Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Is the police system inherently racist?

I may be ruining what little street credibility I ever had by pursing this line of debate (see here and here, for example) but, for what it's worth, I am approaching it out of a genuine desire to understand, and to get at the truth behind the bluster.
Thing is, I just don't buy the "all police officers are racist" narrative. I'm not even sure I buy the "there is systemic racism in police forces" narrative, apart from in a very few exceptional cases (I have a whole series of posts dealing with this now). Yes, there are racist police officers, undeniably, but the vast majority are decent folks who put their lives on the line day after day in the service of their communities (God, I sound like Donald Trump!).
I realize this is probably an unpopular and potentially risky point of view to take at this time of heightened racial tensions, and may even put me in some rather unsavoury company, albeit for different reasons. I don't think this makes me a racist, although I'm sure many of those out protesting at the moment would disagree.
But there are others out there negotiating this tricky path, and I don't think it's right to just shut them down and ignore them, because there are some valid arguments to be had, and some context to be gained. For instance, there is an article called "The Myth of Systemic Police Racism" by Heather Mac Donald, published a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal. Now, I don't feel I have much in common with Ms. Mac Donald (who spells Mac Donald with two words, after all?), who is described as a "secular conservative" - the best kind of conservative, to be fair, but still... In fact, the more I read about her, the less I like her. But she does make some good points which should be at least part of the debate, even if not all she says can be taken at face value.
For example, she makes the point that about a quarter (24%) of those killed by the police in 2019 in America were African-Americans, substantially more than the 13% of blacks in the general population, but substantially less than the 53% of homicide offenders who were black, or the 60% of robbery offenders who were black. So, arguably, black people put themselves in the way of police to a much greater extent. Now, why 53% of homicides are committed by black people is a whole other question, which can take us from drug and gang culture to inequities and poverty (systemic or otherwise) within the African-American population. These issues too need to be urgently addressed, no doubt about that. My point here is simply that there are different ways of looking at things.
In 2019, Ms. Mac Donald points out, 9 unarmed black people were shot by the police in America, again proportionately much greater than the 19 unarmed white people shot by police in the same year (I have also seen 10 and 20 used for these statistics elsewhere), but substantially less than the 38 and 32 respectively from 2015. Evidence of an improvement in police biases? Who knows? Remember halso, this is in a country where there are 375 million annual contacts between police officers and civilians! Ms. Mac Donald goes on to mention a few other trends and statistics that suggest that things are perhaps not as grim as they appear, and that suggest that defunding and disbanding police forces en masses is perhaps hasty and unwarranted.
However, don't neglect to also read "The Myth of Heather Mac Donald's 'The Myth of Systemic Police Racism' " for, well, context. It mentions a few caveats, questions the comprehensiveness and reliability of statistics, and asks a few pointed questions about the interpretation of those statistics. It makes an interesting companion piece.
Now, I'm not suggesting that any police killings are acceptable. I'm not suggesting that all is well in the world of American (or Canadian, for that matter) policing. Many police officers remain trigger-happy, and the organizations as a whole over-militarized. Hell, American society in general is over-militarized. Some individual police officers are clearly just plain racist, and need to be weeded out before more harm is inflicted on the black (and let's not forget the Latino) community, and race relations in general. Police forces need more minority race members, screening for racist attitudes, obvious measures like banning chokeholds and neck restraints, teaching of de-escalation techniques, etc, etc.
But is all this the same as saying that policing is inherently racist? I still don't think so.

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