Black and Blue

I know I am not the only American who is struggling to come to terms with the events of the past week: the videos of police killing black men whose “crimes” consisted of selling CDs and driving with a broken taillight, the equally horrendous murder of Dallas police by a U.S. Army reservist bent on “killing white people,” and the use of a sophisticated robot to kill, rather than incapacitate or capture, that gunman.

Most reasonable people understand that every group–racial, occupational, whatever–has its bad apples, deranged or bigoted or otherwise damaged individuals. In the case of police, the rogue behaviors displayed by a small percentage of officers makes police work more difficult and more dangerous: for one thing, when people fear and distrust law enforcement, they are unlikely to co-operate and provide helpful information; for another, as we have seen in Dallas (and last year in New York),  shocking evidence of such behaviors can provoke attacks on all police by unstable individuals.

When one of those attacks, or another high-profile crime, is committed by a black person, it reinforces stereotypes of black criminality, making the lives of the vast majority of black citizens more difficult. (Of course, when whites like Dylan Roof massacre churchgoers, his actions do not feed into widespread beliefs that all whites are murderous. The fact that whites are not seen as monolithic and interchangable, while marginalized minorities are treated as if members of those groups (African-Americans, Muslims, etc.) are fungible, is one aspect of what has come to be known as white privilege. The difference is incredibly unfair, but it exists.)

The question before us is: what do we do?

There are practical steps we can take to reduce the likelihood of gratuitous police violence; many police departments are already implementing better training protocols and better psychological screening of applicants, and others–especially in smaller, less professionalized police forces– need to do so. We also need to eliminate systems like the one in Ferguson,where citations for low-level infractions actually funded the police department, incentivizing unnecessary confrontations between citizens and police. (For that matter, we need to stop criminalizing everything from not using your seatbelt to driving with a broken taillight, and let police focus on crimes against person and property.)

As many people have pointed out, when everyone is armed to the teeth, we shouldn’t be surprised by gun  violence. If not for the NRA’s stranglehold on our feckless lawmakers, we might be able to institute some reasonable restrictions on gun ownership.

Those and other measures should certainly be undertaken, but they ignore the elephant in the room.

Racism is certainly nothing new in America, but over the past few years we have seen an upsurge in nativism and bigotry of all sorts. It began with the ubiquity of talk radio–with Rush Limbaugh and his clones, who made money by appealing to the discontents of older white men, assuring them that women and African-Americans and various “others” were taking  jobs and status that was rightfully theirs. Fox News followed the script and amplified the resentments.

It got worse when we elected an African-American President; evidently, the thought of a black man occupying the White House was enough to make previously closeted white supremacists crawl out from under their rocks.

That led to Donald Trump, and his attack on “political correctness”–an attack seen by  legions of angry white guys as permission to discard hard-won norms of civility and respect. In Trump World, it is disdained as “politically correct” to refrain from ridiculing the disabled; “politically correct” not to display crass racism; “politically correct” to refrain from sexualizing or demeaning women.

Ultimately, what keeps police from disregarding the worth of black lives is a culture that genuinely values those lives. What keeps most citizens from breaking the law are social norms that value the rule and role of law. What keeps our diverse and polyglot nation from disintegrating is the conviction that we share an identity as Americans, that there is a “we” that supersedes our various tribal commitments.

Americans will probably never live up to our highest aspirations and principles, but when we discard them, when we celebrate crudity and name-calling and bigotry as “telling it like it is,” we betray those principles and degrade our communal life. Worse, we give damaged people from all groups encouragement to act on their anti-social impulses.

Last week wasn’t a face-off between black and blue. It was a test for us all.


Proving Jon Stewart Right

Although the Daily Show has taken great delight in lampooning our political class, over the years, Jon Stewart’s most frequent targets have been the American media.

In fact, the Daily Show could be considered one longstanding reproach to an American media that focuses on celebrity and “infotainment” at the expense of what used to be called the “news of verification”–a media that repeatedly fails to provide the sort of investigative reporting on government, business and social institutions that we need in order to be informed citizens in an increasingly complex world.

To take just one example, America has recently experienced a series of highly problematic incidents in which police have killed unarmed citizens. Those incidents–several of which have been captured on the cell phones of witnesses–have led to protests and civil unrest.  Given their frequency, and the amount of discord generated, it would be reasonable to expect an investigative series separating fact from fiction and rumor: the number of people killed by police in a given period of time, the demographics of communities where such tragedies occur, perhaps even comparing the American experience to that of other Western democratic countries.

Instead of that reporting, we’ve gotten pundits and “commentators” accusing or defending police actions, based upon their particular ideological positions.

It has taken the Guardian–the excellent British newspaper that regularly offers more information about the U.S. than most American news outlets, to do the hard reporting. The Guardian has produced a database showing, month by month, the number of people killed by police, the manner of the death (gunshot, taser, etc.) and where that killing occurred.

No punditry. No spin. No hysterical accusations or indignant defenses. Just raw data. This is what happened, this is where and this is when. A basis for discussion.

People can draw very different conclusions from a given fact situation. But in the absence of those hard facts, we are left with conjecture and ideology and hyperbole. In order to have anything approaching reasoned debate about solutions to our common problems, we need to begin with verifiable facts–and we depend upon the media to provide those facts.

The First Amendment’s Freedom of the Press was a recognition of the importance of that media role. We didn’t protect the media from government interference so that reporters could parrot party lines or hype the newest “in” bar.

The Guardian is evidence that journalism is still possible. In this case, the data was clearly available–but to the best of my knowledge, no American outlet compiled it.

Perhaps American media should focus less on things like Kim Kardashian’s ass and more on that quaint thing called actual news.

I’m sure Jon Stewart wouldn’t mind.