The recent killing of two black men by police officers in Baton Rouge and Minnesota followed by a mass shooting of police officers in Dallas have brought the contentious issues of police brutality and racism back into the spotlight.
After a series of incidents in the public eye starting with the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, tension has increased between the police and the black community well beyond a comfortable threshold along with damaging the more encompassing topic of race relations. Sadly, after the election of our first African-American president, things seem to have regressed.
No one can deny the history of racism in this country, but we don’t seem to understand the legacy of the relationship to law enforcement today other than in caricatures. Here are some key points to consider:
• Where there are humans, there will be racism but as the world gets smaller, we’ve seen bigotry diminish.
There will always be those who have prejudices toward people who are different; however, in the past we lived in communities segregated from one another and not just by race. Now that we communicate, travel, and live with people who are different, things are changing.
• Discrimination in America was institutional and legal but that is no longer endorsed or practiced as a matter of course.
While Senator Tim Scott highlighted that a black person may still receive an unfair amount of scrutiny, Barack Obama was still elected and re-elected to the highest office in the land. Prior to that, the rival party nominated a Supreme Court justice, two Secretaries of State, and featured a black businessman as a serious contender for the 2012 nomination. In the private sector, there is a growing list of highly successful black business people from Oprah and Jay Z to Microsoft Chairman John W. Thompson, the future looks bright.
I asked Ron Miller of Liberty University some time ago if he believes we are still a racist country by nature. He answered with some thoughts from his article Is America an Inherently Racist Nation: “No, I do not. Were it so, no black person could succeed, and too many have succeeded and continue to succeed.”
Indeed, segregation ended half a century ago and the numbers who grew up in a time when that was seen as acceptable are diminishing. There are parallels: Joe McGovern writes about his cross-country journey as a liberal learning about conservatives, “Most of the younger conservatives I interviewed were totally pro-gay marriage, for example, and irritated with the older conservatives that keep making gay marriage an issue.” While race relations are tense right now, it’s more about the past and politics than ongoing racism.
• In fact, America is consistently shown to be one of the least racist countries in the world.
Believe it or not, Americans, on average, are far more comfortable with neighbors of different races than most other countries.
• While our society aims to provide equal opportunity, getting everyone to pursue it through various obstacles remains a challenge.
We have come a long way in passing civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, etc. and in some cases we’ve promoted affirmative action. Still, black communities suffer from disproportionately high rates of poverty and crime. Clearly, this is not due to the color of their skin or being inferior, so the answer to changing the dynamic is understanding why.
• Shootings by police are relatively rare and don’t always reveal racial bias but there is still a difference in use of force.
Here is good news and bad news: a recent study by Roland G. Fryer Jr., a professor of economics at Harvard, examined over 1,000 shootings in 10 major police departments and found the disparity only in nonlethal force. Going over the study in the New York Times, Fryer wonders if this is related to cost, as officers face legal and psychological consequences when they unnecessarily fire their guns but excessive use of lesser force is rarely tracked or punished.
It is also more of a policing problem than a racial problem. Heather McDonald of the Wall Street Journal reports:
“…blacks make up 26% of the police-shooting victims, compared with their 13% representation in the national population. But as residents of poor black neighborhoods know too well, violent crimes are disproportionately committed by blacks. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks were charged with 62% of all robberies, 57% of murders and 45% of assaults in the 75 largest U.S. counties in 2009, though they made up roughly 15% of the population there.”
This means officers confront armed and often resisting suspects in those communities, raising the risk of using lethal force.
But white officers are not necessarily more prone to shooting innocent blacks. A Justice Department report on the Philadelphia Police Department found that black and Hispanic officers were much more likely than white officers to shoot blacks based on “threat misperception,” (a mistaken belief that a civilian is armed). A 2015 study by Penn criminologist Greg Ridgeway, former acting director of the National Institute of Justice, found “black officers in the NYC Police Department were 3.3 times more likely to discharge their weapons than other officers.”
