Police violence: American epidemic, American consent

Keywords Forefront / Opinion

Blow
Another set of black men killed by the police—one in Tulsa, Oklahoma, another in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Another television cycle in which the pornography of black death, pain and anguish are exploited for visual sensation and ratings gold.

And yes, another moment of mistakenly focusing on individual cases and individual motives and individual protests instead of recognizing that what we are witnessing in a wave of actions rippling across the country is an exhaling—a primal scream, I would venture—of cumulative cultural injury and a frantic attempt to stanch the bleeding from multiplying wounds.

We can no longer afford to buy into the delusion that this moment of turmoil is about discrete cases or their specific disposition under the law. The system of justice itself is under interrogation. The cultural mechanisms that produced that system are under interrogation. America as a whole is under interrogation.

This is an age in which the language of resistance has been set and accepted, in which the mode of expression and resistance has been demonstrated and proved effective. And in this era, the discussion around these issues must be broad and deep because the actions required to address the problems must be broad and deep.

This moment in our nation’s history is not about how individual fears are articulated—in an emergency call, in an officer’s response, in weapons drawn and fired, in black people’s desire to flee for their lives, in black parents’ anxiety about the safety of their children. This moment is about the enormous, almost invisible structure that informs those fears—the way media and cultural presentations disproportionately display black people, and black men in particular, as dangerous and menacing and criminal.

People didn’t simply choose to live in neighborhoods with poor housing and poor schools and crumbling infrastructure and few grocery stores. There were many factors that created those neighborhoods: white flight, and the black flight of wealthier black people, community disinvestment, business lending practices and government policies assigning infrastructure and public transportation to certain parts of cities and not others.

And the people living in those communities—sometimes trapped in those communities—make choices, sometimes poor ones, within that context. We may say that a poor choice is simply wrong and the offending party must deal with the consequences. But poor choices made in a poor environment don’t have the same consequences as those made in wealthy environments.

Then America takes it further, imputing the poor choices of a few onto a whole race, and in so doing sets the stage for disaster. This creates the suspicion and fear that can lead to the deaths we’re seeing, in which the person killed may have made no poor choices, in which the only poor choice was the pulling of a trigger.

This is what people mean when they talk about the impact of systemic racism in these cases and in these areas. It is not that the police harbor more racism than the rest of America, but rather that racism across society, including within our police departments and system of justice, has been erected in ways that disproportionately affect poor, minority communities.

Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence said last week, “We ought to set aside this talk, this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias,” calling it “rhetoric of division.” That is exactly the opposite of what we should do.

The police are simply instruments of the state, and the state is the people who comprise it. The police are articulating a campaign of control and containment of populations and that campaign has the implicit approval of every citizen within their jurisdictions. This is not a rogue officer problem; this is a rogue society problem.•

__________

Blow is a New York Times columnist. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}