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Originally published Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 5:39 PM

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Editorial: Racial disparities are behind Ferguson, Mo., unrest

With just one black city council member and three black police officers, it’s no wonder the black majority in Ferguson Mo., has rioted since a white officer killed an unarmed black teen Aug. 9.

Seattle Times Editorial


THE community uprising in response to a troubling police shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo., earlier this month is a predictable outcome of political disenfranchisement and an aggressive police culture.

Study after study has warned that inexperienced and fearful police officers resort to force; that police force is often exerted by whites on racial minorities; and that the culture of confrontation between police and communities of color continues to worsen.

This is a problem not so far away. In Seattle, consider John T. Williams, the Native American woodcarver gunned down by a Seattle Police officer, and the findings of a subsequent U.S. Justice Department probe: excessive use of force and evidence of biased policing.

In Yakima, voters have never elected a Latino to the council, though 41 percent of the city’s population is Latino. The city is facing a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union to switch to district elections, rather than citywide races.

And while experts argue that police departments that reflect a community’s racial makeup can ease minority concerns, few seem to associate the tension caused by a political infrastructure that creates and maintains disproportionately composed police departments.

Such historical tensions can only be compounded in towns like Ferguson, where the black majority — 67 percent of the population — has become a non-factor in choosing its elected officials, and thus determining how its community is policed.

Ferguson’s own white police chief admits his department is 95 percent white.

There are innumerable ways a community can become so disproportionately misrepresented, and almost all of them start with City Hall.

Mayors and city councils determine how police are recruited, trained and function. Ferguson’s mayor is white, as are five of its six City Council members. And a white City Hall produced a white police force.

That disparity doesn’t equate to discrimination or prejudicial policing, but it can constitute an environment where white elected officials are inherently clueless to police brutality concerns that persist in many minority communities.

Race wasn’t a factor when Seattle recently chose to de-emphasize at-large City Council campaigns in favor of district-based elections, but the end result promises more direct representation of the city’s clustered populations.

Whatever the cause of the disparity — gerrymandering and voter apathy are usual suspects — its architects have derailed the fundamental precept of American governance: that people in a given community determine how that community functions.

Instead, Ferguson appears to be set up like a present-day apartheid state, where a tiny but powerful minority maintains dominion by discouraging electoral participation and imposing a combative police state.

This recognition comes a year after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and some years into several states enacting photo-ID voter requirements.

In the grand Jim Crow tradition of racially restrictive poll taxes, two Missouri election officials must vouch for any voter who can’t produce official photo ID in order for the voter to cast his or her ballot.

Voter ID advocates and those who believe voting-rights protections are no longer needed should recognize Ferguson as a case study of what those policies reap, and instead seek to ensure the electorate — no matter its racial makeup — has full participation and is represented by elected officials.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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