We shall overcome?

Jeff vonKaenel

As you might expect, the 34th annual Capitol March for the Dream on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was different than previous years. Very different. There were more marchers, to be sure. And many more young black marchers. I expected that.

What I had not expected is how different Martin Luther King’s message sounded to me this year. In the crowd of at least 30,000, someone was playing Dr. King’s recorded speeches. In past years, his words made me reflect on how much we have overcome. This year his words pointed to the importance of the ongoing struggle.

In past years, the marchers reminded me of alumni coming back to campus for a homecoming game. Their memories were as important as the game currently being played. This year, it was a young people’s march. This march was about here and now, not yesterday.

Reasonable people can disagree about the high-visibility cases of police conduct in Ferguson, or in New York. But the question of whether or not we have one set of laws for whites and another set of laws for people of color should not be decided by looking at a few highly publicized cases. We need to look at thousands of cases.

And unfortunately, we still have much to overcome. Black Americans use drugs at roughly the same percentage as all other Americans. They make up about 13 percent of the population and about 13 percent of drug users. But they are arrested nearly three times as frequently for drug possession as whites.

If New York City police started routinely frisking Wall Street hedge fund operators at the same levels as they do black youth, we would see a big spike in drug arrests on Wall Street. We would probably also see massive campaign donations focused on stopping these Draconian police tactics.

And then there is “driving while black.” According to United States Department of Justice figures, black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than whites. The police are twice as likely to search a black American as a white American.

The selective law enforcement of drug and driving laws creates the context for police shootings. National data is hard to come by, because law-enforcement agencies have not been systematically reporting police homicides. However, a ProPublica analysis reports that black youth are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than young white Americans.

The drug arrests, the driving law enforcement and the police shootings are a national disgrace. Black Americans in 2015 do not have equal protection under the law.

I have attended many Martin Luther King marches and events. This is the first time that I did not hear the song “We Shall Overcome.” And perhaps the lyrics: “Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day” did not ring so true this year.

Some day is now long overdue.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.