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Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke blames riots on “black cultural dysfunction”

And yet, structural inequalities literally make the city the worst place for African Americans.

Republican National Convention: Day One Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As riots erupted over the weekend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after Sylville Smith, a 23-year-old African-American man, was killed by police Saturday night, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke blamed the unrest on "black cultural dysfunction":

Clarke, a Milwaukee native, has spent his career in law enforcement, beginning as an officer in the Milwaukee Police Department in 1978, and has served four terms as county sheriff since 2002.

But his pro-gun and tough-on-crime stances, as well as his vilification of the movement for black lives, have garnered Republican favor in recent years. After unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Clarke reacted to the officer-involved shooting of 18-year-old Mike Brown by calling protesters "vultures on a roadside carcass." This year, Clarke, who is a Democrat, was a keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention, beginning his speech declaring "blue lives matter" and celebrating Lt. Brian Rice’s acquittal of all charges related to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

Clarke says protests like those that have taken place in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are examples of "a collapse of the social order." And unsurprisingly, when riots happened in his hometown, Clarke called to mobilize the National Guard — despite Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn saying they were unnecessary. Gov. Scott Walker put the National Guard on alert Sunday evening.

But riots do not exist in a vacuum. And while the military may be used to create a sense of law and order again, what remains, regardless of whether the military is deployed, are the structural inequalities that sparked the unrest in the first place.

Milwaukee is literally considered "the worst place for African Americans to live" in America

Clarke may place the blame on black people for the rioting, but over the past half-century, it doesn’t seem that the Milwaukee metro area under Clarke’s jurisdiction has given black people any other options. As Kenya Downs reported for NPR's Code Switch blog last year, black residents of the city are at a disadvantage.

Milwaukee, she notes, is the most segregated city in America, and is the city with the most black students in a state that has the largest black-white student achievement gap in the country. And it doesn't get better when you look at incarceration rates.

She writes:

Wisconsin also incarcerates the most black men in the country, and in Milwaukee County, more than half of all black men in their 30s and 40s have served time. In the 53206 Zip Code alone, 62 percent of all men have spent time in an adult correctional facility by age 34.

One way to end riots: hold police officers accountable

On Saturday, a local TV reporter asked Sedan Smith, Sylville Smith’s brother, what it would take to quell the rioting. "It’s not me. I’ma let y’all know right now, it’s not ‘us guys’ neither," he replied.

Though Clarke rallied "every law-abiding person," particularly black people, to condemn "black cultural dysfunction" in Milwaukee, he’s deflecting from a common criticism of police violence: the myth of "black-on-black" crime.

Law-abiding citizens and black people are not mutually exclusive groups. But as I’ve previously written, black people are not uniquely predisposed to crime, black communities do indeed care about crime within black communities, and black people are proactively addressing these problems. Additionally, crime within their communities is inextricably linked to structural inequalities that are beyond their control.

And yet, putting the blame on black people doesn’t take into consideration the other acute injustice Smith’s death brings to bear: Police officers aren’t held accountable for disproportionate policing and excessive force, which is a large part of why people are upset and protesting across the country in the first place.

As it stands, police are rarely indicted for killing civilians, even as more video evidence of those killings becomes available. Rather, as Vox’s Dara Lind has pointed out, the legal standard for lethal use of force "often boils down to what the officer believed when the force was used (something that is notoriously difficult to standardize), regardless of how much of a threat actually existed."

2014 Gallup poll showed that while 56 percent of American adults have a great deal of confidence in police, 59 percent of white adults held this view, compared with only 37 percent of African Americans.

Part of the difference in attitudes comes from African Americans’ experiences within a racially biased criminal justice system that overpolices black and brown neighborhoods and rarely holds officers accountable for reported mistreatment, excessive force, or even killing African Americans.

In a 2011 report by the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, only 32.8 percent of the 3,238 criminal cases filed against police officers between January and December 2010 resulted in a conviction — less than half the public conviction rate for criminal charges (68 percent). Among those rare convictions, only a little more than a third of them (36 percent) actually resulted in prison sentences.

As the recent Department of Justice report on the Baltimore Police Department showed, lack of police accountability only magnifies existing mistrust of police within African-American communities, which makes neither the community nor police safer. But this kind of mistrust is compounded in cities like Milwaukee where race literally maps the area.

As of early July, police officers have killed at least 2,075 people since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson. A disproportionately high percentage of those killed were black.

Sure, Clarke can charge black people with taking personal responsibility for the businesses burned and cars set ablaze. But without condemning the institutional inequalities that sparked the unrest, a simple call for order maintains the injustice that sparked the flames in the first place.

Correction: A previous version of this post contained information that was not properly credited to a source. It's been updated to correct the error.

The racism of the US criminal justice system

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