Compassion first, then reason.
Well-meaning people of color express deep pain over their sense of separateness from the mainstream of society. Whites, they feel, rest comfortably as the norm, without the unique perspective that a black person has. African-Americans are always outsiders, some feel. And so, a clash like in Ferguson is taken as an opportunity to air the grievances and seek resolution, if not reconciliation. The recently highlighted shootings of young black men by white police officers inspires a passionate response.
Before we try to make sense of this, let’s first recognize that there are two entirely different sets of issues being melded together, here. One is the question of police aggression. It’s time we had a serious conversation about that. Protests – peaceful protests – are a legitimate way to raise consciousness about this issue.
Racism as an element of these events is an entirely separate issue. There is a vague sense that the two things, race and police shootings, are related, but are they? The protesters are necessarily saying that the police shootings are a racial issue. They must be asserting that blacks are disproportionately or unfairly being targeted (quite literally) in these situations.
But think what that would mean, if it were true. It would mean that individual officers shoot due to racial animus. But, even if we were to isolate white-officer shootings, and further, white-on-black shootings, and then assume further that each of the white officers was a howling-at-the-moon racist, wouldn’t the intervening event of criminality and criminal aggression toward police be the more proximate cause of the shooting? Whether there is racism in law enforcement or not, police shootings in ambiguous police/citizen encounters would seem to be the last place to look for it.
Blacks are criminals for the same reasons whites are. Feeling like one is a disfavored minority certainly does not cause one to become a criminal, nor justify it. If young black men are over-represented among aggressive criminals, we should be asking why. The question isn’t why are young black men disproportionately incarcerated. The question is why are they disproportionately engaged in criminal conduct in the first place. And if they’re disproportionately engaged in aggression toward the police, why?
Every day, all across America, recently-arrested inmates are walked into a courtroom, and there they have an appearance before a judge. In these hearings, the inmates are questioned about their financial situation, to determine whether they qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. The process reveals, not surprisingly, that most have sporadic employment, at best, and below-poverty-level subsistence, if one does not count illegal work and dependence on others. In these initial criminal hearings, the picture which will emerge for many young black males with legal trouble is that they live a transient existence, living in collapsed communities, with an enfeebled understanding of the possibilities that the rest of the country takes for granted. They live with a truncated vision of possibilities for their lives. And life is cheap. Their condition is unimaginable to those who do not live as they do.
We should ask why. And if our conditioning makes us inclined to reflexively answer “racism,” we should pause and consider the case that is made for it, not take it as a given. One could always assert that racism is a factor, because there is always racism, and in times past, egregious racism. But if other factors play a much more significant role, the cry of racism necessarily impairs our ability to see them. Factors such as these: absence of fathers, dependency, self-defeating attitudes of entitlement, academic under-achievement, epidemic poverty of spirit, and, from all of these, a feeling that life is cheap. Yes, these factors may exist among all races in this country, but they affect black communities and black individuals disproportionately. Aren’t these factors collectively a more plausible explanation than racism, for disproportionate deadly police encounters among African-American young men?