Racist Policies and Racist Systems
I have received a lot of messages from friends/readers asking what I think about what’s happened in Minneapolis, Louisville and across the country over the last week. So here are my thoughts. I want to emphasize 1. I’m speaking simply for myself and not trying to represent the views of black men, black people or any other broader group. 2. I’m not an expert on racism or policing, as I will explain below.
Policy. Policy. Policy. Policy. The author Ibram Kendi, in his 2016 book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” argues that we often believe that people have or had racist ideas (say, black people are dumber or lazier than white people) and those ideas lead them to implement racist policies (say, limiting black people’s access to certain kinds of schools.) Kendi argues that kind of cause and effect (racist ideas lead to racist policies) is often a misunderstanding of how racism works. Instead, those in power have often implemented some kind of policy that has racist effects to preserve their own or their group’s power (limiting black people’s ability to attend certain schools), then have pushed a racist idea (black people are dumb) to justify the policy, rather than changing it. So it’s racist policies that lead to racist ideas, in Kendi’s view, not the other way around.
This is a compelling idea. In the policing context, it’s worth considering that perhaps we have large, militarized police forces with a lot of authority and power in America today (policy.) We then justify that policing by casting black neighborhoods and people in particular as extra dangerous and in need of aggressive policing (idea), as opposed to the flip of that (police departments truly believe that black people and neighborhoods are extra dangerous and that leads to the policy of aggressive policing).
Why does all of this theorizing matter? Well, I worry at times like these that many Americans are going to spend a lot of energy trying to convince their slightly-racist uncle, brother or grandmother to adopt different ideas on black people or racial issues or read book X. Books and reading are fine. I’m for those things. But in reality, working on changing policy instead of ideas might not only have more direct effects, but eradicate some racist ideas as well.
Once you have a bunch of black people attending a certain school (so the racist policy has changed), you are unlikely to think black people are too stupid to attend the school (the racist idea.) If you are not aggressively policing black people (policy), you might come to think they are not in need of aggressive policing (idea.)
So I’m hoping for fewer people talking about whether they have privilege or not and more people figuring out what the use of force policies are for the police departments in the cities where they live, who implements them and how they can improve them. (The protesters on the streets around the country are talking a lot about policy.)
Your ability to change the policing policies in your city might be limited. But there are policies with racist effects in virtually every sphere of American life. If say a golf club in your community restricts membership to people who own homes in a certain area, and that area is known to be overwhelmingly white, that’s a policy perhaps you can build a coalition to change. If your workplace has no black employees, you might be in a position to hire someone--even if it means waiving some requirement that has long existed that somehow accidentally results in nearly all black applicants being deemed as unqualified.
It’s pretty easy to go on Facebook and attack a police officer who lives in a different city than you do and who you will never meet. It’s harder to look honestly at your workplace, realize there are almost no black employees and push for different hiring policies when the boss says there’s a “pipeline problem” or all the “qualified” black people turned the job down. It’s a lot easier to read through posts on Twitter and Facebook on racism than to figure out what policies need to change, who created those policies, who is in charge of implementing them and how to either get them to change those policies or out of those jobs.
We should be thinking about the system as much as the individuals. Sometimes our discussions about black people and the police seem to suggest that these interactions are somehow a totally unique part of our culture. But the police are not foreign actors. They are residents of our communities, who live among us, who we have hired, with a huge chunk of the budgets of our local governments, to administer laws that we have collectively adopted.
The fact that the police disproportionately kill black people shouldn’t be that surprising. It lines up perfectly with a country where black people are less likely than white people to have jobs or health insurance, get paid much less than white people when they do have jobs, have significantly less wealth and power than white people and die at a higher rate than white people when a lethal virus spreads. The same kind of home in a heavily-black neighborhood is usually worth less than such a home in a heavily-white neighborhood. We have an actual term (“white flight”) for how white people flee neighborhoods when the number of black people gets too large.
In other words, sometimes it’s about the individual police officers or teachers or whomever making flawed, racist decisions. But it’s almost always about the system in which they are operating in. It’s always about policy. Amy Cooper (the Central Park woman) doesn’t have any real power; I’m not particularly interested in seeing her shamed anymore, as opposed to focusing on those with actual power to change policies.
