It has been pretty interesting to me to watch the give and take on the police killing articles, first with Michael Brown and now Eric Garner. The pushback is fairly predictable – one of my favorites is essentially why these particular killings are gaining protests and attention when countless others are ignored by the media and the public.
I think we would have to delve way too deeply into the “viral” phenomena to fully understand why some events capture everyone’s attention and others don’t. There are plenty of police-involved killings that do not capture much attention – even when it’s a former white police chief who killed an unarmed black man he was trying to arrest.
Still, I think part of what spawns attention in Ferguson and Staten Island, and before that on a BART train and Oscar Grant, is the fact that the police officers were operating under the color of authority and one of the most vital factors in safeguards to liberty is creating a police force that operates under our laws – and that, when they cross over from law enforcers to law breakers, they are held accountable.
The vital trust between police and community is strained if not broken when these incidents occur. There is a racial component here too – and many do not want to see it and probably want to eliminate the term racism from our lexicon – but many of these encounters occur between the police and people of color, and that serves to undermine trust between those communities and their police.
This is the point I raised in the skepticism that Al Sharpton showed twenty years ago and the skepticism many in the black community have to the Ferguson grand jury findings.
But the counter-narrative goes beyond that. At our November 15 event on a different kind of misconduct with the same basic result, prosecutorial misconduct – where prosecutors are rarely held accountable for their actions, keynote speaker Scott Sanders noted that you want to have a completely innocent defendant in these critical cases. But in his case, his client clearly committed mass murder, and that makes it difficult to raise troubling issues about official misconduct.
It is here that Charles Blow’s December 3, New York Times column really hits home. He notes that neither Ferguson nor Staten Island are the “perfect case” because neither are “a perfect victim and the protesters haven’t all been perfectly civil, so therefore any movement to counter black oppression that flows from the case is inherently flawed.”
Instead, we see a counter-narrative taking shape, which paints “the police as under siege and unfairly maligned while it admonishes — and, in some cases, excoriates — those demanding changes in the wake of the Ferguson shooting.”
He writes, “This is ridiculous and reductive, because it fails to acknowledge that the whole system is imperfect and rife with flaws. We don’t need to identify angels and demons to understand that inequity is hell.”
This is about racial inequality and criminal justice. Mr. Blow writes, “People want to be assured of equal application of justice and equal — and appropriate — use of police force, and to know that all lives are equally valued.”
He argues, however, “The data suggests that, in the nation as a whole, that isn’t so. Racial profiling is real. Disparate treatment of black and brown men by police officers is real. Grotesquely disproportionate numbers of killings of black men by the police are real.”
Charles Blow raises a string of concerns from the fact that police officers have hard jobs to the fact that “high-crime neighborhoods disproportionately overlap with minority neighborhoods.”
But he then attacks this point that we often see made by those involved in the counter-narrative: “Yet people continue to make such arguments, which can usually be distilled to some variation of this: Black dysfunction is mostly or even solely the result of black pathology. This argument is racist at its core because it rests too heavily on choice and too lightly on context.”
Then we come to the core here – the reason I have dissembled to this point. He writes, “Racist is the word that we must use.”
He adds, “Racism doesn’t require the presence of malice, only the presence of bias and ignorance, willful or otherwise. It doesn’t even require more than one race.”
He goes further, “Today, too many people are gun-shy about using the word racism, lest they themselves be called race-baiters. So we are witnessing an assault on the concept of racism, an attempt to erase legitimate discussion and grievance by degrading the language: Eliminate the word and you elude the charge.”
Mr. Charles writes, “By endlessly claiming that the word is overused as an attack, the overuse, through rhetorical sleight of hand, is amplified in the dismissal. The word is snatched from its serious scientific and sociological context and redefined simply as a weapon of argumentation, the hand grenade you toss under the table to blow things up and halt the conversation when things get too ‘honest’ or ‘uncomfortable.’”
He counters, “But people will not fall for that chicanery. The language will survive. The concept will not be corrupted. Racism is a real thing, not because the ‘racial grievance industry’ refuses to release it, but because society has failed to eradicate it. Racism is interpersonal and structural; it is current and historical; it is explicit and implicit; it is articulated and silent.”
