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.