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U.S. racial tensions and violence only likely to get worse

Common sense tells us the public scrutiny and the ever-present cell phone cameras would reduce the number of police-involved shootings, particularly of black men.

That’s just not the case south of the border, where such shootings, followed by the release of invariably damning video, has brought the issue front and center yet again.

While it may be surprising these kind of suspect shootings still occur, somewhat less surprising was an apparent retaliatory shooting of police officers in Dallas. The combination of historical grievances, systemic racism, increasing authoritarianism and way too many guns means we can expect more fallout.

The killing of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota by white officers had something of a déjà vu quality to them.

While police-involved shootings are relatively uncommon in Canada, in the U.S. police seem to be involved in controversial shootings as a matter of course. That’s most evident where racial minorities are involved, and the country seems more uneasy with that reality. The racial element of the latest shootings only heightens the tension in a climate where the killing by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York sparked nationwide protests.

In the U.S., there are hundreds of officer-involved shootings each year – some 450 in 2014, for instance. But even that number is likely to be on the low side, as there are no reliable statistics kept. The situation gets even murkier when trying to track how many of those shootings might have had a racial component – some statistics put the likelihood of a young, black male being shot by police at 20 times greater than a young, white male in similar circumstances.

We are now seeing protests, including the peaceful shutdown of highways, fanning out across the U.S. The shooting in Dallas of five white police officers by a lone black gunman intensified the racial discord in that country. The situation wasn’t helped by some elements attempting to use the Dallas killings to discredit the very valid issues raised by groups such as Black Lives Matter.

The bitterness of the response in some quarters to the Dallas shootings shines a light on the racial divide in the U.S. The killing of white police officers after the deaths at police hands of yet more black men ramped up the tension that never seems to be too far below the surface. There are very real reasons for these tensions, particularly for African-Americans who come into far greater contact with police forces that are increasingly militarized and a penal system that appears to be intent on disenfranchising people of colour while turning billions of dollars from public coffers into private profits.

Some critics have likened the police and judicial systems’ handling of minorities to internal colonization. The numbers bolster that case. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country – some 2.2 million people according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2013, plus another 4.8 million on probation or parole. The tough-on-crime spree that began in the 1980s has sent million of nonviolent criminals to jail, many on petty charges, with spending on prisons growing three times the rate of public education over that time.

Dysfunctional might be an understatement in describing the system. Throw in the racial divide, and it’s difficult to be optimistic for a solution to what President Barack Obama this week called “the deepest fault lines of our democracy.”

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