Sunday, July 10, 2016

Racism and Bears: How systemic racism leads to minorities viewing police as predators

There is so much I want to talk about right now, but I cannot talk about everything at once.

I've written before about how the social contract between the public and the police in this country needs to be renegotiated.  We've never truly come to a real cultural agreement about police in this country.  And I think that the lack of a real understanding of what police are leads to these cycles of violence.  I wrote that post two years ago during another round of killings by and of police.

I've written before about how gun control, Second Amendment rights, and police militarization are linked and all applied very differently to black people in America.

I've written about how "common sense" type weapons laws are actually used to abuse and persecute minorities.

I've even written about how complicated actually trying to understand violence statistics is, and how many ways there are to mess up data with subtle errors.  And that is assuming that there is no agenda, and when people (including myself) write about violence there is almost always an agenda.

And yet there is ever more to talk about.

I want to talk more plainly about things I've already touched on.

I also want to talk about what police go through.  The dangers they face, the things they have to experience, and how little attention their heroism and sacrifice receives.

I want to talk about the problems of police being used as revenue generators by governments.

I want to talk about so many things, but what I want to start with today is by trying to explain how structural racism works.  I want to explain why complaining about a racist system is not the same as calling police racists.  It's not.  I realize that I will probably fail to change many minds, but I need to at least be able to say that I've tried.

Philando Castile, even though this article doesn't focus as much on Mr. Castile, I still felt that he is emblematic of this current cycle of violence by and against police.  Particularly since he did nothing to become an emblem of violence.

I'm going to start my explanation with an example and position that I am sure will be seen as wrong by many:  The Police Killing of Alton Sterling was justified.

As far as I am concerned, based on the video, the police were totally justified.  Despite having two police officers on top of him trying to subdue him, Sterling was still clearly struggling with the officers.  Even if he had not been armed (which he was), continuing to resist at that point would have been monumentally inadvisable.  Alton Sterling had a gun in his pocket.  You can shoot through a pocket.  Police were responding to a report that he had already threatened someone with his gun.  From the perspective of the police they were going to arrest an armed suspect who had already demonstrated dangerous actions.  When you are armed and police are arresting you because of reports of you threatening people with a deadly weapon, continuing to resist goes from being monumentally inadvisable to being suicidally inadvisable.

But notice that I am not saying it was suicidally stupid.  Because the question of why anyone in that situation would be so unwise as to foolishly invite lethal actions by the police leads us to try to understand the ways that racism affects people and groups.

Why was Alton Sterling struggling with the police?

He knew he was armed.  He knew there were two cops on him.  He sure as heck should have been smart enough to realize that you don't get to shoot your way out of a situation with police (at least almost never).  And yet he continued to fight.  Overwhelmed, outnumbered, and out-gunned, he fought vainly and suicidally.  There was no possibility of anything positive coming from his actions, but he struggled.

There is a comparison that I can offer that I draw from my Alaskan upbringing.  He fought like he was being mauled by a grizzly.  When you are attacked by a grizzly there is really nothing you can realistically do to make yourself survive once they have their jaws and claws on you.  You might survive, but not because you really have a chance of killing the bear.  And yet people fight back.  If you are going to die anyway then maybe you can take the bear with you.  And sometimes miracles happen.

I cannot say what was going through Alton Sterling's mind, or whether or not he thought things through when he decided to struggle, but my suspicion is that he wasn't thinking.  My suspicion was that he went into fight or flight mode, and flight wasn't an option.

But why?

For myself, if police came to arrest me, I would not resist.  Even if they abused me and violated my rights I would not resist, because I know that no good can come from it.  Plus, not resisting increases my chances of surviving, and if they do violate my rights it puts me in a better position to turn around an sue them.  My underlying assumption is that the police are not going to kill me, and if they break the law I have the resources to sue the police.  (This underlying assumption is pretty much the dictionary definition of privilege)

For many white people it is easy to point to the ways that so many people killed by police seem to bring it on themselves.  When you assume that the police aren't going to kill you it changes the way you perceive them.  To go back to the bear analogy, many white people's relationship with police is a lot like urban environmentalists relationship with bears.  People who don't have to worry about getting eaten by bears think of them as beautiful creatures that serve a vital ecological role.  People who do have to worry about getting eaten might still appreciate and respect the ecological role that bears serve, but they don't want the bears near them.  Because they don't want to get eaten.

