On Race, Yogi Berra’s Insight About Ignorance Might Help

Former New York Yankees catcher and manager Yogi Berra is known for saying things that on the surface seem silly and shallow, but upon careful consideration have layers of meaning. One of those insights forces us to apply what we know about Black interactions with police officers versus the perceptions that Blacks have of their interactions with police officers – and to contemplate which should guide public policy.

As the story goes, Yogis’ third-grade teacher asked him to stand and answer a question for which he was unprepared.

“Yogi, don’t you know anything?” She blurted.

“Know anything? I don’t even suspect anything” he replied.

Whether this exchange actually took place, or whether the teacher ever plumbed the depths of the epistemological meaning of Yogis’ reply, will never be known. But in this time of BLM, Yogis’ exchange with his teacher bears consideration. We are saturated with the declaration that ours is a racist society and that a significant portion of our population is subjected to “systemic racism.” How do we know this? What evidence is there for systemic racism?

Some scholars and pundits point to differences in rates of incarceration between Blacks and Whites. How do we know this is a result of systemic racism and not differences in rates of criminality? According to the FBI 2017 Uniform Crime Report, African Americans were arrested in connection with 53% of homicides for which an arrest was made while comprising only 13% of the population.

These same scholars and pundits often argue that the disproportionate criminal behavior of African American males comes about because of the poverty that racism creates. But the facts tell us that most poor people, those on public assistance, are not Black. They are White and their rates of crime, though higher than middle-class Whites, are significantly lower than African Americans. It is probably not poverty that causes the differences in rates of criminality.

The broadcast deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks and the shooting of Jacob Blake have changed the discussion. These anomalies of police/suspect interactions have been used to make us feel rather than think. We are shocked to see a police officer kneel on the neck of a restrained suspect, or to witness, albeit via video, the shooting of a man reaching into a car, or a fleeing suspect being shot in the back.

We human beings are designed, or at least evolved, to see patterns and we sometimes see patterns where none exist. We are told that the outcomes involving Floyd, Brooks, and Blake are evidence of systemic racism, that African American males are being hunted down and killed by a racist, White supremacist system.

How are we to know this? Or even suspect this? In 2018 there were over sixty million contacts between police officers and people over sixteen years old. Assuming the rate of contact remains consistent in 2020, the outcomes of Floyd, Blake, and Brooks would represent one in twenty million interactions. I cannot base knowledge, or even suspicion, on this kind of pattern.

When confronted by the cold, hard facts of reality, the grievance warriors retreat to their fortress of “Lived Experience”; namely, that we cannot know the fear and oppression under which African American males live without being an African American male. This argument is difficult to refute because it is subjective and emotivist, but it also weak because it does not mean anything. How people describe how they feel does not tell us anything about reality in general or systemic racism in particular.

For about a decade my “lived experience” was that law enforcement had targeted me. From the time I was sixteen until my mid-twenties I was pulled over and questioned countless times and arrested over two dozen. As a human being wired to seek patterns, I saw a system of oppression.

It was also my lived experience that whenever I resisted arrest, I was the recipient of a beatdown. In fact, on one memorable occasion, I was choked-out by the arresting officer while handcuffed and bound at the ankles for merely exercising my First Amendment rights to speech (looking back now I would have been better served by exercising my right to silence).

It seems Officer Chauvin, the man who knelt on the neck of George Floyd, transgressed as an officer of the law and a human being. However, the question is, were the actions that caused or contributed to George Floyd's death racist acts?

It is also important to note that the question is not whether Officer Chauvin is a racist, but rather, were his actions motivated by racial animus? If It can be established that Officer Chauvin is a racist, that might lead us to suspect that a contributing factor in George Floyd’s death may have been racism, but we cannot know this.

And yet so many are sure.

In the case of Rayshard Brooks, a man who was detained for DUI and physically resisted while being placed under arrest, we are told his death was a tragic display of racism. How do we know, or why should we suspect, that his death is attributable to racism?

My lived experience is that a physical confrontation with the constabulary will not end well for the person not wearing a badge. In the dozen or so misunderstandings I have had with police that escalated to physical violence, on only one occasion did I get the better of my oppressor. In that incident, it is likely that I wasn’t shot because I did not steal a weapon and threaten the officers.

In the third incident, at least three Racine Police officers responded to a call involving the violation of a court order and attempted theft of a vehicle. The responding officers confronted Jacob Blake regarding these complaints and attempted to detain him. He resisted, broke free and, according to the responding officers, reached into a vehicle to retrieve a weapon. Mr. Blake was shot several times but survived. In a later interview, Mr. Blake admitted being armed with a knife.

On the surface, the constants in all three of these cases are African American suspects and White arresting officers. But there are more meaningful, albeit less utilitarian constants.

In all three incidents, the officers were trying to affect an arrest involving a non-compliant or, in at least two of the cases, a combative criminal. My “lived experience” does not allow me to know, but I can strongly suspect that the actions of Blake, Brooks, and Floyd produced, or at least contributed to the unfavorable outcomes.

The reasons these three incidents turned our world upside-down are complicated and difficult to disentangle, but we must try to understand what happened and why. Perhaps if we had the wisdom of a third-grade Yogi Berra, we could have avoided dozens of deaths, billions of dollars in damage, and countless lives changed forever. Public discourse would be more intelligent if we just paused and considered that we do not know everything, or even anything, and that only after considerable thought and reflection should we suspect something.

IMAGE: Handcuffs blamed on systemic factors, with added text. Needpix free image.