When Black Lives Matters and others protest the disproportionately harsh treatment of black men by police, they often have a legitimate beef. Tim Scott said as much during his speech and former Speaker Newt Gingrich recently observed, “It took me a long time and a number of people talking to me over the years to begin to get a sense of this: If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”
However, pointing this out without looking at crime statistics doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s time to acknowledge the problem without trying to assign all the blame. African-American policemen and conservatives are often disappointed that there is so much outrage about treatment by police when far more die at the hands of others in the community.
It’s no secret that members of any group are reluctant to call out their own. On his Facebook page, police officer Jay Stalien tells of being treated as an enemy by his own people, just for being a cop:
“Black people kill more other blacks than police do, and there are only protests and outrage when a cop kills a black man. University of Toledo criminologist Dr. Richard R. Johnson examined the latest crime data from the FBI…and [CDC] and found that an average of 4,472 black men were killed by other black men annually between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2012….[while] 112 black men died from both justified and unjustified police-involved killings….
…to most black people…[o]nly the lives that make the national news matter…. Only the lives that are taken at the hands of cops or white people, matter. The other thousands of lives lost, the other black souls that I along with every cop, have seen taken at the hands of other blacks, do not matter. Their deaths are unnoticed, accepted as the ‘norm’, and swept underneath the rug by the very people who claim and post ‘black lives matter’.”
Critics will argue that this is the result of institutional racism and while a poorly crafted phrase, it isn’t without merit. If we can understand that blacks commit more crime without making it “because they are black,” we can start to untangle the causes.
My father always said, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Jeff Guo described in the Washington Post how President John F. Kennedy, trying to help black people move past a history of discrimination, started early-childhood education and vocational training efforts that Lyndon B. Johnson would later expand into Head Start and the Job Corps, under the umbrella of his War on Poverty. Harvard Historian Elizabeth Hinton writes in “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime,” that Johnson’s efforts, largely based on former Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s studies on black poverty, were well-intentioned but misguided. At the time, leaders saw the connection between between poverty and crime but designed programs that treated the symptoms rather than the disease.
Then, in response to the increasing civil unrest, the federal government made its first major intrusion into local law enforcement, beginning a process of militarizing the police, creating the prison industrial complex and eventually, the War on Drugs. Addressing these issues and the their impact on African Americans along with gun violence is a contentious debate but Hinton argues the blame is bipartisan:
“Built by a consensus of liberals and conservatives who privileged punitive responses to urban problems as a reaction to the civil rights movement, over time, the carceral state and the network of programs it encompassed came to dominate government responses to American inequality.”
Johnson continued to treat urban black poverty and unrest as a problem of discipline rather than denied opportunity and leaders on both sides were unwilling to make the drastic investments in human development. The legacy of that approach is what we see today and even in programs that are undeniably helpful to those truly in need, without sufficient accountability there will continue to be abuse.
Larry Miller had an extended conversation with Dave Rubin about the roots of this problem, questioning long-term consequences of rewarding women for out-of-wedlock births by giving them additional benefits. Others in the black community have also noticed: during his cross-country journey, McGovern also spoke to an African-American who grew up in the projects in Pittsburgh and told Joe, “he was on the bus heading to school and he heard a girl behind him tell her friend, ‘I’m going to get pregnant again and this time I hope it’s a girl so they’ll have to get me a bigger place,'” because she already had a boy and since social services wouldn’t allow boys and girls to share rooms, they would move her into a bigger apartment.
People will differ on what the government can and should do but we at least appear to be approaching a consensus on where the government has gone wrong. As with gun violence, if we can approach the broader systemic issues, particularly where government programs have made things worse, we stand to have a greater degree of long-term success. The most important things we can do, with a healthy dose of addition by subtraction, are:
1. End the War on Drugs and focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration
2. Institute major prison reform, and focus on turning criminals into productive members of society
3. Transition welfare programs into work and job training for teens and able-bodied adults
4. Support school choice and education reform
5. Increase gang intervention
6. Create a genuine wealth-building program to supplement or replace Social Security
When we remove our own biases from the equation and look at matters objectively, the picture becomes more clear how the ongoing situation has contributed to tension between law enforcement and the black community and a resurgence of racial animosity. We are not always successful in implementing policies that help, nor in achieving the personal responsibility we expect from each other. An important part of dealing with any issue is realizing when you’ve made a wrong turn and getting the ship back on course.