President Obama gave yet another historic speech Wednesday at the mass memorial service for the five Dallas police officers gunned down during a protest of the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minn.
In a way few can do, Obama called the country together to reach across the gaping divide that was exposed this week. He summed up the divided understanding many Blacks and whites have about policing and police violence. He suggested reality is more complex than the simple rhetoric we hear in the media and encourage all sides to empathize with the other.
“Because with an open heart,” said Obama, “we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes, so that maybe the police officer sees his own son in that teenager with a hoodie who's kind of goofing off but not dangerous and the teenager – maybe the teenager will see in the police officer the same words and values and authority of his parents.”
Of course empathy is important and we should encourage it. But the president falls short; empathy alone will never end the regular and widespread killing of black people in disproportionate numbers. It's a racist system, not a few individual racist police that devalues black lives and leaves us dead so easily.
Narratives on all sides of the police issue often make the same mistake as the president. They understand police killings as simply a matter of individual actions that are solved by individual culpability.
One version of the narrative says that the majority of police are good and don’t go around killing people without warrant. Those who shoot innocents are aberrations, bad apples who should be separated from the rest. They need better training or more rigorous screening.
Another version says that many police officers are just plain racist. They are bigots who are either afraid or hateful of black people or both. Police need individual prosecution and punishment for their crimes.
Certainly we need better training and recruitment procedures in police departments. We also need serious consequences for police misconduct, brutality and murder. But none of those things will likely end the long history of police abuse and killings of people of color. That’s because police killings are a natural outgrowth of institutions that have implicitly biased policies and practices.
If police systematically target poor communities and communities of color; disproportionately stop, arrest and charge people of color in similar circumstances to whites; and then try, convict and levy longer sentences for people of color, does it not follow as a matter of course that African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos will be shot and killed at rates disproportionate to their numbers in the population? Police killings are just the most visible, painful and horrifying aspect of a racist system of mass incarceration and criminalization.
The mainstream understanding of racism is that it is a belief, an individually held bigotry that guides individual actions. By that reasoning, racist acts must show racist intent and conscious bias. In fact, racism is a system of oppression that is made up of policies and practices that disproportionately harm communities of color and disproportionately benefit white people. Racism certainly generates and perpetuates bigotry and bias (both explicit and implicit) but individual intent is not required for racism.
The problem with the conversation about Black Lives Matter and police killings is this: A police officer does not need to be a convinced racist or even be conscious of their bias for a police killing to be racist. As proof of racism, let it suffice that for decades black people have been subjected to police mistreatment, violence and impunity. If there were just a handful of racist police acting out against black people, we would not see the widespread and regular death of black people at the hands of police. But we do.
What’s more, there are real financial incentives for criminalization. The U.S. Justice Department report on Ferguson, Mo. in the wake of the killing of Mike Brown and the uprising in response, found that “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.”
But Ferguson was not an isolated case. All over the country, police departments balance municipal budgets on the backs of black and poor communities. Fines, fees and legal financial obligations (LFOs) are all incentives for police and the courts to engage in aggressive policing and sentencing – and it’s no wonder that the practices have had a sharp increase since the financial crash of 2008.
A recent New York Times article analyzes a controversial new study that documents racial bias at almost all levels of police contact and use of force – except shootings. One can dispute the data on shootings, but the study is clear that policing is racist from top to bottom.
The good or bad intentions of individual police officers are really not the point.
So yes, we need more empathy. We need better training, and better punishment of misconduct, we need to end financial incentives to criminalize whole communities. But, really, we need to rethink our concept of public safety and security and our default use of punishment and policing.
During his remarks in Dallas, the president said, “In the end, it's not about finding policies that work; it’s about forging consensus, and fighting cynicism, and finding the will to make change.”
In fact, forging consensus in this country requires a fundamental reworking of police policies and practices such that African-American, Latino and Native communities are no longer targeted for harassment, arrest and ultimately death.