Monday, July 29, 2013

Living While Black: Anecdotes about Dealing with Police

Due to the genetic happenstance of my bi-raciality, I don't look black. This has led to more than a few "No, really, I'm black" conversations, but generally speaking, I can pass for white if I want to. Passing isn't a new phenomenon, but it does generally protect me from unnecessarily hostile contact with police and other authority figures that regularly harassed what Malcolm called "recognized Negroes." That said, I know racially biased harassment is very real.

Gene Denby of NPR Code Switch started a conversation about police interactions on Twitter last Thursday. I Storify'd it so you can read it here, but I want to delve further into why they are more than simple anecdotes of inconvenience.

Most countries have foundational myths that underlie the ethos of the national character. Much of our national myth involves freedom and Enlightenment liberalism: property rights, religious freedom, and the dignity of the individual are among the core values which under-gird our national identity. This narrative leads to national cliches like "If you work hard enough, you can do anything" and 'pulling oneself up by the bootstraps' is the key to success.  The accompanying narrative overlooks what that actually looked like for much of our history including, inter alia, discriminatory legal regimes. This is important not, as many think, to enable a "victimhood" mentality among descendants. This is important to reaffirm that this country has only recently recognized that the "inalienable rights" explicitly assigned to all of mankind in our founding document apply to women and many people of color. This recognition is to understand that, since our country's inception, there have been parallel sets of rules and laws for  marginalized people that are distinct from and harsher than those for the majority. It also means "dignity of the individual" doesn't apply equally.

With that in mind, people who have historically been subject to the rules of separate and unequal treatment are unlikely to have the same view or opinion of the laws, customs, and authority figures that non-marginalized folks do. What appears to one as a benevolent or benign peacekeeping presence of police, elicits trepidation in others who, informed by both personal and familial experiences, view the same presence as heightened potential for random harassment. 

Take, for example, the notorious Stop & Frisk policy implemented in recent years by the New York City police department. On its face, it's a blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment, despite what the Supreme Court says. And, as practiced, the NYPD targets blacks and Latinos at a much higher rate than whites. When challenged on this issue--in which the police stopped more young black males in New York City than there are young black males living in New York City--NYPD chief Ray Kelly literally said blacks were "understopped." According to Kelly, criticizing a policy under which .15 percent of all stops actually recover guns--the purported reason for the policy in the first place--is to discriminate against crime victims  because minorities are disproportionate victims of violent crimes. (That whites were twice as likely as blacks to have a gun on them when stopped and frisked, at the very least, shows that cops are better at targeting sketchy white people for their unconstitutional searches, giving support to the idea that blacks are stopped less on their suspicious behavior than the suspicion triggered by the prejudice of NYC's Finest.)

Unsurprisingly, support for Stop & Frisk and other racially controversial NYPD policies vary greatly according to race. According to a Quinnipac poll cited by an NY City Council Committee member, "59 percent of whites approve of stop-and-frisk policies, 27 percent of blacks approve...When it comes to Muslim surveillance, 22 percent of whites think the NYPD is unfairly targeting Muslims … 41 percent of blacks."

It seems obvious to many people that cops are generally good people and they're really fair-minded when it comes to their jobs. But it is just as obvious to others that this is not necessarily or even usually the case. You don't have to say "cops are racist" or "this law is racist," -- it doesn't matter whether there is explicit racial animus behind repeated mistreatment or policy enforcement (though you may often find it). It is abundantly clear to many people in this country that they must live by different rules than the traditional white majority. It's not about "victimhood": it's about personal and learned experience that leads to understanding the power dynamics at play.

A Hypothetical:
So, let's say you're a black kid. You're a good kid, you do okay in school--but your school is not a very good one, and going to college just doesn't seem like an option for you. Maybe you're poor, maybe your family gets by, but you run with your neighborhood friends--nearly all of whom are black or Latino--and like to hang out. Like most kids, you wear the kinds of clothes your friends do.
Some of your friends are broke as a joke. Some of them got locked-up dads, brothers, moms, cousins. Everybody knows somebody who is or has been locked up. You don't hate anyone, you're just getting by, doing your thing.

But when you go into town with your other black friends, you're viewed like an alien in your own city. You get followed in stores. People look at you with suspicion, clutching purses and nervous glances. Cops come up to you and ask you your business when you're just chillin outside doing nothing. You're sometimes asked to leave places because you're making others uncomfortable. Other times you're put up against a wall and searched because you 'fit a description' of someone who did something somewhere kinda nearby recently. And when you go home, you have to worry about cops knocking down your door because they acted on a bad drug tip, cuz that's just how they roll in your neighborhood.

You hear what people say, about how to "make it," but half the people in your neighborhood can't get good jobs. You hear "land of the free," but you don't see white people lined up against the wall answering cops' questions with their pockets turned out. You've got eyes. You see that you're being treated differently than other people. Your offense? You're young and black.
This is a hypothetical that is not universal to all black kids. And there are some elements that clearly happen to other kids too. But it's harder to see the American Dream where they live. They know that the world in which they're supposed to make it views them with scorn and fear. They hear police chiefs say not enough of people like them get stopped and searched by cops. They hear relatives talking about how so and so on TV said since most criminals are black it's okay to treat blacks like criminals.

Equal treatment under the law, as practiced, looks like 'some people are more equal than others.' People in this country are still treated differently because of the color of their skin, both privately and by law enforcement. It's a fact resolutely affirmed whenever 'black crime statistics' get bandied about to defend racial profiling. (Yet, somehow, profiling defenders tend to be the same people who want to blame black people for the way they're treated by others.)

Separate rules for different people delegitimizes law enforcement and sows seeds of distrust and animosity. This is how a lot of people view the police with skepticism and, at times, fear. The greatest insult in these continuing "discussions" on race and policing is that commentators keep telling blacks, essentially, that they need to play by the rules.  They would be wise to tell the police to do the same.

I encourage you to read the tweets of Gene and others who have various experiences dealing with the police and what it means to them.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

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