“Biases are pervasive, but can also be spectral: moving in and out of consideration with little or no notice, without leaving a trace, even without our own awareness. Sometimes the only way to see bias is in the aggregate, to stop staring so hard at a data point and step back so that you can see the data set. Only then can you detect the trails in the dust. Only then can the data do battle with denial,” he continues.
“I would love to live in a world where that wasn’t the case. Even more, I would love my children to inherit a world where that wasn’t the case, where the margin for error for them was the same as the margin for error for everyone else’s children, where I could rest assured that police treatment would be unbiased. But I don’t. Reality doesn’t bend under the weight of wishes. Truth doesn’t grow dim because we squint,” he adds. “We must acknowledge — with eyes and minds wide open — the world as it is if we want to change it.”
He concludes, “The activism that followed Ferguson and that is likely to be intensified by what happened in New York isn’t about making a martyr of ‘Big Mike’ or ‘Big E’ as much as it is about making the most of a moment, counternarratives notwithstanding. In this most trying of moments, black men, supported by the people who understand their plight and feel their pain, are saying to the police culture of America, ‘We can’t breathe!’”
I hope people are still reading because now I’m going interject my viewpoint into this discussion.
We have a problem in our lexicon because what has essentially happened is that some time since the mid-1960s when we passed the Civil Rights Act, 1968 and 1972 when Richard Nixon engaged in the Southern Strategy, and now, the term racism as we used to know it changed.
There are still people – we call them white supremacists – who hold onto the belief that whites are genetically superior to blacks, but by and large those are small numbers and socially ostracized into extremist camps.
So if we’re using racism, the term used in the 1950s and 1960s for people who opposed de-segregation efforts and believed it was immoral to mix the races and that blacks were inferior, to describe the actions of police officers and some engaging in the counter-narrative, we run into problems and obstacles.
Social science researchers, beginning as early as the 1970s and 1980s, recognized the changing landscape of race and began to form the hypothesis of “symbolic racism” – the problem I have with that frame of literature is that the argument is that much of this is subconscious and that it manifests itself as more extreme forms of social conservatism.
This gets into the issue of victimization or, as Mr. Blow puts it, “Black dysfunction is mostly or even solely the result of black pathology.” While he argues this is racism and ignores historical context, I think it is a mistake to place this into a word as broadly used as “racism.”
This gets us to the debate as to whether the Garner incident had a racial component. I think it is indefensible to argue that it did not. This gets to the idea of subconscious bias and the more arcane “symbolic racism.”
The bottom line is that racial stereotypes present in society lead most people to react fundamentally differently to a large black man walking down a street than to a large white man walking down the street.
But that’s only half of the factor here. The other half of the equation is the interaction between law enforcement and citizen. Because of the trust factor, the way that African-Americans respond to police officers is going to be different than the way white people will respond in the same situation. And that interaction with an untrained and inexperienced officer – and it’s instructive that in both cases the officer involved was under 30 – can be fatal.
It is of course easy to say that, out of context and in hindsight, they should have thought about the consequences of how they interacted with the police. I’ll concede that point and, like most attorneys, counsel people on the street not to attempt to litigate their case with a police officer.
But that’s easy for me to say when I would be able to quickly bail myself out from custody and purchase the services of competent defense counsel.
However, there is another point. The police officers are trained on how to respond to these situations – they have training on tactics, they have tools at their disposal, and they have the power of numbers and the ability to call upon back up.
So yes, I absolutely believe that, in the case of Garner, this was about race, both in the officer’s response and the eventual victim’s reactions.
I also believe that in both Staten Island and Ferguson, a more mature police officer and a better initial response would have prevented these tragedies.
Finally, I think we need to be careful when using the term racism because its meaning has transformed over time. But we should not be afraid to note that race plays a role in these encounters. Until we can deal with three factors – blacks’ perceptions of police, police’s perception of blacks, and the poverty-crime cycle – we will make little progress in stemming these incidents.
—David M. Greenwald reporting