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Originally published August 13, 2014 at 8:59 PM | Page modified August 13, 2014 at 11:26 PM

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Shooting in Missouri shows the need for change

The shooting in Ferguson, Mo., is the latest racial flash point, but the underlying problems exist all over.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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This week our government is reporting to the United Nations on the United States’ progress in living up to the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The timing is awkward.

Media have been full of stories about the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., last weekend. It’s the kind of killing that could have happened here, or almost anywhere in America.

The individual details change, but the pattern is repeated frequently.

Occasionally a violent encounter involving police makes national and even international news, but after a few days of attention the story fades.

Without fundamental institutional and cultural change, there will always be another.

Didn’t we just end the news cycle on the death of Eric Garner in New York City? Garner, 43, died after police placed him in a choke hold while arresting him, allegedly for selling loose cigarettes.

According to one report cited often this week, a black person is killed every 28 hours by police, security guards or vigilantes.

The aftermath usually involves examination of the details, often disputed, and judgments about the people involved.

Sometimes an individual is punished, but often not. Often there is no violation of procedures, rules or laws. A few questions may be raised about those procedures, rules or laws, but mostly they stay in place.

Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Justice is seeking change in several cities where problems seem to go unabated.

The Seattle Police Department is being asked by the federal government to undergo systemic change to avoid the use of excess force, particularly in its dealings with people who are in the minority here. I hope our new chief can make that happen.

Ultimately police do what the rest of society wants them to do. Americans chose to fill prisons with low-level black and Latino drug offenders while paying less attention to white users of illegal drugs.

One of the reasons for legalizing adult marijuana use was to cut down on that disproportionate enforcement of the law.

But usually politicians win elections by preying on people’s fears, often racially rooted fears, about crime or terrorism or immigration. They follow with laws that target one group or another in ways that allow them to deny color or class has anything to do with it, like the false justifications for imposing harsher penalties on crack cocaine than on the powder form of the drub favored by middle- and upper-class white users.

Researchers at Stanford University have found that many white Americans believe criminal-justice policies are too harsh, and that the policies should be changed, but if they are reminded of the disproportionate effect on black men, they’re OK with the harshness.

Discrimination is deeply seated in the culture and is not limited to the criminal-justice system, which is just a reflection of the society as a whole.

Ferguson, Mo., the city outside St. Louis where Brown was killed, offers a good illustration of where we stand on matters of race. Here are a few things from stories about the shooting that stick out.

Ferguson used to be majority white but changed rapidly once black people moved in and is now mostly black. Yet most power remains in the hands of white residents. The mayor and the police chief are white. Fifty of the 53 police officers are white.

An editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said in an interview that he might have been able to cover the story better if he’d had a more diverse staff (St. Louis is 50 percent black; the staff is 7 percent black).

U.S. news media came under fire on a number of social-media sites after the shooting in Ferguson for day-to-day negative portrayals of black Americans.

Ferguson is in the news today, but aspects of its racial dynamics are common elsewhere in America. And no institution or class of business is without shortcomings.

The federal government not only has an eye on the Seattle Police Department but is studying the city’s schools for disparities in discipline along racial lines.

We’ve had a spate of recent stories about high-tech companies wrestling with their lack of diversity.

Some people in the Republican Party have been lecturing their peers on the need to stop pushing black and Latino voters away.

It’s good that the companies and some in the GOP realize they have a problem. That’s necessary for moving forward.

Democrats need to have their own conversation about race. A new report showed Democratic campaigns pay black, Asian and Latino campaign workers far less than white employees.

After the first round of U.S. testimony before the U.N. on racial progress Wednesday, a group of 40 civil-rights and human-rights organizations released their own report, titled: “Falling Further Behind: Combating Racial Discrimination in America.”

Falling further behind is not just awkward for the world’s leading democracy, it’s inexcusable.

Have a look at the report, because being informed is the first step toward solutions.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays. | 206-464-3346

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