The white police/black community divide has been with us from the beginning, and there is a reason for that
July 17, 2016 12:00 AM
By Larry E. Davis
We all have known for a very long time that there is friction between white police and African-Americans. Its roots run back to the founding of the country.
Still, I’ve recently asked myself, “How long have African-Americans been experiencing brutality at the hands of white police officers? How many African-Americans have been shot and beaten over the years with no response at all from our society?”
We would be foolish to believe that the racist atrocities we have seen during the last two years are due to the advent of the cell phone. It saddens me to think how many black people have been beaten or killed by police for being black – just since legal segregation ended in the 1960s, let alone during Jim Crow and slavery before that.
We all are quick to exclaim that not all white police officers behave in a racist manner towards black people. And of course this is true. But we prefer to linger in this part of the discussion and give too little attention to the fact that too many white officers do, in fact, demonstrate racist behavior. In our efforts to protect the many who are good, we give insufficient attention to the few who are bad.
The other day, a reporter asked me if race relations in America have grown worse. My gut feeling is that they have not. They have always been bad for black people. But with the introduction of social media, more whites also have come to see some of the unjustifiable brutality to which blacks are regularly exposed.
Before the ubiquity of cameras, I think whites could explain away to themselves and others much of the foul treatment by police experienced by black people. But even whites who resisted seeing it now acknowledge the racism displayed by some white officers.
Like most of us, they find this to be an unpleasant realization. It is much more comfortable to cheer their favorite black players in the NBA or NFL, while choosing not to think about how their favorite players are at risk of being mistreated as black men as soon as they step off the court or field.
While I don’t like it, there is some validity to the argument that people perceive race relations as having gotten worse. I have studied race virtually all of my professional life and thought that I understood very well how it works in America. But social media forced me to realize that the abuses to which blacks are exposed are far more frequent and pervasive than even I had thought.
This enhanced awareness has been a rude awakening for our entire society, as we all have been surprised by the sheer number of shootings of blacks by white police officers. While race relations may not, in fact, be getting worse, we as a society are becoming more aware of how bad they nonetheless are. The number of black men shot by white police officers does not appear to have increased nationally over the past few years, but our awareness of such shootings has.
I find myself asking, “If black people continue to be treated this way, even now, when everyone knows the camera is always rolling, what must it have been like when my father was a young man, before there were cameras everywhere?” We assume that the cameras worn by police and carried by almost every private citizen serve to some extent as a deterrent.
The killing of five Dallas police officers by sniper Micah Johnson must be condemned, but it would be a mistake to think of him as acting only out of PTSD or drug addiction. Although completely reprehensible, his actions were a manifestation of the rage and hopelessness that much of black America feels towards the criminal justice system. Much of black America perceives itself as a community entrapped, exploited and harassed by a racist police force. We hear only about the most extreme transgressions against black people – the shootings. But how many more suffer physical and verbal abuse?
Imagine your family walking into a court of law with witnesses and a video of an injustice carried out against your loved one, only to see a slam-dunk conviction instead end in the acquittal of all accused. Imagine seeing such an event happening not in a single isolated instance, but over and over again throughout your neighborhood and throughout the country.
Very few people believe killing others is an answer. But what have we done as a society to prevent such racial injustices? Obviously, not enough.
There should be no need for a Black Lives Matter movement. Blacks should not feel that it is solely or even largely up to them to address an unjust criminal justice system. Blacks always have been joined by significant numbers of whites in their efforts to fight injustice in this country — and they surely need white America’s help now. Blacks have neither the economic nor political means to solve this problem alone.
I certainly do not have all the answers to the policing and race problem, but I offer these recommendations:
1) Make the racial composition of police forces mirror the racial composition of the communities they serve.
2) Punish equitably police officers, white or black, when they commit racial transgressions. We do our good police officers a great disservice when we fail to hold the bad ones accountable.
3) Create greater economic opportunities for young black males, as it is frequently their illegal or extra-legal efforts to make a living that results in their conflicts with law enforcement.
The absence of a sufficient response to help fellow citizens suffering racial injustice has enabled this injustice to continue. As a society, we have behaved irresponsibly. We Americans have failed each other.
President Barack Obama said in Dallas, “We have asked too little of ourselves.”
Yes, we have.
And we tell each other how surprised we are at the violent racial confrontations taking place in our cities. Well, it’s our own damn fault.
Larry E. Davis is dean of the School of Social Work, Donald M. Henderson Professor and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh (email@example.com). His most recent book is “Why Are They Angry with Us? Essays on Race.”