In the wake of the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, there has been a lot more finger-pointing than sound analysis, with progressives accusing police of systemic disregard for the lives of black citizens and conservatives blaming “urban” (aka black) family dysfunction for a culture of lawlessness to which police justifiably respond. (If people don’t break the law, the meme goes, they have nothing to fear from the police.)
As with all gross generalizations, both of these broad-brush descriptions are wrong. Worse, to the extent they become common wisdom, they get in the way of our ability to solve real problems.
Are some police officers racists? Sure. But most aren’t–most are trying to do difficult jobs in situations that are often dangerous. That said, many more–especially but not exclusively in smaller communities– have been inadequately trained or badly managed, and those are issues that we can and should address.
The stereotype about black families has long been a staple of apologists for official misbehavior. It undoubtedly fits some urban families. But ironically, recent research suggests that the stereotype is much more likely to apply to white families in deep-red, rural America. As Thomas Edsall recently reported
In the fall of 1969, Merle Haggard topped the Billboard country charts for four weeks with “Okie from Muskogee,” the song that quickly became the anthem of red America, even before we called it that.
“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee, we don’t take our trips on LSD, we don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street, we like livin’ right and bein’ free,” Haggard declared. “We don’t make a party out of lovin’, we like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo.”
Times have changed.
Today Muskogee, Okla., a city of 38,863, has nine drug treatment centers and a court specifically devoted to drug offenders. A search for “methamphetamine arrest” on the website of the Muskogee Phoenix, the local newspaper, produces 316 hits.
In 2013 just under two-thirds of the births in the city of Muskogee, 62.6 percent, were to unwed mothers, including 48.3 percent of the births to white mothers. The teenage birthrate in Oklahoma was 47.3 per 1,000; in Muskogee, it’s 59.2, almost twice the national rate, which is 29.7.
Maps of social dysfunction–out-of-wedlock births, drug use, domestic violence, divorce, etc.–show these behaviors largely concentrated in Southern, bible-belt states. Similarly, a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control soundly rebutted the widely-held stereotype of the absent black father; the CDC found that black dads are, if anything, more likely to be involved with their children than fathers in other racial categories.
The problem with stereotypes–of police, of urban dwellers, of racial groups–is that they prevent us from seeing individuals and situations as they are. Pat answers and dismissive characterizations don’t solve problems–they perpetuate them.