The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Covenant #4: community-Centered policing

I believe that the subject of race relations in America is so charged that virtually no one can talk about them without guilt, blame, and shame.  For whatever reason, right or wrong, my perspective assumes no special evil or incapacity on either side: just millions of human beings who have behaved according to predictable, largely unconscious patterns, for hundreds of years. 
Just as no individual ant has the design for an entire complex nest—in general, their directions are of the “more the grain of sand from here to there” variety, innate xeonophobia plus capitalism plus huge tracts of arable land plus Christianity plus a few other factors combined to create a particularly ugly situation.
(The note about Christianity.  No knock on Christians.  The problem is that the average Southerner during slavery was a Christian with an investment in the maintenance of a particularly hideous social institution.  When you say “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” that creates a moral conflict—unless the slaves are NATURAL slaves.  Unless they are actually better off as slaves.  And that believe, designed to justify a primarily financial arrangement, outlived the institution and dogs us to this day.  How much better things would have been with the simple “we’re screwing these folks over because we can!”)
At any rate, in my mind the path out of our current problems as a country is congruent with the path of personal development—and therefore engages my head.
Covenant #4: Fostering accountable Community-Centered Policiing.

Here’s one that lots of white folks have a hard time believing: virtually every single black man I know has experienced specific negative interactions with the police apparently based on race alone.  It doesn’t matter his level of education, income, status, or whatever.  And things are BETTER today than they used to be—so this has gone back all the way to slavery, and by itself is enough to foster that distrust of the police that so frustrates good cops.
How many bad, racist, or unconscious cops would it take to create this impression?  No more than 5-10%, folks.  Racial profiling for traffic tickets and general “stoppage” known as the old Driving While Black offense (in one case, it was a couple of white cops pulling me over to ask the white girl in my car if she was “all right.”)  As I said, part of the reason we obey the law is the perception that it is fair.  If you don’t think it is fair, then the perception is that the law is a game, that the rich or white break it and get away…and that only suckers obey it if there is another option. Parents who treat their children preferentially or apply punishment erratically get REALLY bad results from their kids.  Societies are the same way.
It is simply not possible to believe that there has EVER been a moment in American history when justice was equal, despite the very good intentions of millions of good, decent men and women.  There is simply too much going on at the level of unconscious incompetence, and too many people (5-10%) of genuinely bad will.  Add to that the social investment in status quo.  Add to that the very real fear that the oppression, murder, and rape vested upon blacks during slavery and afterward could, by a simple reflexive law of cause and effect, be stored up in a kind of cultural elastic energy, and slam back into white America.
The thin blue line, indeed.  Ever notice that at every point in American history, what white folks could comfortably say is: “well, yes, things were bad BACK THEN,” but it’s better now.  Whether the subject was slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, or whatever, the current generation can only look BACK and acknowledge the problems.  The problems are never, ever NOW.  No, sir…
Whether “zero tolerance” policing, social attitudes and the media (I clearly remember when a suspect’s race was only mentioned if they were non-white), police-citizen violence (I’m still waiting to see an image of black cops shooting or beating white suspects.  I’ve been waiting for forty years.  Why don’t we see this?  I’d say it’s because white cops have, traditionally, known there was zero come-back for such beatings and shootings, and the culture has given them implicit approval for use of excessive force.  “Holding the line” on the violence and homicidal anger pent up on one side of the color line.  Let’s cut the b.s., boys—if black men had done to white people what white people did to us, and then blandly insisted that no harm was done, wouldn’t you want to kill us?  Tell me the truth, and don’t even try to lie. I’ve read dozens, if not hundreds of books and stories and seen hundreds of movies about white people conquered and enslaved by aliens or whatever.  And the only point the audience was waiting for is: HOW ARE WE GOING TO SLAUGHTER THEM IN REVENGE.  This is natural, it is human, it is a satisfaction totally denied the children of slaves. Nor was there a Nuremberg trial. Nor 40 acres and a mule.  Nothing, really.  Just “well, get going, boy.  You free now!”  Underneath the polite smiles, everyone knows what happened, and that the violence has been seething for generations. And each generation’s job is to insist that “nothing more needs be done” while simultaneously, grudgingly, admitting that maybe their parents and grandparents were a little harsh and obtuse.  It is to laugh.
All of these tendencies for repression in the name of law enforcement (and again, OF COURSE there is a huge amount of genuine dysfunction in the community.  As there would be in the psychology of a man kept in chains for the first thirty years of his life.  Remember, in terms of being genuine Americans with all the rights promised, black America is only about 30 years old.  It astonishes me that we’ve accomplished as much as we have in that time.) are eased when the police department is responsible to, and reflects, the community it “serves.”
Racial profiling by police means that roughly 3 times as many black drivers are stopped as white drivers even when there is no apparent difference in driving styles.  Only .5% of police departments are regularly monitored by the community.  Fifty-seven percent of black officers believe that officers are more likely to use physical violence against blacks than whites.  Only 5% of white cops agree. 
Again, every black cop I’ve ever talked to said pretty much the same thing.  I think what stops whites from being able to see what’s right in front of them is the fear that admitting to racism makes them bad, evil, un-American. Certainly racism is something far larger and stronger than that slight unease or distaste they feel.  Certainly the cops they love for protecting them behave in a responsible, even-handed way even when the video cameras aren’t rolling…
Better look at human nature. That outgroup disconnect factor is a real killer.

     What can be done?
1)Get to know the police officers who patrol your neighborhood.
Ask your city council representatives to host neighborhood meetings to discuss local police policy and relations.
Talk to young people about how to conduct themselves when stopped or confronted by police officers.
Encourage your local high school t invite police in to meet the students.
If there is an incident of alleged police brutality, join with neighbors and communicyt leaders in demanding an investigation

And most importantly, Hold all leaders and elected officials responsible and demand that they change current policy.
     On this subject, because there has been so much fear and misunderstanding, it is especially important (from my point of view) for each side to remember that it has equal numbers of people of good will upon it. That if the positions were reversed, the same behaviors and attitudes would create the same problems, in mirror-image.  The thought experiment that forces you to understand violent human behaviors from the “what would induce me to behave that way” position can force you to understand rather than assume moral superiority on your side.

Just as men and women tend to blame each other for many life problems, not seeing that our biology has created many if not most of our basic behaviors, blacks and whites have a hard time grasping that everything that has happened can be explained by universal human tendencies.

As long as each side thinks that, if the positions were reversed, they would do better…there is no answer at all.  You have to dig deeper.

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