Why Black Men Are Policed Differently
Note that there is no possible way for me to cover all the angles here, I simply hope to open a few new avenues of thought.
Issues related to how black men are policed in America is 10% old-school, straight forward racism and 90% the symptom of a much larger and more complex problem. Policing is the tip of an iceberg in that it’s the most visible manifestation of larger issues at play, the things there will never be video of.
To illustrate this, I wanted to attempt to dive headlong into a topic that has been brought up a lot in response to the killing of black men by law enforcement.
Here is the argument that has been posed to me on multiple occasions. "Black men are over represented in violent crime statistics, i.e. black men commit more violent crime per capita than any other group. As a result, police are forced to handle black men differently. It’s not that the police want to, it’s not that they’re racist, they’re simply playing the odds, and you shouldn’t be angry about that, they’re just trying to make it home at the end of the night."
For the purpose of this discussion I’m setting aside bias that likely does exist in the statistics themselves (i.e. disparities on how crime is reported, the fact that the black community is scrutinized more closely and frequently, etc.). I’m accepting the premise that black men are over represented in violent crime statistics on its face.
The three things I want to explore are; 1. Why are they over represented? 2. How could it be handled differently? and 3. What can we do about the underlying issues?
1. Why are they over represented?
When someone starts quoting these statistics to me I like to ask them the logical next question that they rarely ask themselves, “Why are black men over represented in violent crime statistics?”
People generally fall into one of three categories with their answer, which I’ll hit in A, B, C order.
A. "Black people are just naturally more violent, it’s in their DNA."
I can’t really help these people, this is simply a racist position and I’m not going to be able to move you off your spot if this is what you believe.
B. "It’s the culture. Black music glorifies violence against the police, it glorifies gangs, it glorifies drugs, etc."
A really short and simplified version of my argument here is that culture is a reflection of reality, it is rarely if ever the primary driving force behind that reality.
Ring-Around-The-Rosie is a children’s song whose lyrics are referencing a plague. The kids that created that song didn’t cause the plague, the song was their coping mechanism, it’s how they processed their world. You can see this in art and music in any period in world history from any group of people. Humans process their worldview through artistic expression.
The most egregious rap lyrics out there still come from something the artist experienced. Even I would argue that how some choose to express themselves is counter-productive, but I’d never make the argument that the expression itself is the primary driving force in shaping the reality it comes from.
A sister argument here would go something like, “white people are over represented in the crime statistics for tax fraud, and that’s without Kenny Chesney even having to sing about it, so maybe it’s not music that drives the crime.”
C. "Black fathers are absent. If black men took responsibility for their families, and if the black community valued the traditional family unit, we wouldn’t have this problem."
This one garners the most visceral reaction from me personally, being raised without my black father present. This one is also, in my estimation, the closest one to the truth, but again there are layers here.
I’m going to attempt to cram books and books worth of information into a few short paragraphs to illustrate a very complex point in a very short amount of time, but I beg you to research and attempt to understand this more comprehensively for yourself.
In 1970, 64% of black adults were married, only ~8% lower than the overall average. By 2004 it was half that, 32%, while the overall average still sat in the mid-high 60s. What happened to black people?
June 1971 Richard Nixon declares the first war on drugs. That kicks off a chain of Presidents that make “tough on crime” a central tenant of their platform. In 1970 in the US there are ~200 prisoners per every 100,000 people, but by the year 2000 there are ~900 prisoners per every 100,000 people, a 450% per capita increase in just 30 years.
The boom in the prison population disproportionately pulls black men, leaders, fathers out of the community.
There’s a sub-argument here related to drugs, and I’ll only glance it for a moment. Go into any medicine cabinet in affluent America right now and you’re going to find drugs. The only difference is that those who have the money and access to good healthcare get a permission slip, and those who don’t get incarcerated. There’s more nuance to it than that, there are logical reasons for drug polices, but don’t sit and judge people for self-medicating because they don’t have the same access.
The result is generations of black women that are more often asked to take on the burden of both parents.
I’d like to preface this next section by saying that EACH INDIVIDUAL IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR OWN INDIVIDUAL ACTIONS. I am not saying that the factors I’m describing force people into a specific action, or that I'm describing experiences that are true for 100% of black people, my arguments are aimed at explaining trends.
A necessary emotional support structure within the culture of the black community develops to support an influx of single mothers. More broadly a financial support structure becomes commonplace as there is an explosion in the number of people receiving government assistance via welfare.
