Racism: Real and Presumed

Most problems benefit from dispassionate analysis. We suffer from premature closure when we jump to conclusions because they fit what we want.  Ironically, sloppy analysis often leads to casual certainty and what we want becomes written in stone. Sadly, in the last few days, it has been gravestone.

In both Baton Rouge and Minnesota, White police officers killed Black men. This has been taken as another example of racial “something” -- profiling, inchoate bias, fear of black men, or devaluing people by color. For any or all of this to be true, we have to assume that the racial permutations of this tragic confrontation would have ended differently, e. g., an African American cop and an African American citizen, the same cop and a White and, most pointedly, a White cop and a White citizen.

To begin, we know very little of the people involved and any past evidence for racial animus or the polar opposite. Nothing has emerged, so far, that suggests any of the four people brought any predisposition to the conflict. This is an important distinction for we do now, for sure, that the Dallas sniper was explicitly racially motivated against Whites and especially Jews.

There are those who assume that, in general, police and especially White police harbor prejudice. If this is the starting point, where you end is very predictable.  This approach actually weakens their argument because proving bias is so much persuasive that assuming it. Conversely, others presume that all police act from the same high motive, experience, and psychological perspective. Obviously, both points of view can get us into trouble.

What is essential to these cases is that citizens had guns. One was just purchased days before, the other long permitted. In the Baton Rouge case, the shooting occurred only after someone yelled, “ He has a gun”, and in the Minnesota case, only when the officer, learning the man was armed, perceived a threat, i.e., “ I told him not to move his hands.” It is only within this very narrow context that we have to decide if and to what degree, race played a part.

These were finite moments that were taken by the police to represent danger. If either man had been shot, in the absence of such a triggering action, racism could be more self- evident.  In our cases, both during and after, the cops speak only as to why they shot as compared to whom they shot and no racial epithets were used.

A fair question, therefore, is why, in these specific situations, shooting occurred and, if the race of shooter or victim had been different, would the outcomes have been the same? Again, some will say it was surely because the victims were of color. To be so, one would have to be sure that a White citizen would not have been shot after being told not to move his hands or when a cop, in a physical struggle with a White man, heard or saw that he had a gun. From what we actually know police responded to a fear, based less likely of race, but of two armed people.

How police respond to threat is a hidden issue. What actions are proportional, available, and within the scope of training in these spontaneous situations? The legal standard for deadly force is what would be reasonable for any policeman in the same situation? It begs the question as to the use incapacitating, but not deadly force, and the skill or sang froid to use it.

What we are learning is that many police are not Navy Seals or commandos. The vast majority of police never use their guns. Conversely, most of us are devotees of absurd levels of entertainment violence and absorb killing as safe, sanitary, and at a great distance. Never having really lived amidst real danger, we imagine that people, in real life, still act as if it were a video game.

As far as I know, both cops had never used deadly force before. We know little about their training or performance reports. We have no evidence, at least not as yet, that any held negative racial opinions. So, it is proper to reexamine what the Governor of Minnesota assumed i.e., that if the victims were White this would not have happened.

It was the fear of being shot, race notwithstanding, by someone who had or was thought to have a gun. Police are trained to be absolute while most of us are relativists. When you told to do something, like to put your hands in a certain way or to not move them, citizens may take these not as orders but as up for discussion. We imagine that police assume that, even if you still are reaching into your pocket when told not to, you are really a good guy and mean no harm. Moreover, if you are being subdued, rightly or wrongly, some think you should have the right to resist if you contend that you are being treated unfairly.

When police were thought to represent unquestioned and justifiable authority, we were conditioned to simply to say, “Yes, sir.”  If and when that changes for one of the parties, it does not necessarily change for both.  In these two situations, we are more likely seeing fear and perhaps a bit of panic when citizens do not do exactly what they are told.

To see racism, under any and all circumstances, just because of skin color and end the discussion there is faulty, simplistic, and ineffective