February 22, 2017

Reducing the Divide: People of Color and Police

The law enforcement community and African Americans have more in common than perhaps they realize. While the current social and political environments suggest that supporting one group automatically confers an alignment against the other, I do not believe that championing the cause of either is a zero-sum game. Individuals are fully capable of entertaining and understanding the plight of each group. I will not entertain the notion of shared severity when comparing the discrimination of police to African Americans. To do so would be to establish false equivalence. I merely wish to indicate that the groups harbor more similarities in today's climate than what may appear obvious. In my opinion people of color and law enforcement share two common burdens; they face both institutional and image problems.

Police are tasked with an assortment of responsibilities critical for the maintenance of our society. They are the first to arrive and render aid following traffic collisions and likewise are the individuals whose duty it is to run towards gunfire when the rest of us are running away from it. For this immense responsibility, officers are poorly compensated. On top of that, staffing issues in many cities often result in the overworking of officers. Therefore the institutional burden placed on police is primarily monetary but nonetheless significant enough to hinder the collective's enthusiasm. This inability to provide police with a proper wage or adequate recuperation results in rising frustrations and diminishing morale.
Despite the ratification of the 13th Amendment, signing of the Civil Rights Act and election of Barack Obama, our nation has yet to overcome the phenomena of racism. Education, often touted as the key for socioeconomic mobility, is a chief institutional means for marginalizing the black community. In most major US cities, African American children are concentrated based on family income resulting in modern day segregation. The predominantly African American schools then receive reduced funding on a per student basis than schools with a more white and affluent student body. Using income as a means to racially discriminate would make Lee Atwater and his acolytes proud.

To make matters worse, our criminal justice system has targeted and incarcerated black citizens at a rate higher than white counterparts. A clear example is the 100-to-1 sentencing ratio of crack cocaine possession relative to powder cocaine. For simplicity sake, these two drugs differ in the manner that ice differs from water. In other words, for all intents and purposes they are the same. For various reasons crack cocaine was found predominantly within black communities while powder cocaine was often associated with white users. This sentencing discrepancy led to a higher incarceration of blacks vs. whites. We encounter the same things today with regard to marijuana related crimes, death penalty sentencing, etc.

One's legitimacy is often affirmed by the fairness of treatment from the institutions they are beholden relative to their peers. In this regard, African Americans and police do not receive a fair shake when compared to the appropriate counterpoint. Despite this, the more relevant issue plaguing both African Americans and law enforcement is that each suffer from a crippling image problem.

The predominance of African Americans in our penal system is the result of decades of institutional racism. This metric is then utilized as evidence to justify a higher frequency of police stoppages for members of the black community. This is a vicious cycle which has perpetuated the falsity that African Americans behave more criminally than other races. While not their doing, people of color must still bear the burden of this image problem. This predominating image of the black criminal is why a teenager is profiled and killed for wearing his hood up and why another teenager is shot for playing his music too loud. This image is also why unarmed African Americans are 3.49 times more likely to be killed by police than unarmed Caucasians.

The most unfortunate facet of this circumstance is that there does not appear to be anything African Americans can do alone to alleviate this problem. They can march peacefully in our streets, kneel quietly during the anthem or lead the free world with grace and dignity and yet they still have an image problem. Their image problem is not of their own making and therefore is not on them to supplant it. It is on the rest of us.

By and large, law enforcement officials do the right thing. As a kid who grew up around a police department, I believe that wholeheartedly. However I am not naive enough to believe that the police community is exempt containing moral outliers. While police killings of unarmed black men is a problem and should be addressed, the actions of few do not constitute the entirety of law enforcement. There are countless examples of police buying shoes, bikes and car seats for those in need. Several community outreach programs are used by departments to foster a greater bond between police and the public (Shop with a cop, Chess Mates and homeless outreach units). Unfortunately, good deeds by police are overridden every time another video of a black man shot by an officer surfaces.

I feel that law enforcement does not wish to be judged as a whole by the actions of a minority faction. I also think they should realize that exact sentiment is something they share with African Americans. The difference in their image problems is that police can shift public perception on their own.

The fraternal nature of policing, which promotes unwavering allegiance between officers, is an honorable notion worthy of emulation. However officers must also realize this unquestionable allegiance to one another regardless of circumstance can also lead to the crumbling of police legitimacy. When members of the law enforcement community failed to speak out against fellow officers who killed Philando Castile, Walter Scott and Eric Garner, the public intuits that these actions are condoned by the entire body of police.

Failing to point out those who did not uphold police values taints the benevolent legacy of every person who has worn the badge by passively regarding these actions as acceptable practice. While everyone is entitled to due process, there are clear examples of immoral actions that require input from police leaders. I implore police to be the loudest voices in the room condemning those who disgrace the virtues the badge represents. This will insulate those who serve honorably and provide the public with a clear understanding of actual police principles. The image problem burdening police is, at least in part, of their own making and therefore is on them to supplant it.

These are two concepts that the black community and police community share in the burdens. By understanding the similarities with one another, we can then begin to mend broken bridges previously thought irreparable.

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