We need to avoid a vague discussion. I think that a wide swath of people agree that racism is bad and that unjustified killings of civilians by police are also bad. I assume that many people think that our criminal justice system is unfair to black people and that many of our systems (like education and housing) are too.
But I feel like lots of people who didn’t previously think these things adopted these views from 2014-16, and I’m eager for a more specific conversation now. Some attending these protests say these racial problems require big solutions: cutting funding from police departments, both to put that money into social services and to rein in the police by limiting their manpower and resources; offering reparations to black families whose ancestors were enslaved; electing a new class of leaders who are less tied to the business and political establishments of America.
And my guess is that many of the people who are in support of the general aim of reducing racism or killings of civilians by police don’t support those bigger ideas. Remember, two of the cities (Louisville, Minneapolis) that have had recent police killings of civilians and then protests have Democratic mayors and city councils with Democratic majorities. The city leaders and most of the people protesting them likely all voted for Hillary Clinton in November 2016. So everyone is in the same party, the one that constantly casts President Trump and Republicans as the barriers to racial progress in America.
So it’s worth establishing that Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and the protestors agree that racism is bad and that black people should not be killed by police officers. Then, we can zone in on where there is policy disagreement on policing issues and debate who is right. For example, are Democratic elected officials comfortable with how much military-style equipment local police departments have, how often they use it and what kinds of incidents instigate that use?
On the national stage, the recent interview where Joe Biden told a black interviewer, “if you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black,” illustrated this same dynamic. Biden wanted to stay vague. But the interviewer was suggesting he and the former vice president, while both likely to vote for Biden over Trump in November, were not aligned on all issues, particularly those involving racism.
I find the “Barack Obama must speak now”-style comments extremely problematic.
“It would be great to hear from @BarackObama right now. A friend just suggested he make a joint appearance with George W. Bush. Thoughts?”
This was a tweet from television personality Katie Couric on Friday.
Nothing against Couric, but I worry that tweet embodies several assumptions that I think are problematic and somewhat widespread: 1. We just need a few leaders to get together and solve these problems 2. Part of the solution is inspiring speeches that will unify Americans 3. Black Americans specifically need to have a designated leader to speak for them as part of this great racial reconciliation 4. The black leader must be very reassuring to white people. 5. The black leader must offer policy solutions that if implemented will get black people to stop protesting and complaining as quickly and for as long as possible.
I assume Obama would give a great speech about this moment in time. Remember the one he gave in the wake of a white supremacist killing nine black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015? It was probably the best speech I have ever heard. It stirred America so deeply to address its racial problems ... that the nation elected Trump to succeed Obama about 18 months later.
Again, it would be fine to hear from Barack Obama. But black Americans are speaking on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and at protests across the country.
What if we as a society listened to those voices, as opposed to rushing to have an Obama-like figure short-circuit the conversation and save us? Barack Obama doesn’t see himself as the leader of Black America--he has said so himself.
I’m not an expert on these issues and I am listening carefully to those who are. If you are looking to understand how black voters in Michigan will affect the 2020 election, I might be your guy. But I’m not an expert on race, racism, racial discrimination, racial inequality, or policing.
So I look to people who are. For me that means, among others, national figures like Nikole Hannah-Jones, Sherrilyn Ifill, Ibram Kendi, Bree Newsome Bass, Andre M. Perry, Adam Serwer, Samuel Sinyangwe, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. (All these people are generally on Twitter, Facebook or whatever social media you use, as well as writing books and articles.)
Here in Louisville, for me that means, among others, Jecorey Arthur, Chanelle Helm, and Joshua Poe.
If you are following these people regularly (not just when something big and controversial happens), you’ll know what you can do when something big and controversial happens. (In other words, changing our society’s racial policies is a 365-days-a-year task that I worry some of us view as a seven-days-a-year-whenever-everyone-is-mad task.)
Sinyangwe has a great Twitter thread on policies that research shows reduces the number of times police injure civilians.
“It’s the same pattern each time: Activists agitate & push for something. Power structure refuses. Complacent people complain about activists. Activists continue to agitate. Power structure capitulates. Power structure takes credit for it. Complacent ppl credit power structure lol,” Newsome Bass wrote in a recent Twitter message that describes so much of our current policy and politics.
Thanks for reading.
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