehserle has provoked racial unrest at every turn, and police in Oakland, the scene of the killing, were on alert for more problems following a sentence that many thought was too light.” (Pioneer Press, November 6)

The community’s reactions to the Oakland Transit officer’s sentence for the shooting of a 22-year-old unarmed Black man who was lying face down are not “problems.” To believe the reactions to the sentence are problems is to reinforce and participate in the real problem — racism.

The mayor of Oakland, Ron Dellums, asked residents of the city “to express their outrage in a manner than is not destructive to our community.”

The rioting is not what destroys our cities; the racism is what destroys them.

The racism is the destructive force. The rioting does not exist without it.

California Superior Court Judge Robert Perry, who gave Mehserle only a two-year sentence, said race would not factor into his decision. Good, that is the way it should be. He should not let any prejudice or bias that he may have enter into his job as a judge. But his approach is a cop-out if he is not going to investigate the possibility that race affected Mehserle’s decisions when he shot Oscar Grant.

That is the judge’s job, to probe into that — how else do we get to the bottom of why so many young Black men are getting shot by the police? He says race would not factor into his decision, but I think it did — he let institutional racism factor into his decision.

Judge Perry said, “There was overwhelming evidence that it was an accidental shooting.” Yet what made it a shooting situation at all? If Grant were White, would the officer grab his .40 caliber handgun, which he believed was his stun gun, “to shock Grant” because he thought Grant had a weapon? If race factors into this, then it is not an “accidental shooting.”

Why does the officer believe Grant has a gun, and is he going to shock a White male in the same situation, believing he has a gun? Racism is so deeply entrenched in everything, and it is no “accident.”

The judge probably feels he was put in a really tough spot, and he was, but he still needs to do his job and not roll over and let institutional racism call the shots.

I believe police officers are more inclined to shock Black males than White males who are lying face down on the concrete. They are more inclined to believe Blacks are armed — that’s how I would behave if I were a cop, because I am still infected with racism.

The only way we are going to get past this stuff is through honesty. Honesty is the most powerful vehicle for change.

Frank Erickson lives in Minneapolis.