Racism is not simple to define. From South African apartheid’s formal segregation to racial profiling, there are many different hues. “Black Lives Matter” has become a United States movement in reaction to violence, often by police, against blacks. But violence can take on many forms. When African-American celebrities are involved in an incident, not a shooting or violent crime, the publicity can become front page news.
The Swiss basketball star, Thabo Sefolosha, was taken into custody on April 8 with a teammate after a scuffle with police outside a nightclub in downtown New York. The two players were not involved in the stabbing that preceded the scuffle. The Atlantic Hawks forward was charged with obstructing governmental administration, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest, all separate from the violent crime that took place earlier inside the club. In an altercation with the police while being arrested, Sefolosha was injured, suffering a broken fibula and torn ligaments, injuries that kept him out for the rest of the National Basketball Association (NBA) season and the playoffs.
Sefolosha was offered a lenient plea bargain last week by prosecutors in Manhattan Criminal Court. In return for a day of community service and no other offenses for six months, the Vevey native would have had the charges against him dismissed. No big deal? Sefolosha, the son of a South African musician, has refused the plea bargain, his lawyer saying that: “He’s innocent and wants to be vindicated.” A video of the incident shows the police forcing his arms behind his back and wrestling him to the ground. The first Swiss to play in the NBA is insisting on going to trial to prove his innocence, with a potential lawsuit against the police for brutality a possibility.
At around the same time that Sefolosha refused the plea deal, a NYC police officer tackled and handcuffed ex-tennis star James Blake outside his Manhattan hotel. The plainclothes officer apparently mistook the African-American for a wanted criminal, then reported in the hotel. The mayor of New York and the police commissioner have apologized to the former Harvard student who once ranked number four in the world.
It would be too simple to describe these two incidents as evidence of wide-spread racism by white police officers against blacks. After several years of reduced violent crimes in American cities, recent statistics show a disturbing increase in homicides. The number of violent deaths last year increased 30% in Washington and Baltimore, 19% in Chicago. The police have every reason to be on high alert. Police chiefs from some 70 cities gathered in August in an emergency meeting to discuss the radical increase.
The reasons for the violent-crime increase are also hard to pin down. High unemployment among young blacks in urban areas, frustration with the police after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the reduced cost of crack cocaine, easy access to weapons, the militarization of the police, are among causes cited. Indeed, in a recent report by a commission appointed by Missouri’s governor after Brown’s fatal shooting, a disturbing picture of racial inequality is described, harkening back to previous reports after previous racial riots.
Thabo Sefolosha and James Blake are well-known athletes. Their incidents can be described as unfortunate, and apologies from the authorities can be easily issued. What is more difficult to understand, and eventually to imagine correcting, is systemic racism one hundred years after the official end of slavery. Barack Obama has often said that the large ship of state takes time to change direction. His election as the first African-American president will be only symbolic until the deeper issues are addressed. Bring on the tug boats; let’s turn the ship of state more quickly.