No one should have been surprised by the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson, Missouri, Monday night.

There is a justifiably high bar to charge police officers with crimes for using deadly force on the job. The test is whether a reasonable person in the exact same circumstance could have made the same choice. No one wants police officers to be paralyzed by bureaucratic requirements when lives are at risk.

But while the members of a grand jury are asked to look at the specific moment the shots were fired, it would be a mistake for the rest of us to look at this situation in that way. We live in a society where race and class are closely associated, and African-Americans, particularly males like Michael Brown, are a disadvantaged class. A lot of factors led to the deadly confrontation in Ferguson, and they require the nation’s attention because “isolated incidents” like this one have become normal.

Unemployment for all black adults was 10.7 percent in October, almost twice the national average of 5.8 percent and by far the highest of any racial or ethnic group. The unemployment rate of black youths between age 16 and 20 was 33 percent, about twice the unemployment rate of white teens, which was 16 percent. One study showed that even black college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 have an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent, more than twice the 5.6 percent rate for all college graduates in that age group.

The criminal justice statistics are just as stark. Although they make up only 13 percent of the population, blacks are victims of nearly half of the nation’s homicides. Black men are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white males. Even in Maine communities, a study conducted by the USA Today found, blacks are proportionately more likely to be arrested than people of other races — four times more likely in Auburn; 3.5 times more likely in South Portland; 3.2 times more likely in Bangor; 2.8 times more likely in Lewiston; 2.6 times more likely in Portland.

Blacks have more contact with law enforcement, and like Michael Brown, they are disproportionately likely to be shot and killed by a police officer in the cities that have been studied.


These statistics do not make the case that Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson acted inappropriately or that he should have been charged with a crime. They also don’t excuse rioters in Ferguson, or even Brown himself, who might have been able to avoid the confrontation.

But for the hundreds of millions of us who are not on the grand jury, the question is not what happened in that instant but what is happening every day and what if anything are we going to do about it.

It is not a problem we can blame on racist cops. It’s too bad that it isn’t because that’s a much easier problem to fix. Law enforcement agencies have the ability to identify and remove bigots who are not enforcing the law equally.

Systemic racism is much more difficult to root out and reverse. Bias and unequal opportunity start before a child hits school and follows him into the job market. People who can work their way out of such circumstances are heroic exceptions. Most are just stuck.

Individuals should be held accountable for their actions, but when the trend is so powerful, individual choices don’t adequately explain what’s going on. No one should have been surprised by the grand jury’s decision this week, but they should also not be surprised by the outrage people of color feel as they watch another young life wasted.

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