Here’s a headline that will surprise precisely no one: Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor doesn’t believe there is systemic racism in American policing.
You know the drill. We all do by now. Repeat after me:
99.9 percent of our law enforcement officers are great Americans.
As for the others? Robert O’Brien — who, when he isn’t offering advice on national security, apparently tends the trees in a fruit orchard — will gladly explain it to you:
…they’re the few bad apples, and we need to root them out.
This is the mathematics of white denial — a few bad apples in an otherwise pristine barrel of greatness.
A few thoughts.
First, how does Robert O’Brien, or anyone, know the numbers on this subject? Is there a survey to which they can point?
Because I can point to a survey, taken perhaps informally but quite visible to all. It was taken on the streets of Minneapolis last week. It was precisely one question long: What do you do when you see a bad apple, also known as your partner or colleague, grinding his knee into a man’s neck for nearly nine minutes? It’s a question to which we know the answer, apparently: nothing. Math was not my best subject, but even I know the difference between zero cops doing what’s right and 99.9 percent being great Americans.
I also know that when the head of the union to which those cops belong defends the killing — as Trump superfan and notorious racist, Bob Kroll did this week, pointing to the victims’ prior run-ins with the law — further doubt is cast upon the greatness of the Americans in question and their edibility, in apple terms.
A second thought, a question really: Why is it that so often when the good apples try and challenge the bad ones, the bad ones close ranks and make life hell for the good? Because when you listen to stories like those of Michael Wood Jr. and Joe Crystal — both of them white Baltimore cops whose honesty about police brutality got them run out of policing — you start to wonder whether individual goodness even matters. If you take a good cop and put them in an iniquitous system, either the system changes them, or they end up leaving the system, either by choice or by dint of the pressure from those who are comfortable with the way things are.
Systems have their own logic, and they operate as they are designed to operate, with or without the gleeful approval of all who turn the gears of the machine. You can even push against the gears if you like, but the machinery is stronger than you, which is why, in the case of policing, so few reforms end up changing the nature of law enforcement in America.
In other words, we need to stop thinking about individual goodness and badness and focus on how the system of policing, and its culture, operate. For Robert O’Brien or anyone else to deny systemic racism with a claim about the individual goodness of most officers is to make a category mistake. It is to misunderstand the very concept of a systemic problem and reduce racism to individual pathology.
And so, if you were a “good apple” in the NYPD during the days of widespread stop-and-frisk, for instance, what would your goodness be worth? The system of policing in the city at that time was dedicated to the daily harassment of black and brown folks, almost none of whom had drugs or weapons on them, and only about six percent of whom were even issued a citation for any wrongdoing. As such, your job, every day you walked out the door of the precinct was to fuck with people. And solely as a way to assert dominance.
This was official policy, pursued without shame. When one New York State Senator, himself formerly a member of the NYPD, challenged Commissioner Ray Kelly on the practice, he was told that the racial targeting within stop-and-frisk was intentional, because the goal was to “instill fear in them, every time they leave their home, that they could be stopped by the police.”
Another question for Robert O’Brien and those who would deny systemic racism in policing: Do you at least admit that there was a time in this country when such a thing was real? Was systemic racism within law enforcement a thing in say, the 1960s? The ’30s? Before that?
I’m guessing all would answer yes to this question. I suspect everyone would agree, regardless of how they size things up today, that once upon a time, policing in this country was profoundly and quite structurally unequal and oppressive towards black folks. We would not ruminate upon the relative decency or indecency of assorted apples within southern sheriff’s offices under segregation. We would not waste time or energy trying to parse the good from the bad in those northern cities where cops joined in riots against black people who had dared move to them in search of jobs.
But if we can all agree that racism was baked into law enforcement for hundreds of years, indeed had been there at the country’s inception, then two questions emerge: first, when did this suddenly stop? And second, what was the mechanism that brought about the change? Because surely we should be able to answer both questions easily if indeed the problem that was systemic for all that time had ceased to be so.
But what are the answers here? When did policing suddenly stop being oppressive? What year, what month, what day? And why didn’t that shift make the news? And how could a system that had been conceived as racist by design suddenly stop being so, unless there was some significant force brought to bear upon it? But what was that force?
There was no sudden crackdown on racism within police departments. There was no prohibition placed upon profiling — at least not one which results in violators being fired, fined, or jailed. And even the consent decrees occasionally placed upon police departments to rein in bad behavior are only imposed because of, wait for it…ongoing bad behavior. Had the problem gone away there would be no need for such actions.
Ultimately Robert O’Brien’s refusal to see the reality of systemic injustice is of a piece with the way white Americans have long understood the country and the institutions within it. After all, white folks have never believed we had a problem in this country, at least not at the time we were being asked about it.
So, even though most everyone would now agree the early ’60s were a period of profound racial inequity, at the time — when the early ’60s weren’t six decades in the rearview mirror but the present-day — that isn’t how white folks saw things at all.
In 1963, before the Civil Rights Act was passed, two years before the Voting Rights Act, and five years before the Fair Housing Act, nearly two in three whites told Gallup pollsters that blacks were treated equally in their communities. This was the year of the March on Washington, a high-water mark for the movement. But as this data suggests, most white folks didn’t think there was anything worth making much of a fuss about.
Without shame or misgiving, most whites at that time believed equal treatment had already been achieved, which is to say that most white folks were utterly delusional about the nation in which they lived.
How is this even imaginable? How could we (or our parents or grandparents) look at the images of injustice and brutality being broadcast every night into white living rooms and basically shrug? And what does it say about white Americans in that era that this is precisely what they did?
It says white judgment about the reality of systemic racism is for shit, that’s what it says. Throughout our nation’s history, black folks have said, “we have a problem,” and they have been right. Meanwhile, most whites have said all was fine, and we’ve been wrong. Having accumulated such a track record of wrongness, what would make us believe that now black folks were misjudging the problem, while we had, at long last, become the ones with the keen observational skills?
There’s only one thing that would make us believe that: our racism. After all, to deny the lived experiences of black people is to say that we know their lives better than they know their own. This, in turn, suggests they are either too stupid or too emotional to think clearly — either one, a racist belief that should disqualify those holding it from being taken seriously on anything ever again.
It might be humorous if the consequences weren’t so deadly. Because to put it in terms Robert O’Brien might understand, white denial — to the extent it makes racial tension greater and heightens the risk of conflagration — threatens our national security.
Until white lies are confronted — lies about our country’s history and contemporary reality — black lives will continue to be endangered. And the prospects for multiracial democracy will be grim.