Rebuilding Trust and Working Toward a Just Future
The tragic events of recent weeks have reminded us yet again that the principle of “equal protection for all” remains an empty promise for too many Americans.
As President Obama emphasized in the wake of the senseless killing of five police officers in Dallas, just days after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile became the latest African American men to lose their lives in confrontations with police, it is not inconsistent to express respect and support for our nation’s law enforcement organizations while also acknowledging that there are systemic inequities in our criminal justice system that need addressing.
The vast majority of law enforcement officers are dedicated and honorable public servants who work in extremely difficult conditions and abhor the thought of using excessive force against the people they are charged with protecting. Throughout my career, I have consulted regularly with local law enforcement leaders and worked to ensure that their departments are adequately staffed, properly trained and equipped, and integrated into the fabric of their communities. There is simply no way to excuse or rationalize the act of barbarism that tore apart five Dallas families and pierced the heart of millions of Americans – including those marching peacefully through the Dallas streets before the shooting.
Yet ignoring the very real racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system is dishonest and counterproductive. In communities throughout the country, African Americans – and especially young black men – experience harassment, intimidation, and violence by police officers that is clearly disproportionate to white individuals. And the discriminatory treatment of African Americans in judicial sentencing and incarceration is well documented. This experience in turn fosters a vicious cycle of misunderstanding and distrust that makes the job of law enforcement all the more difficult.
To be clear, systemic discrimination and distrust of the police reflect a legacy of hundreds of years of mistreatment of African Americans, and we cannot expect to overcome this long and shameful history overnight. But to ignore these issues just because they are difficult and uncomfortable is no longer possible. And policies that only sweep them under the rug – such as the flawed bill that Governor McCrory signed into law this week that makes it harder for the public to review police body camera footage – are grossly irresponsible.
Yet as President Obama also emphasized, we can’t simply resort to despair or desperation. The path back to trust and mutual respect must begin with conversations around kitchen tables and water coolers, in churches and community centers, and in the halls of our councils and legislatures. It must be a conversation informed by our faith and guided by principles of tolerance, integrity, and honesty.
Over the coming weeks, I will be engaging in this conversation with community leaders and law enforcement officials throughout the Fourth District. I hope to hear from North Carolinians of all races, backgrounds, faiths, and political persuasions about how we can better protect vulnerable populations and strengthen confidence and trust in our law enforcement institutions.
Our national motto of e pluribus unum -- “out of many, one” -- suggests that America is constantly a work in progress. We meet each new challenge with shared vigilance, open-mindedness, and an unfailing commitment to making this great experiment work for all members of our society. That’s how our country overcame the evils of slavery and fought for civil rights. And that’s how we will confront the challenges of today, including those stemming from our fraught history with race. By listening to one another, with empathy and engaging in a conversation in which everyone has a voice, I believe we can begin to work toward a safer, more inclusive and just future.