Thoughts on Race and Policing

What seemed a dormant issue in America is once again an active volcano. The circumstances surrounding Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray have ushered in a new era of black/white tension. Not long ago certain pundits declared that America had entered a post-racial era, with their evidence being the election of the first black president, Barack Obama. Black people, minorities, and even slightly enlightened white people, however, knew that people regurgitating that phrase were beyond ignorant. The tension has always been there. The election of a light-skinned black man with white sensibilities who can make older white people feel at ease is completely irrelevant to the pulse of race relations at the ground level, especially in places with a history of conflict. Maybe a blessing in disguise, what Michael Brown and Freddie Gray have done is expose the systemic institutional problems of race and class disparities in places like Ferguson and Baltimore. New social media platforms have aided in plastering this reality across our TV screen, phones, and tablets. America has a long way to go. This is evident and undeniable. Declarations of a post-racial America will not make a reappearance for a long time to come, even by the most ardent deniers of reality.

It’s not hard to sympathize with poor people of color in these neighborhoods. Freddie Gray’s Baltimore neighborhood has a 50% unemployment rate among black males. A federal investigation of Ferguson’s police department—the city in which Michael Brown was shot—revealed an institutional bias whereby blacks where disproportionally arrested and fined for minor infractions. These revelations only occurred because of the violent events that grabbed the national spotlight. It doesn’t take a large leap to infer that many other cities in America are likely plagued with the same racial tension between minorities and the police and judicial system. Scares from Jim Crow and the Rodney King beating appear to be more like scabs that can still be ripped off.

With this said, the riots and vile language spewed at cops is sickening. I used the word sympathize earlier because I haven’t shared the same experience of overt police brutality that we’ve heard recounted in these neighborhoods. Maybe I can chalk it up to fortune or luck, but I can’t recount one instance in my life of feeling unjustly targeted by the police or judicial process (although my father can). One geographically relevant fact is that Colorado—my lifelong place of residence—did not experience the same historically deep-seated racial divides of the South. Additionally, Denver and Colorado Springs—the two largest cities in Colorado—have far fewer black people as a proportion of the population than other large metropolitan areas around the U.S. Therefore, black people have probably been seen as less of a threat by the powers that be, and there is less segregation and racial tension, as large enclaves of black neighborhoods are almost nonexistent in Colorado cities. The majority of black people from Colorado Springs would probably claim to have come from a white neighborhood, or at least have many white friends. For these reasons, even though I am half-black, and doubtless seen as a black man in the eyes of white people, I almost look at the events in Baltimore and Ferguson through the lens of a white person. My experience with police and the legal system through adolescence and early adulthood is far closer to an average white person’s than to a black person’s from a rough black neighborhood.

That is the disclaimer. Back to the reaction seen through the riots and heard through the interviews with black thought leaders. Basically, I have a hard time with it. The cards are stacked against young black males from poor neighborhoods. There is no doubt. Nonetheless, some of the narratives that have emerged in the wake of these tragedies are disingenuous. One seems to be that cops are out targeting black people for no reason. There is this narrative that black people are just walking down the street and cops are just shooting them dead. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The Trayvon Martin story approaches something similar to that, but George Zimmerman was not a cop. He was acting on his own individual compulsions and judgment, which, given his activity in the news since, have been proven to be severely problematic. The majority of the other stories always seem to have something in common, which is the number one way to ensure run-ins with police—illegal activity! The worst case of this being Michael Brown, who committed a strong-arm robbery and fought a police officer prior to being shot. I mean, what do you expect? The “hands-up, don’t shoot” narrative propagated after that incident was absolutely dismantled by the evidence. That was not what Michael Brown was doing. I don’t care what color you are, if you attack a cop, you’re liable to be shot. But all of these stories seem to contain some criminal element or an attempt to evade police, which escalates a potentially volatile situation.

