Some thoughts about policing and race in the United States

Dear facebook friend,

It saddens me to say that I find your views concerning recent police killings of Black men and not unrelated anti-police violence to be racist. Sorry to use the r-word on you. I know how much being accused of racism angers you. I know because it angers me too. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a meaning of the word “racist” that boils down to “irrationally hateful”, “deplorably unenlightened”, or “willfully ignorant”. In some way, this makes sense, since, after all, much of what we think of as racism is transparently nonsensical and immoral. I think we’d all agree that someone’s worth is not found in their skin pigmentation.

However, it’s much easier to assert this in the abstract than it is to put it into practice. We can insist that “all lives matter”, and yet there are very real signs that this is an empty platitude. When I examine our actions and not our words, I cannot come to any other conclusion than this one: our society assigns greater value to White lives than Black lives.

Perhaps no where is this clearer to me than the disparities in our criminal justice system, whether coldly presented in the statistical tables that show, for example, disproportional use of force on Black people or vividly depicted in videos of police violence that have circulated on the internet, like the one that showed an officer asphyxiating Eric Garner.

I am angry and sad about the disproportional violence that the police perpetrate on Black people. For the record, I am also angry and sad that five police officers were killed in a misguided attempt at revenge for this systemic violence. I am angry and sad that you and others insist on downplaying, dismissing, and denying this violence. Since my emotions won’t allow me to coherently express these things to you face-to-face, I hope you’ll read and consider my thoughts on race and policing.

1. A society governed by rule of law requires some way of enforcing laws. We rely on the service of men and women who put on uniforms and go out in our communities to ensure that laws are followed and people are safe. The task police officers have signed up to do is extremely important, and it can be extremely dangerous. Because of this, the police are worthy of our respect, our resources, and our scrutiny.

2. Although I think police officers totally deserve our respect, it is not their job to ensure that we respect them. Their job is much more important than that. It involves enforcing the law so that our bodies and our rights are protected. One of those rights is the right to express our resentment, anger, or mistrust even as it pertains to the police, so long as we do not break any laws in the process.

3. Even when we are suspected of breaking the law, we do not forfeit all of our rights. In fact, this is the exact subject of several amendments to the Constitution. It is the job of the police to ensure that we and others are safe and that the law is enforced. That means the police are responsible for protecting our bodies and our rights even when we are suspected of breaking the law. Put into practice, this means that we should expect the police to protect a person’s right to angrily voice their resentment at the police and to keep them safe while they do it, even if the person is suspected of breaking the law.

4. The police cannot always keep those that are breaking the law safe. I think we can agree that the use of force is sometimes unavoidable. A police officer shooting someone who is actively trying to kill the officer or someone else is an example of a use of force that I think is justified. However, I am very disturbed by the number of unarmed Black men and women who have been killed by the police.

5. For a variety of reasons, including that officers are often incentivized to pay greater attention to Black communities and Black people, Black men and women have more frequent contact with the police. In fact, Black people are often stopped without cause. More frequent stops, especially unwarranted ones, have predictable consequences. As Republican Senator Tim Scott put it “imagine the frustration, the irritation, the sense of a loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops”. Frequent contact also raises the chances that a Black person will end up on the receiving end of an officer’s use of force at some point in their lives. These racist policing practices anger me, because they hurt people I respect and care about, and because they represent a serious injustice perpetrated without my consent but in my name nonetheless.

6. I know that it is possible for anyone to become the victim of unjustified use of force or illegitimate stops by the police. I know that White people are not always treated justly by our criminal justice system. However, it strikes me as no mere coincidence that there is such a uniquely long and bloody history of police violence against Black people and corresponding mistrust of the police by Black people. If you’re truly interested in improving policing for everyone, regardless of race, then you’ll probably be interested in most of these policy reforms. They were written by Black Lives Matter activists.

7. Like anyone who’s read a newspaper or watched the news, I’m aware that there are other agents of violence in our society, and one of these is the murder of civilians by other civilians. It is true that Black men are often killed by other Black men, much more frequently than they are killed by the police. It’s also true that White men are most frequently murdered by other White men. We should be concerned about civilian murder, because all lives matter. However, I find it unreasonable to suggest that activism focused on police violence against Black people shows a lack of concern for other ways people are killed and harmed. Murder is a different problem; it requires different solutions. Fortunately, groups like the Brady Campaign have long pushed for reforms that would reduce such violence.

8. I consider these problems in policing to be far more important than anyone’s distaste for the tone, the rhetoric, or the tactics that activists have employed to raise awareness and demand action. Like you, I dislike inconvenience. I dislike feeling like someone is criticizing me or people or things I care about. I dislike being reminded of my privilege. None of this even compares to my abhorrence of racism.

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Posted in Language and race
One comment on “Some thoughts about policing and race in the United States
  1. As always, this is excellent. A minor quibble: I would have omitted “even” from “It is true that Black men are often killed by other Black men, much more frequently even than they are killed by the police.”

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