Yes, I wrote about this topic in a series of posts years ago, and I don’t generally like to repeat myself. But whether I like to or not, history does seem to insist on repeating itself, so here I go again, even though it’s hard to say anything about the recent spate of police killings of black people that isn’t obvious. It’s obvious that police racism is a serious problem in this country. It’s also obvious that it’s a problem without any straightforward solution, made all the more difficult because most cops in most places are inclined to deny that the problem is real.
Racist attitudes toward black people—often subtle and unconscious–remain pervasive in American society. Is there any reason to believe that police officers would be any different from the rest of us? Not in terms of attitudes, but certainly in terms of capabilities: the police have guns, and they wield them with presumptive legitimacy as agents of the state. The perception of threat and danger that so often distorts people’s views of black and brown people is therefore all the more dangerous if the people happen to be cops.
To be fair, the perception of threat and danger, while exaggerated and overgeneralized, is not altogether unfounded—black violent crime rates are close to three times as high as white. And some cops do spend much of their time in genuinely dangerous neighborhoods. Also in fairness, not all cops–probably even not most cops–are racists. But it’s enough that a lot of them are, and even the “good” cops never rat out on their brothers in blue. The code of silence is reinforced by police unions, which are everywhere devoted to unconditionally protecting their members from effective oversight and, when charged with malfeasance, punishment.
What to do? Actually, a lot is being done. As the NY Times reports, 30 states have passed over 140 new laws aimed at curbing police excesses in a variety of ways: delimiting acceptable uses of force, instituting more civilian oversight, increasing transparency of police actions, providing for enhanced training, etc. Much of this legislation can probably be credited to the work of the Black Lives Movement, both in pressing for change and in awakening whites to the realities of racism. But we also have to thank modern communications technology—the George Floyd video alone clearly had great impact on white awareness. The federal government, too, is renewing its scrutiny of police department practices, which had been suspended by the Trump Justice Department.
Inevitably, people will point to past efforts at reform that have yielded disappointing results, and worry that the new wave of legislation will be similarly inadequate. That is to be seen. Certainly, more fundamental necessary change will be gradual. Police departments need to be made more representative of their communities. That is an inherently slow process, which will yield even slower results in terms of police behavior: new recruits, regardless of skin color, are socialized into a majority culture in which people of color are often viewed as the enemy. Peer pressure can be stronger than racial identity.
Another kind of fundamental change that will take time is a general improvement in the economic and social conditions of minority communities. As black and brown people acquire the means to move out of dangerous neighborhoods and into the middle class, white perceptions of their “otherness” will fade. This kind of fundamental change requires a “big government” commitment to combat inequality, both through race-neutral public policies that generate opportunities for all Americans in the lower half of the income pyramid and through race-conscious efforts targeting the barriers that specifically impact people of color. The Biden administration so far has moved in the right direction, but the BLM movement and its allies on the left need to keep up the good fight.