If you are one of vast majority of Americans who are statistically less likely to be killed by police it is easy to assume that #blacklivesmatter people are being overly dramatic, and that all people need to do to not get shot by cops is to not do stupid things.  But if you are part of the 14.5% (13% African American, 1.2% Native American, source) of Americans that are more than 3 times as likely to be killed by police as white Americans (source) then it doesn't seem so dramatic (Native Americans are actually more likely to be killed by police than blacks).

It just so happens that this week provided an object lesson in why so many dark skinned people fear the police.  Philando Castile was a law abiding, licensed firearm carrier, and school employee.  He was killed despite following the rules, and complying with the police.  Killed by a police officer while in a car with his girlfriend and her four year old daughter.  After he was shot he was allowed to bleed out rather than receiving prompt medical attention.  The killing of Philando Castile serves to effectively confirm the idea for many people that even if black people follow the rules the police will still kill them.

(Just to be clear here, I do think that the killing of Alton Sterling was justified, and I would be shocked if any inquest found otherwise, but the killing of Philando Castile is unquestionably minimally Manslaughter in my opinion.  If the officer who shot Philado Castile is not minimally charged with manslaughter I feel it would be a gross injustice.  But I want to avoid going too far down the rabbit hole of parsing what killings are acceptable, and which are not.)

This is where we start to see the real impact of systemic racism.  I am NOT talking about the killing of Mr. Castile in this case.  While I have no doubt that race played a key part in Mr. Castile's death, that was an individual act.  The real impact is in the reinforcement of the narrative that police kill black people for no reason.  When black men get killed for no good reason by police officers, and then the police officers get away with it scott free, it supports the idea that cops are looking to kill black people.  And that idea of persecution is self-fulfilling.  If the cops are just going to kill you anyway then why not go down fighting?


We can talk all we want about the importance of respecting police, but you can't really respect someone you think is trying to kill you.  It's like respecting bears.  You can respect bears, even if you are scared of them, but when they get their claws on you then you can't really respect them in that moment.  This is the effect that a racist system has between those who are discriminated against and those who are charged with enforcing the system.  In the aggregate it doesn't matter if most cops are good and non-racist, the environment of fear and distrust that has been created is self-reinforcing.  If a population responds to police doing their jobs like they are rabid bears then those police are going to get used to having to fight, and that population is going to have ever more reasons to believe the cops are after them.


And let us be clear, the police do a dangerous job.  There are roughly 800,000 sworn officers in the US which comes out to roughly %0.26 of the population.  In 2015 130 of those officers died in the line of duty (source).  That means that the death rate, in the line of duty, for police officers in 2015 was 16.25 per 100,000.  For comparison, the homicide rate for the US in 2013 was 5.1 (source, figure 18).  So police are 3 times as likely to die in the line of duty as the average American is to be killed by anyone.  So far this year there have been 59 officers who have died in the line of duty, which puts us on pace for a similar death toll.  One of those officers killed this year was Steven Smith, the brother of a friend, a 27 year veteran, and very much the epitome of a heroic police officer.

Law Enforcement Officers are very much aware that they have dangerous jobs, and they would have to be mentally incompetent not to realize that certain groups are far more likely to get violent with them than others.  On individual levels this is frequently wrong, but people would have to be inhuman not to make associations.  Danger can feel color coded for cops and blacks alike.  African Americans learn to fear blue, and Police learn to fear brown.  That is simply human nature, and there is only so much that can be done to address this problem without addressing the underlying racist structures that create this situation.


Because we really can't understand how this situation where blacks view police as predators arises without understanding the ways that police are saddled with fundamentally racist law enforcement priorities.  Those are not priorities set by the police, those are priorities set by elected leaders.  There is plenty of attention paid to the ways that black people are scapegoated and vilified in the media, but the police are also convenient scapegoats for elected leaders who don't want to admit that their own actions force police to behave in racist ways.

