It’s really hard for me to write about race. Of course I want to get to a point where race is just an interesting aspect of a person, a feature that might (or might not) indicate that their family culture had a different flavor than mine. I don’t want race to shape a person’s opportunities for education, employment, housing, health care. I think I have that in common with the thousands of people filling the streets across the county in response to the death of George Floyd.
Do black lives matter? Yes. Yes, of course they do. So why would it be hard for me to join the people in the streets even if I weren’t worried about Covid-19? That’s what I’m trying to sort out. I’ve joined marches before. N-30 (the WTO protest in Seattle in 1999), the first and second Women’s Marches in 2017 and 2018, the protest against Trump’s Muslim ban. I’ve been on strike four times and participated in picket lines. I worked on causes my entire adult life. So why would it be hard for me to take to the streets now? The cause seems entirely just.
Bear with me, please, as I try to find the words for this.
For one thing, I know that the actual numbers about police brutality are less awful than the protesters suggest. These numbers also vary from one department to another suggesting that we already know something about how to train and lead police officers in ways that affect their behavior on the job. So, the ACAB “all cops are bastards” line doesn’t work for me.
I know that I couldn’t be a police officer. I get triggered by things and react in awful ways that would be even worse if I were wearing a police uniform. I have de-escalation skills, and I use them sometimes. But good police officers have to call on these skills every day no matter if they got up on the wrong side of the bed or if everything at home is going to hell. Imagine the self discipline that takes.
My world is inhabited by a lot of good people plus some criminals. I have sympathy for criminals. I actually believe that most young people want to do the right thing; when they don’t, there is often something about their circumstances that sets them up for committing crimes. But I also believe that given proper support, individuals can choose not to do the bad thing, and that it’s fair to stop them if they can’t stop themselves. I do not need to live in fear of theft or mugging or worse.
I believe profiling is entirely natural to quickly assess potential threats based on readily observable factors that go way beyond race. But then we need to pause and fill in some details to get to a good decision about what to do. If nineteen Arabs take down the twin towers, why wouldn’t we suddenly worry about Arabs? That does not mean we have to assume all Arabs are a threat, but it does allow for scrutinizing Arabs while we sort things out. At some point, not soon enough, we begin to differentiate Arabs who are a threat from those who are not. Most Americans recognize that not everyone from Mexico is part of a drug cartel, that it’s ridiculous to blame Asian individuals for the pandemic, that native Americans are not savages, and that black people are not all any one thing. Innocent until proven guilty: a great basis for a justice system and for individual interactions.
If, as I believe, profiling is natural, how do we not do it? I actually believe that good police training can minimize this instinct. Police are “not allowed” to profile, which is crazy, but many well-trained officers do a good job of moving quickly past the racial visuals to more salient details to assess a situation. I worry more about vigilantes than about police in a good department. Think Ahmaud Arbery.
Why do I think good police move quickly past race when assessing situations? This brings me back to the data. Most of the disproportionate killing of black people by police is a meme impressed on us by the viral videos of awful events. The visual image of a white cop kneeling on the black neck of George Floyd until he died is indelibly stuck in my brain. The statistics about how black men die are not as vivid. But they merit examination.
Alas, data gathering is a tricky business. One serious attempt to study police use of force relative to race is discussed in a paper offered by the National Bureau of Economic Research. With all the appropriate caveats about the challenge of collecting meaningful data, the author found that there were significant discrepancies in the use of non-lethal force by police, but not in the use of lethal force. If your immediate inclination is to disbelieve this study, you will have a lot of company. Yes police killings by race are similar within the same neighborhood. I suggest you click the link and think for yourself.
Another serious attempt to understand what is happening appears in the Annals of Internal Medicine. This 2018 article might make one wonder if we are focused on the right problem. It highlights information that could change the way we think about death in the black community. Horrific and disproportionate numbers of black people die in homicides within their neighborhoods. If black people truly believe that black lives matter, what are they doing about this? Blame whatever you want, but isn’t this what we need to talk about?
If you prefer your information in story form, I highly recommend this not yet old Atlantic article by Jeffrey Goldberg, A Matter of Black Lives. Read the data; read the stories. This is why it’s hard for me to be totally with the people protesting police brutality. Challenge me, but only if you’ve at least clicked on the links I offer.