LA LAW: On November 5, former Oakland transit officer Johannes Mehserle was handed a two-year sentence for killing Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old African-American man who was shot in the back as he lay, unarmed, on a train platform on New Year’s Day 2009. Mehserle was convicted in July of involuntary manslaughter—the lightest verdict short of an acquittal—and the paltry sentence poured salt in an open wound for Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, who cried, “He got nothing!” as she left the courtroom.
The hearing marked the end of a legal chapter that Colorlines magazine described as a “roller coaster ride.” On the one hand, that a white police officer was found guilty for the killing of an unarmed black man was historic for Los Angeles, where the trial took place. On the other, the verdict was undermined by the minimum sentence, which was almost exactly the same as the one NFL quarterback Michael Vick received for running a dogfighting ring. In addition to dismissing a “gun enhancement” charge that carried up to ten years, Judge Robert Perry gave Mehserle credit for time served, meaning he could be free by next summer.
Oakland activist Jack Bryson, whose sons were with Grant that night, says he is “stunned” by the sentence. “When a black or brown man commits murder, he gets the maximum. He should have been treated like anybody else.” The Justice Department has said it will conduct an independent review, but Bryson says the feds haven’t contacted anyone. “I hope they will.” LILIANA SEGURA
A NATIONAL CATASTROPHE: A new study from the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition representing some of the country’s largest urban public school systems, exposes an achievement gap much wider than expected for young black male students in America, calling it a “national catastrophe.”
The study, “A Call for Change,” shows that the inequalities start early: infant mortality rates are much higher for blacks than for whites, and one out of three black children lived in poverty in 2007, compared with one out of ten white children. Once in school, only 12 percent of fourth-grade black male students performed at or above proficiency levels in reading, compared with 38 percent of white males; and only 12 percent of eighth-grade black males performed at or above proficiency levels in math, compared with 44 percent of their white peers. Black males make up only 5 percent of the college student population, and the unemployment rate for black men is much higher than for white men.
“Black males are caught in a vicious circle,” says Doug Harris, an education economist at the University of Wisconsin. “Some break out of it, through their own determination or their families or some dedicated teachers. But those cases are sadly rare.” And while income inequality explains some of the achievement gap, Harris points out, “a very large gap remains.”