In the Debate Over Police and Race, We Can't Forget the Most Critical Issue

In the continuing debate over law enforcement and race, we mustn't lose sight of the most critical issue - one that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his mission.

While the dialogue exploring the relationship between police and African American men must continue, it threatens to distract us from examining the complex realities lived by African Americans in our country with its enduring racial divide.

This environment explains why communities overwhelmed by poverty and violence attract liquor stores instead of supermarkets, churches stand in for economic development and pay-day loan centers supplant banks. And why a childhood in communities with concentrated poverty links to school performance, health effects and future income.

We must work to improve these neighborhoods, especially as it relates to juvenile violence. I have spent much of my adult life in public service or teaching about race, the history of predominantly African American neighborhoods and what it means to grow up in them. Now as executive director of Get In Chicago, a private-public partnership, I work with the city's largest corporations and foundations to address the underlying factors of youth violence.

Here's reality: A majority of African American families in Chicago have resided in the poorest quarter of neighborhoods for generations. And, in essence, this neighborhood inequality is socially "inherited." Public policies such as the Federal Housing Act of 1934 all but corralled African Americans into these communities, and contract lending insured they stayed there.

In examining this broader racial ecosystem, I offer these three perspectives and insights:

No. 1: Distorted perceptions of African Americans destructively inform their realities. For instance, respected studies reveal this means that the average age of African American boys is overestimated by nearly five years. Consequently, they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence. When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by a Cleveland policeman in November, the call to the dispatcher said the victim was a "black male, maybe 20."

No. 2: Police officers are just extensions of society. This underscores a stance that police merely enforce institutional racism. There is no question that African American males experience disproportionate contact with law enforcement. However, in the civil rights-era images embedded in our collective conscience, the police and their dogs arrive only after local government prevents African Americans from claiming their voting rights. Today, schools remain separate and unequal. Not surprisingly, almost 70 percent of African American males without a high school diploma will spend time in prison. ..

No. 3: Governmental policies discriminate against African Americans. Housing policies are a good example. Levittown, N.Y., the symbol of modern suburbia, emerged after World War II and homebuyers received federal subsidies there, while African Americans were barred. And in Chicago today, the South Shore and Austin neighborhoods receive 5,380, or 15 percent, of the city's Section 8 housing vouchers while Lincoln Park receives just 54.

The police are just one actor in a larger stage driven by our racial climate. Their roles are more visible and are attended to, accordingly. We must do a better job building bridges between law enforcement and people of color and roads to stronger communities. At Get In Chicago, we are enlisting proposals now to help improve community trust, including ideas that involve law enforcement and will increase public safety. We are focusing on African American youth under age 18, and we seek strategies to engage them where they live.

Let's resolve to center more public discussion and examination on what creates the realities lived in communities hit hardest by poverty and violence. This will help their youth - and all of us - address and narrow our racial divide. And reignite the power of Martin Luther King now. Dr. Toni Irving is executive director of Get In Chicago, a private-public partnership seeking successful initiatives for curbing juvenile violence, and formerly taught at the University of Notre Dame.