#BlackLivesMatter. What can be done about the police?

September 2, 2014 4 Comments

This post is a continuation of We are in the midst of a crisis in this country.”

Over the last few days, Black activists from cities across the U.S. joined the Black Life Matters Ride, traveling to convene for a historic weekend in Ferguson, Missouri as part of a national call to end state sanctioned violence against Black people. We have a lot to learn from what’s going on in Ferguson right now and it seems that a window of opportunity is opening for the moment to become a movement, one that is about Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer and that also about so much more. We need to get to the root of these problems if we are going to end state sanctioned violence against Black people once and for all, rather than end up with yet another version of Jim Crow era state-sanctioned lynching.

If we could only eliminate police officers with racist attitudes from police forces, wouldn’t that take care of this problem? I am afraid it would not.

What will it truly take to end state sanctioned violence against Black people?

First, we need to start collecting national data on police stops and use of force and thankfully there are folks working on that.

Second, we must uproot much more than explicit racial prejudice. Some of the most illuminating research about police violence I know of is being done by Dr. Philip Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity. Goff reminds us that attitudes only predict 10% of behaviors. Behaviors are actually much more heavily influenced by unconscious brain activity and biases. I’ve heard Goff present his research a couple of times at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation America Healing Conference and I was surprised to learn that explicit racial prejudice is not the biggest predictor of police officers’ use of deadly force. Instead, over 80% of incidents that involved police use of deadly force were preceded by threats to the officers’ masculinity. Masculinity threat is a more reliable predictor of a police officer pulling the trigger than racist beliefs. In the U.S., men of color are stereotyped as hyper-masculine, so it is impossible to separate masculinity threat from conscious and unconscious racial biases.

As a white person, I am challenging myself not to demonize or otherize white police officers who are committing violent acts against men of color. Why? Because we need to ask what is going on in the minds and hearts of people like Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, and Johannes Mehserle, the former San Francisco BART police officer who killed Oscar Grant. The moment I distance myself from white people like them, I am in danger of reinforcing the notion that racist violence is something I can blame someone else for, thus extricating myself from both the problem and the solution. White brothers and sisters, none of us is free from this haze of fear and disillusionment until all of us is free from it. We have got to have conversations about both the conscious and unconscious dimensions of racism, and about the interdependency of white supremacy and patriarchy. We white folks have got to take responsibility for engaging other white folks in these conversations. And we have to do this until we no longer hear things on the mainstream news like “You know who talks about race? Racists.”

 

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