Another narrative that falls flat is the “innocent victim.” If you listened to certain outlets, you would think that all of these victims are upstanding citizens. Young black males earnestly trying to do the right thing and not bother anybody. Freddie Gray’s rap sheet included 18 transgressions along with a two-year stint in jail. We know Michael Brown robbed a store shortly before he was gunned down. Nobody is saying that possessing a criminal history is justification to be gunned down by police. Of course it’s not. However, is it merely a coincidence that many people who die at the hands of police have criminal histories? Dr. Ben Carson, the pediatric neurosurgeon who recently joined the 2016 presidential field (and whose politics I generally disagree with), is from a rough black neighborhood in Detroit. In interviews he’s said that he knew many black people growing up who got the crap beat out of them by the police. But he said that they were usually the people who were “doing wrong stuff.” Again, there are anomalies. Countless people have been shot by police while seemingly doing nothing wrong. But that is far from the norm. In the bulk of cases that have sparked national backlash, the victims possessed criminal histories and were engaged in illegal activity, fighting or running from the police prior to meeting their fate.

Lastly, you hear the narrative about the judging or stereotyping of black people, which leads to an escalated tension prior to the police even engaging potential suspects. Undoubtedly this poses real challenges within police departments. It is impossible to know what’s in somebody’s heart. Reality dictates that there are white police officers who despise black people. There are racist people in every profession on earth. Racism on a deep level is extremely difficult to weed out. At the same time, just because a white officer questions group of black people on the street corner does not mean the officer is racist or is stereotyping black people. Just because an officer shoots a black person does not mean the officer is racist. Nonetheless, some outlets would have you believe that that is the only logical conclusion, which does harm in the opposite direction. But admittedly, this one is hard. Where do you draw the line between baseless stereotyping and near full confidence that something illegal is going on? A group of young black males wearing hoodies with sagging pants standing on a street corner in a notoriously drug infested area will raise a red flag for a police officer. And shouldn’t it? To some people that decries racism from the start. But reality is also reality. I’ve lived one block off of Colfax Avenue in Denver for over six years, which is infamously well-known as a seedy street rife with drugs, prostitution, and violence. Though Colfax is heavily occupied by white hipsters and gentrifying young adults seeking city life, I’ve still witnessed shootings, countless fights, daily crack deals, and even a prostitute getting pummeled by her pimp. Living in the area for so long, I recognize many of the drug dealers and shady characters. They’re always out there. When I see them standing on the corner, I’m not stereotyping “threatening” looking black males. I know they’re threatening. I’ve seen them walking up and down the street, selling drugs, whooping people’s asses who don’t have their money. That’s not stereotyping. That’s fact. This is the same situation of many police officers. They’re not randomly targeting certain characters based on appearance and skin color—they know these guys by name. They arrested them last week, and the week before. It’s easy for the black media to paint the picture of officers targeting black people simply because they’re sagging their pants as they walk down the street, but it’s not that simple, and definitely not necessarily the case. The general public (myself included) has no idea what it’s like to be a police officer in a rough neighborhood, where your life is constantly on the line. It’s sure easy to play Monday morning quarterback and start throwing out accusations without knowing the full picture, though. This is done by both sides—and it exacerbates the problem.

The answer lies somewhere in the middle. I have a severe paranoia of employing a holier-than-thou or self-righteous interpretation of these black victims’ lives. I loathe when people prescribe overly-simplistic solutions such as “always do what the cops say” or “stay out of trouble.” My experience is not one of trying to survive in the streets of a rough neighborhood with little hope of escaping. It would be easy for me to sit behind this keyboard and tell black people to obey the law and stay out of trouble. It’s an entirely different mentality and culture that these youth are subjected to at a young age. Hustling is a way of life for many. There are no job opportunities. Father figures are often absent from the scene. The legal system is already stacked against them. People from stable, middle-class households in friendly white areas, however, love to claim to have the simple answers about how to correctly live life. This is wrong and not even possible. Conversely, “fuck the police” is also wrong. Not all cops are out to get black people. Not all black people who are killed by police were wrongly targeted and innocent. Blindly jumping on one side or the other and vehemently defending it regardless of the facts does little to bridge the gap or bring about change—and it’s lazy. There needs to be objective understanding. Young black youth making poor decisions is not isolated to simple real-time decision making. Larger societal, cultural, and institutional structures influence what plays out in the streets. Similarly, bad apples exist in every police department, but larger policing philosophies may need to be reevaluated so that police aren’t placed in unnecessary, potentially explosive situations, especially over petty crime. Much room exists for the improvement of policing in poor black neighborhoods. Dialogue and broader understanding is a way forward; tribalistic “us-versus-them” mentality is not.

Philosophy, Politics

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