Elvert Barnes (CC-BY-SA)

To be young, male and black in America means not being allowed to make mistakes. Forgetting this, as we’ve seen so many times, can be fatal.

The case of Michael Brown, who was laid to rest Monday, is anomalous only in that it is so extreme: an unarmed black teenager riddled with bullets by a white police officer in a community plagued by racial tension.

African-Americans make up 67 percent of the population of Ferguson, Mo., but there are just four black officers on the 53-member police force — which responded to peaceful demonstrations by rolling out military-surplus armored vehicles and firing tear gas. It is easy to understand how Brown and his peers might see the police not as public servants but as troops in an army of occupation.

And yes, Brown made mistakes. He was walking in the middle of the street rather than on the sidewalk, according to witnesses, and he was carrying a box of cigars that he apparently took from a convenience store. Neither is a capital offense.

When Officer Darren Wilson stopped him, did Brown respond with puffed-up attitude? For a young black man, that is a transgression punishable by death.

Fatal encounters such as the one between Brown and Wilson understandably draw the nation’s attention. But such tragedies are just the visible manifestation of a much larger reality. Most if not all young men go through a period between adolescence and adulthood when they are likely to engage in risky behavior of various kinds without fully grasping the consequences of their actions. If they are white — well, boys will be boys. But if they are black, they are treated as men and assumed to have malicious intent.

What else explains the shameful disparities in the application of justice? As I have pointed out before, blacks and whites are equally likely to smoke marijuana; if anything, blacks are slightly less likely to toke up. Yet African-Americans — and Hispanics — are about four times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than whites.

To compound this inequality, studies also indicate that among people who are arrested for using or selling marijuana, black defendants are much more likely than white defendants to actually serve prison time. For young white men, smoking a joint is no big deal. For young black men, it can ruin your life.

Similarly, blacks and whites are equally likely to use cocaine. But a person convicted of selling crack cocaine will serve a far longer prison term than one convicted of selling the same quantity of powder cocaine, even though these are just two forms of the same drug. Crack is the way cocaine is usually sold in the inner cities while powder is more popular in the suburbs — which is one big reason there are so many African-American and Hispanic men filling our prisons.

One arrest — even for a minor offense — can be enough to send a promising young life reeling in the wrong direction. Police officers understand this and exercise discretion. But evidence suggests they are much more willing to give young white men a break than young black or brown men.

Why would this be? In Ferguson, I would argue, one obvious factor is the near-total lack of diversity among police officers. What year is this, anyway?

But there is disparate treatment even in communities where the racial makeup of the police force more closely resembles that of the population. I believe the central problem is that a young black man who encounters a police officer is assumed to have done something wrong and to be capable of violence. These assumptions make the officer more prepared than he otherwise might be to use force — even deadly force.

The real tragedy is that racist assumptions are self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing. If young black men are treated unfairly by the justice system, they are indeed more likely to have arrest records — and, perhaps, to harbor resentment against police authority. They may indeed feel they have nothing to lose by exhibiting defiance. In some circumstances — and these may include the streets of Ferguson — they may feel that standing up to the police is a matter of self-respect.

Michael Brown had no police record. By all accounts, he had no history of violence. He had finished high school and was going to continue his education. All of this was hidden, apparently, by the color of his skin.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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