In particular here I am referring to the doctrine of "broken windows policing."  Broken window policing is based around the idea that if you aggressively go after visible symptoms of crime that you will drive down crime rates.  This approach does work, and it is great for property values.  If you eliminate the visible signs of crime then people are more willing to invest in properties, thus property values increase.  New York city is the prime example of this.

But visible signs of crime is effectively code for visible signs of poverty.  What broken windows policing does is it criminalizes poverty.  When property values are driven up it drives out lower income people.  In the case of New York, since the 1990's values have gone so high that families with six-figure incomes can barely afford (and often can't afford) apartments.  This is great news if you are a property owner, and as a politician you get to brag about how you've gotten rid of crime.  Rudy Giuliani became a nationally prominent politician based on how effectively he criminalized poverty in New York.

But it is a problem if your skin color is a visible sign of poverty.  Not all brown people are poor, but a higher percentage are than pink skinned people.  And that is really how racism works.  You don't pass a law that makes it illegal for black people to be in a neighborhood, you pass a law that makes it illegal to do things that poor people do.

Here is a scenario:
More lower income people smoke than higher income people, so if you jack up cigarette prices you will disproportionately cause hardship for poor people.
If you make it harder for poor people to buy packs of cigarettes you will increase the purchasing of single cigarettes, so if you pass a law banning single cigarette sales then you will create a demand for an addictive good that can now only be satisfied illegally for many poor people.
Now that you have created a demand for illegally sold single cigarettes the local government can set an enforcement priority on cracking down on people selling single cigarettes.

That is how Eric Garner died.  He was selling cigarettes, because the New York City government created a demand that disproportionately affected poor people, who are disproportionately minorities.  And those laws specifically included criminalizing a behavior common to lower income people (resale of loose cigarettes), and then policing of that crime was prioritized as a part of a broken windows strategy.  Then Eric Garner died while resisting arrest for selling cigarettes.

The national dialog focused on the apparent racism of the police choking a black man to death for selling cigarettes, but it didn't address the fact that those police were doing their jobs enforcing a racist system of policies designed to persecute the poor.  Those laws aren't limited to cigarettes, that is just a specific high profile example.  I have also written in this blog about New York's knife laws that have clearly racist application and orientation.  Police in New York have the power to make almost any modern folding knife illegal if they want (even though those same knives an be purchased legally), and people who work physical jobs (lower income) need knives at work more, and so those laws once again disproportionately affect black people.


This is what people mean when they talk about racist systems.  Saying that there is racial inequality in the US is not about saying that individual cops are all racists, it is about saying that there are structural elements in our society that systematically negatively impact minorities.  Too often people on the side of law and order take cries of racism as personal accusations of bigotry.

Explicit racism is certainly dangerous when we are talking about lynchings and cross burning type stuff, but it is the systemic issues that perpetuate racial inequality.

An individual racist is fairly easy to avoid.  In today's world there aren't many people who tolerate open racism.  But it isn't bigots who are the real power behind racial inequities, it is all the people who fail to acknowledge the racist structures that perpetuate violence and discrimination.  It is politicians who pass laws and policies that discriminate against poor people and then don't acknowledge their complicity in killing poor people.


Eric Garner died because police were enforcing racist laws.  Those kinds of racist laws lead to feelings of persecution among minorities.  Those feelings of persecution lead to inappropriately violent confrontations on both sides.  That is why people like Alton Sterling continue to struggle when they should just lay down with their hands on their head.  And then killings like Alton Sterling's lead to increased agitation, and scapegoating of police leads to retaliatory shootings like in Dallas.  Then the police feel targeted.  That leads to cops getting extra jumpy when doing routine things like pulling someone over for a broken taillight.  That leads to innocent people like Philando Castile getting shot for no good reason.  And those types of unjust killings, precipitated by fear, perpetuate the fear and violence that drives this endless cycle.

That is how racism works.


  1. I really, really enjoyed reading this. An excellent and enlightening article