An unintended byproduct of this is the devaluation of the man in the black household. Black men become less necessary in the home in contrast to how their white contemporaries are viewed in their community.
Black men were already fighting an uphill battle trying to provide for their families in a world that treated them like literal garbage, a significant portion of them had now been pulled out of their communities and incarcerated, and now those that remain in the community, or those that get to go home after their time in prison, find that their role is no longer viewed as an absolute necessity. Black men lose the last place they feel valued.
What does that do to a person? What does that do to their self-worth? What does it do to the next generation who has never lived in a community with fathers and male role models? How does that effect their views on marriage and family when they come of age?
The “law and order” era eviscerated the black family. The welfare state prolongs the suffering (although without equal opportunity it’s still a necessary evil). The war on drugs didn’t just lock a lot of black people up, it destroyed the black family unit.
Black crime statistics in the modern era are still at least slightly bias, but they’re not wholly inaccurate, and this is one of the major factors as to why that is. You take any community; White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, whatever and you strip half the fathers out of it and build a structure that never allows them to regain their value, and you bet your ass you’re going to see more crime.
2. Knowing that, how can we handle policing differently?
Black men statistically pose a greater threat, police are simply reacting to that fact, how do you propose we change policing knowing that?
The answer here can’t be, nothing. There is an acceptable amount of caution, and then there is completely disregarding the value of the life standing in front of you.
It’s fun to see Stormtroopers in Star Wars get blown up by Luke, Leia, and Han. They’re not people, you get to hear the Wilhelm scream, it’s fun, it’s a whole thing.
There are law enforcement officers that see a black man and think, “I need to be a little more on guard,” and then there are law enforcement officers that see a black man and think, “there’s a Stormtrooper.” That right there is the first (not only) difference between a good cop, and a bad cop.
If you’re interacting with a Stormtrooper you don’t have to worry about anyone but yourself. If you’re interacting with a person there’s reason to try to get everyone home alive.
We can put body cams on every officer, but at the end of the day if “there’s a Stormtrooper” is an accepted mentality among officers it doesn’t matter. If black men are viewed by law enforcement as generic bad guys then there will always be a reason that justifies excessive force, at least enough for their peers to fail to report their actions. No report, no investigation, bad cops continue to put on a badge every day.
There are hundreds of tangible steps that should be taken from the de-militarization of law enforcement, to harsher punishments for officers who are convicted, to changes in how settlements are paid out, but none of it matters until the way law enforcement perceives black men changes. You can still be on guard, but there is a real live person in front of you, and that understanding should never leave you.
I don’t think that’s necessarily easy by the way, you’re fighting human nature which tends to compartmentalize things, but not doing it is getting people hurt and killed on both sides of the equation.
I’d like to note this isn’t an argument that only white officers view black men this way, all officers react to black men differently.
3. What can we do about the underlying issues?
The black community is slowly re-establishing the value of a father in the household. Men are again being held up and praised by their wives which is the absolute best possible way to combat this, strong male role models. Within the community that’s what it’s going to take. Being a husband and father must be revered. It must be something young black men look at and aspire to be.
Outside the black community, Black men need opportunities. We need the self-worth that comes along with providing for our families, because the world is constantly telling us we’re worthless.
That means you need to take a second look at black applicants and examine if bias plays a factor in your hiring decisions. You need to look among the ranks of your employees and examine if there's bias in your reasoning as to who you’re grooming for leadership and who you’re ignoring. You have to examine your bias on a daily basis, everyone, but especially those in positions of power.
That means you should support black businesses more often than you'd naturally do otherwise. It means you need to donate to causes targeted at people living in poverty in your own community. It means you need to get offline and volunteer to read with kids on Wednesdays at the elementary school in the bad part of town even if it I means you have to take a 2 hour lunch those days.
We’re not going to fix this with a new body cam (although we should be constantly improving those and every officer should wear one). We’re only going to fix this if we start to chip away at the underlying problems.
And before I get the argument that specifically seeking out black businesses is detrimental to white owned businesses and is therefore racist, listen. I didn’t want this to be about race, the black community didn’t want this to be about race, but it’s been about race for 400 years, and we need it to continue to be about race while we rebuild because that’s where the artificial fault line is. I hope for the day when it’s not about race anymore, I hope for the day I can rest, but right now it very much still is about race.
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