SANTIAGO — Over the past half-century, two fundamental social changes have taken place in the United States around the issue of race. One was the end of segregation laws that explicitly discriminated against African-Americans, and the other was the decline in racial prejudices. 

Polls show that such racist sentiments among individuals persist today in just a small segment of public opinion. For example, a 1967 poll showed that just 53% of respondents were prepared to vote for a black presidential candidate, whereas in 2007 the figure had risen to 94% (a trend ultimately corroborated by Barack Obama's election victory).

Yet some conservative commentators like to use such figures to reach some erroneous conclusions: Racism has basically disappeared, they say, so the causes of dysfunctional behavior among African-Americans are attributable to the community's "different" culture, devoid of a work ethic or restrictions on anti-social conduct.

It is curious that these same commentators don't makes similar arguments for white or Latino citizens when they become unruly (for example, after the Stanley Cup final in 2011). In contrast with recent rioting in Baltimore, those clashes weren't a reaction to repeated killings by police, whose unjustified violence toward black Americans has been repeatedly caught on film. A study by ProPublica, an independent news source, for the years 2010-12 showed that blacks were 21 times more likely to be killed by a police-drawn firearm than whites or Latinos.

Protesters after officer cleared in Ferguson — Photo: Miguel Juarez Lugo/ZUMA

Rioting by whites after the Stanley Cup was motivated by their team losing a hockey game. And while such behavior is equally illegal in both cases, clearly in one case (Baltimore) there are political choices that could address the issue of equality of all citizens before the law, which would prevent the recurrence of violence.

We should consider perhaps that if an African-American is 21 times more likely to be shot by the police, it is not because of a correspondingly higher number of criminal acts among that community. An African-American is three times more likely to be caught with drugs than a white or Latino citizen, despite the U.S. Health Department finding that the proportion of African-Americans using drugs is more or less the same as non-Hispanic whites.

Regardless, we see clearly that the simple absence of segregation laws doesn't immediately remove their effect, nor do laws that are not explicitly racial necessarily have the same impact across all ethnic groups. On the one hand, if their parents cannot access mortgage loans or buy homes in certain residential areas because of racial attitudes, the next generation of African-Americans (even if freed of any discriminatory laws) would be condemned to live in neighborhoods with fewer job opportunities and worse schools — the two key factors that aid social mobility.

Now in contrast with the protess in Ferguson, Missouri, where the local police and political leaders are mostly white, about half of the Baltimore police force is black. In fact, three of the six police officers facing prosecution for the death Freddie Gray, which sparked the riots, are African-American.

Here we begin to get a glimpse of what we might term the intersection of prejudices: While of the same "ethnicity," Gray had not attained the social mobility that had allowed the policemen to rise a few rungs on the social ladder. The officers may even have shared the prejudices revealed by some of their colleagues during questioning, and believed some marginal elements of society "deserved" their lowly status. 

Of course, in those cities that witnessed the recent turbulence, an array of ethnic minorities abound among the marginal population, creating new dynamics and tensions. It is all a sharp reminder that the end of blatantly racist laws and attitudes — and even the election of an African-American president — don't mean the end of racism in the United States.