BLOW: Police shootings are a barometer of social attitudes

Keywords Forefront / Opinion

Truly, there are many troubling aspects to the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. But having covered so many of these cases in the last couple of years, it strikes me that we might need to push back and widen the lens so we can fully appreciate and understand the systemic sociological and historical significance of this moment in our country’s development.

Police departments in a way are simple instruments that articulate and enforce our laws and mores, which are reflections of our values.

The only reason these killings keep happening is that most of American society tacitly approves or willfully tolerates it. If America wanted this to end, it would end.

The exceedingly sad and dreadfully profound truth is that the majority of America—and that generally means much of white America—has turned away, averted its gaze, and refused to take a strong moral stance in opposition.

People try to pitch this as an issue of blacks against the police or vice versa, but that is simply an evasion, a way of refusing societal blame for a societal defect: We view crime and punishment with an ethnocentric sensibility that has a distinct and endemic anti-black bias.

When black people are the focus, punishments seem to be more severe than when whites are the focus of the very same circumstances.

During previous drug epidemics—which were largely considered black and brown inner-city problems—lawmakers were falling all over one another to see who could be tougher on crime, in the process enacting racially skewed sentencing guidelines.

But now we see a move toward sentencing reform, because, as I noted in 2009: “According to the most recent data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, admissions of white teenagers to drug treatment centers for crack and cocaine abuse soared 76 percent from 2001 to 2006. Crack and cocaine was the only illicit drug category in which the number of admissions for white teens grew over this period, and in 2006 the number was at its highest level since these data have been kept. By contrast, admissions among black teens for crack and cocaine over the same period held steady. By 2006, white admissions outnumbered those for blacks by more than 10 to 1.”

Furthermore, The New York Times noted that “while heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.”

Even presidential candidate Chris Christie lamented, “Somehow, if it’s heroin or cocaine or alcohol, we say, ‘Aah, they decided it. They’re getting what they deserved.’”

Where were these people when young black and brown people in the inner city were being steamrolled by the ridiculous war on drugs and having the book thrown at them?

This can be overcome, and occasionally has been, but it requires a transcending of self-interested racial tribalism, an ability to see the issue as an intolerable human cruelty rather than as an acceptable and even warranted condition of another, and that can be a high hurdle to clear in this country.

As long as people who look like McDonald are disproportionately affected, and those who don’t look like him are not, it is likely and even predictable, based on historical precedent, that the terrible silence of enough people will continue to sanction this carnage.•


Blow is a New York Times columnist. Send comments to

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