Skip to main content

Are Black People Wrong About Police Abuse?

This morning, I came across this polling result regarding the police shooting of Michael Brown:


This plot, this statistical result, demands an explanation. How is it that two groups of Americans can see the world so very differently?

Setting aside any appeal to actual evidence regarding racial bias in the use of deadly force by the police, of which there is plenty, I can think of two explanations for the statistical result shown above:


Explanation 1: Black people are wrong. The police treat every American equally and fairly, no matter the color of their skin. The incident of Michael Brown's shooting could have happened to anyone in America. That kid made a poor decision that led to his death. White people properly see this situation as nuanced, complicated and unpleasant, but it has nothing to do with race or racism, because we live in a post-racial world. Black people simply complain too much about race. 

Explanation 2: White people, in the main, are wrong. The police do not treat Americans equally and fairly. Instead, race and racism play a major role in the likelihood of an American getting shot by the police, independent of that person's actions, life choices, socioeconomic status, or geographic location. Michael Brown's shooting was just one instance out of many, and all find their root cause in the reality of racism in present-day America.

For the first explanation to hold, 80% of Black Americans would be impugning the conduct of the police despite being protected and served by them. 80% of Black Americans would be making up stories of being pulled over for "driving while Black," despite receiving excellent service from their local cops. Think about that. You can talk trash about Verizon while having a working phone and there'd be no consequence; your service will continue as long as you pay your bill. But imagine speaking out and protesting against police organizations that are presently providing them with adequate service and protection. Why the hell would Black people want to piss off the people who are not only serving them, but who are armed and entrusted with the right to shoot people? 

In short, for Explanation 1 to hold, 80% of Black Americans would need to be completely out of their minds, to the extent that they would protest an armed presence in their lives that is actually serving them. And to what end? So the police would see how ungrateful they are and stop giving them protection? What can Black people possibly gain by lying about being abused by the police? 

Can you see why Black people might find it offensive, and even racist, when white people deny that racial profiling, abuse, harassment and unjustified shootings of Black people is real and constitutes a racial problem?

For the second explanation to hold, the majority of white people (47% vs 37%) would need to be unaware of the unfair treatment that Black people receive at the hands of the police. Is it conceivable that people who are used to being treated with respect from the police might miss how other people are not being respected? Is it possible that white people, who live in predominantly white neighborhoods and whose friends are 91% white, might miss how the majority of Black people are treated by the police? Is it possible that white people would be resistant to talking about race when it leads to discussions about the unfair privileges they receive from racist systems that they don't see, because they don't feel harm from it? 

Those are what are known as rhetorical questions. The video below is a small sampling of what is known as reality for Black Americans. This particular American was pulled over because he wasn't wearing a seatbelt. He was shot because he's the wrong kind of American. More instances are logged and commented upon by Conor Friedersdorf in "The Case for Police Reform is Much Bigger than Michael Brown."

Comments

Leah Bennett said…
Excellent points, as always, John. That video is chilling.

Popular posts from this blog

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:


It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…

The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…