As this summer of our discontent draws to a close, the latest images of violent turmoil no longer come from Ukraine, Iraq or Israel but from the American heartland: Ferguson, Missouri, which looks like a war zone in the wake of the fatal police shooting of an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, and the ensuing protests that sometimes turned violent. For many, the images of a heavily armed, nearly all-white police force in riot gear confronting mostly African-American protesters inevitably evoked visions of a half-century ago. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, are we stalled on the road to racial equality? That would be too bleak an assessment. But major tensions and disparities clearly remain -- with no easy solutions in sight.
The disturbing echoes of the past should not blind us to the striking gains. We have an African-American president, and an African-American attorney general who is overseeing the civil rights probe into Brown's death. Much attention has been focused on the fact that Ferguson, whose population is two-thirds black, has an overwhelmingly white police force and city council -- partly because local government has not caught up with the city's shifting demographics.
But nationally, African Americans' share of law enforcement jobs (12 percent) closely mirrors their share of the population. Blacks hold more than 11 percent of high-wage government jobs, up from 4 percent in 1960. Census data find a drastic decrease in racial segregation while surveys show that opposition to interracial relationships has virtually disappeared among younger Americans.
Unfortunately, there is plenty of bad news as well. A third of African Americans live in poverty, compared to 13 percent of whites. Black males are half as likely as white males to have a college degree -- and seven times more likely to be incarcerated.
In 1968, the Kerner Commission, appointed in the wake of race riots in several cities, concluded that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal." Today, it might be more accurate to say we are a nation of two societies: one mobile and vibrantly diverse, one mired in social and racial divisions. The criminal justice system is one area in which these divisions are especially stark.
Racism remains a factor: studies show that, all else being equal, black and Hispanic offenders tend to be punished more harshly than white ones. Few doubt that young black men are far more likely to be singled out for suspicion by the police. Unfortunately, the reality of high crimes in the African-American community is also undeniable. In 2012, blacks accounted for nearly half of homicide victims and offenders in the United States. And crime not only shatters lives but undermines economic opportunity: business owners are understandably wary of operating in high-crime neighborhoods.
The crisis in Ferguson should spur our search for solutions to these problems. More police accountability and better civilian oversight of police shootings would be an important step; so would de-escalating the war on drugs, especially when it comes to marijuana. But we should also remember that law-abiding minority men and women need not only respectful treatment by the police but effective police protection. A Newsday poll last year found that two-thirds of black New York residents support stop-and-frisk policies, but with revisions that would curb police harassment of minorities.
Above all, these problems require an honest discussion that bridges political divisions. That seems impossible in the current climate. But then, the very real progress we have made toward integration might have seemed unthinkable 50 years ago.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.