*The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Today I read something in the newspaper that helped me focus my thoughts about what is happening between black males and police officers in the U.S. I think people too often assume racism has to be conscious and blatant. It doesn’t have to be; it can be well-hidden even from a person’s own conscious mind–in irrational fear of people who look or act differently from oneself. A leader of an African-American police officers association was quoted as saying that the problem lies in the fact that too many police officers in the U.S. don’t give black men (and I will add boys) the benefit of the doubt that they would give white men (and boys). If you ask most police officers in question they will honestly deny being racist because they’re not aware of it. But some (I say some!) are racist in the sense most people don’t realize is possible—I call it “latent racism”–and it manifests in that they will shoot first and ask questions later when confronted with a black man (or boy) and ask questions first and shoot only when absolutely necessary when confronted with a white man (or boy). Notice I am saying “some”–not “all.”
Racism does not have to be conscious or blatant to be racism and potentially deadly. And that possibility holds for everyone—not just police officers. We are all prone to fear of those who are unlike us and especially of those who are routinely portrayed as dangerous in the mass media. Black boys and young men are routinely portrayed as dangerous in the mass media. The media have created an image of black boys and young men as dangerous. Some are; most aren’t. My black students tell me they can hear the car doors locking when they walk by at busy street intersections where cars driven by white people are stopped at lights. The same does not happen when white young men walk by. People who deny the problems young black males face in America today are simply living in denial.
It is my considered opinion that much of the rage in America about police shootings of black boys and men lies in the fact that so many police officers who shoot unarmed black boys and men are never held accountable for it. Few are ever prosecuted or convicted. Most only face temporary suspension with pay. If police officers who shoot unarmed (or armed but not threatening) black males (or anyone for that matter) were more often held accountable, I think there would be much less rage about the situation.
So let’s look at the facts (statistics). According to reliable sources I have read about thirty-six percent of all unarmed people killed by police in the U.S. are black. The vast majority are males. The U.S. population is approximately thirteen percent black. That means only about six percent of the U.S. population is composed of black males. (There are fewer males than females in every segment of the population except newborns and the very young.) So over one third of the unarmed people killed by police in the U.S. are black males whereas only about six percent of the population is composed of black males. The statistics speak for themselves; something is terribly wrong with this picture. Is it blatant, conscious racism? In most cases, not. Is there unconscious, latent racism at work in this situation? Almost certainly.
So what’s the solution? As long as latent racism is alive and well among us, police need to be trained to give everyone the same benefit of the doubt and held accountable when they don’t. In my opinion, there needs to be greater separation, distance, between prosecutors and police. Right now, to too great an extent, they are in the U.S. enmeshed in the same culture of law enforcement.
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