Black and Blue: Repairing the Bruised Relationship Between the Police and African-Americans in America

by Derek Eggleston, a second year International Relations student. He is currently interning on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and focuses on U.S. Foreign Policy. Connect at https://www.linkedin.com/in/derekeggleston

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As an African-American student in Europe, I am always asked about the apparent racial animus that permeates news from my country. Experiencing the recent events from a place of juxtaposition—one who fiercely loves his country but as a black person is painfully aware of its shortcomings—I have been forced to reconcile what I see on the news with the supposed ideals of liberty and equality that America has stood for. These seemingly contradictory ideals can be reconciled, however, if we take the time to listen and articulate a path forward. This article will first outline some of the problems with the legal system before analysing the shortcomings of movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) before discussing a possible framework for the advancement of civil rights in the U.S.

Time and time again, the black community is thrown into mourning. Whether it is over to the countless lives lost in urban America centres like Chicago, or the lives lost to those meant to be serving and protecting us, our present is not hopeless but is to an extent the continuation of the plight we have lived through in America’s history. The personal experiences of racism I have encountered as well as the extreme rates of poverty, incarceration, and police brutality appear to paint a bleak picture for a society founded upon its ideals of inclusiveness and liberty for all.

How is this allowed in the U.S. justice system? The answer is that laws are largely based on perception—the cop’s perception, that is. The cop’s perception of danger—substantiated or not—is, in the current legal system, a legitimate defense to avoid prosecution in many instances [1]. However, perception is clearly an arbitrary concept that is open to bias: “When almost 90 percent of white people in America who take the Implicit Association Test show an inherent racial bias for white people versus black people, that means something” [2]. These numbers make it very plausible that when a cop performs his routine duties, interactions with black citizens will be perceived as more threatening than they may be. This perception is then accepted as a legal defense. Effectively, racial bias is indirectly accepted as a legal vindication of the actions of cops.

The other issue is that of proportionate responses—or, the lack thereof. This one is not just a legal issue, but is a mindset one as well. In an international student orientation event with the UK police, one key thing we were told about all interactions with others and the cops is that the response must be proportionate. Seems reasonable, right? In the minds of many in the U.S. regarding cop interactions, this does not exist. Whenever a black man is gunned down there seems to be this false dichotomy that we must determine whether he was completely innocent or guilty and these are black and white. In some instances, such as Philando Castile, the court of public opinion decides he did absolutely nothing wrong therefore did not deserve his fate. However, in other situations people look at the smallest shortcoming as justification for brutality. In response to Mike Brown people said, “He may have stolen a cigar, he should have been following the law”. For Walter Scott people said, “He shouldn’t have run from the cop and should have complied”. And for Laquan McDonald, they say, “He shouldn’t have had a knife”. I am sorry, but since when did theft, running away, or simple possession of a knife warrant the death penalty? Common discourse is seriously flawed and needs to discover a sense of respect for proportionate responses. These scenarios are not black or white where either the suspect is innocent or deserves to die. There are many shades of grey in-between the two, which justly represent a way to deal with black Americans who are doing something they should not be—other than unloading a gun into their body.

These are the problems, so why don’t we fix them? The answer is, we are trying, but not doing so effectively. The problem has to do with the structuring of society which allows for innate biases to permeate society so greatly that they can be present in numbers at 90%+ and can give way to legal justification of murder. However, to combat this, movements have largely gotten it wrong. There are plenty of motivated, brilliant, loving members of BLM who want to see a better future. I myself support the movement in theory: Black Lives Matter and the way our society is structured does not always recognise this fact. However, the movement gets it wrong on many fronts. First off, we must ask: why do so many people disagree with BLM or respond with ‘all lives matter’? People believe the movement is a collection of angry individuals with no end goal in sight, a guise for anti-cop hatred. In the 1960’s extremist groups such as the Black Panthers existed but were not able to drown out the peaceful and just cause of civil rights under Dr. King, so why today is it that concern over the extreme, anti-cop wings of the movement have over-shadowed the legitimate calls to action by millions of sane minorities with legitimate grievances? The movement lacks: moments, leadership, and end goals. Dr. King shook the nation and mankind when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed to the world his dream of equality. Moments like this and leadership which relentlessly worked with government ultimately manifested itself in clear end goals: most notably The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Who is that voice today for BLM? Who will step up and take a place in the halls of history to firmly proclaim and echo the sentiments of famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that we will not equivocate a single inch until equality is recognised? Leadership in BLM is unorganised at best and, furthermore, there is a refusal on the part of many to engage with mainstream institutions. Advancement for our people in history has not come through shying away from the mainstream institutions we perceive to be the oppressor but rather through direct engagement with these institutions. BLM cannot turn its back on law enforcement and politicians if it is to achieve any of the goals it claims to have.

Then what is the way forward when the country has a clear racial bias, and those on the wrong end of this stick have been failed by the movements of social change which seek to rectify their oppression? First off, clear reform is necessary. Cops have a hard job and a dangerous one. As Obama noted recently, the fear blue families have for their loved ones is not dissimilar to the fear black mothers and fathers feel when their teenage son goes out at night. However, the danger of the job should not be a justification for a legal system based on perception. Furthermore, the perception in the first place needs to change, 90% of Americans should not hold intrinsic bias against African Americans. If those numbers exist, how can we get fair treatment when applying for a job or putting our hands on a cop car? However, this bias cannot be dealt with until it is accepted. People stipulate we have come a long way, but this should not be a catalyst for stagnation. We came a long way from 1860 to 1960 but it did not justify Jim Crow laws. We have come a long way from 1960 to 2016 but it does not justify the bias and discrimination our data trends indicate. We must accept this bias to combat it structurally. Furthermore to accept it people have to believe that the message of change isn’t an extreme, Panther-like one but is a peaceful, King-like one. To do this BLM and similar groups must organise and take centre stage. Make clear your demands and demand them.

America has come a long way in 240 years. Nothing worth fighting for in its history has ever been achieved through abandoning the principles which make us American. The founders wrongfully left out many groups of the civil society they created; however, it was the methodology employed by the founders which could be used as a framework to later expand these rights, that they wrongfully limited, to new groups [3]. Citing the Constitution, loving American ideals and engaging with society is how suffragettes got women the vote, abolitionists got freedom and civil rights supporters got legal recognition. We must embrace these things ingrained in who we are and the foundations of our institutions. We must engage with society around us and not isolate ourselves. We must be forceful, persistent, and not equivocate a single inch in order to heal the bruises that plague America today and the bruises that have plagued us African Americans for so long.

Sources:

[1]Goldstein, Joseph. “Is a Police Shooting a Crime? It Depends on the Officer’s Point of View.” The New York Times. July 28, 2016. Accessed August 06, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/29/nyregion/is-a-police-shooting-a-crime-it-depends-on-the-officers-point-of-view.html?_r=0.

[2] Nesbit, Jeff. “America Has a Big Race Problem.” US News. March 28, 2016. Accessed August 02, 2016. http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-03-28/america-has-a-big-race-problem.

[3] Stein, Jeff. “The American Revolution Was a Huge Victory for Equality. Liberals Should Celebrate It.” Vox. July 03, 2016. Accessed August 02, 2016. http://www.vox.com/2016/7/3/12062334/american-revolution-liberals.

 

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