Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Libertarians' Racial Blindspot

My friends and former colleagues over at reason rightly note that a cop appears to have been way too aggressive when stopping a college professor for jaywalking:

A police encounter in Tempe, Arizona, over the weekend turned ugly after a campus police officer wrestled Arizona State University professor Ersula Ore to the ground. Video footage shows the officer attempting to pull Ore's hands behind her back and pin her against the dashboard before slamming her onto the ground in the middle of the street.

Ore's crime, evidently, was jaywalking in the middle of the night.
Now, I'd seen people share this story on social media without clicking through, but it was something I wanted to check out. Without seeing her name--or even her gender--but hearing about the incident, I assumed that the professor was likely black and the officer was likely white.

Why? Because black people's history with law enforcement has long been fraught with conflict and the years of police officers treating black people more harshly than they treat your average white person is no secret. Police abuse is by no means exclusive to black people, but it is and has been prevalent since law enforcement and black people have coexisted in this country. And jaywalking is one of those laws that is, for the most part, used as a pretextual stop (as opposed to, say, a priority of law enforcement) because the officer thinks the person is otherwise up to no good.

Police have a special place of disdain in the hearts and minds of many libertarians.* Libertarians often see police as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the state and their use and abuse of force is wanton and without rhyme or reason. Yet, most black people understand that this sort of abuse happens to them more often, whether it's inherent racism or suspicion on the part of the officer, the policing style in a given neighborhood or area, or the disparate political power of a group of people less able and likely to successfully challenge the behavior of an officer.

I don't think it's a failure of the reason author to point this out, but I would have liked to see it.

Too often, libertarians have asked me in private conversation about what's best described as "respectability politics." That is, because of the dress or language or behavior of young black men particularly that the ire of police is directed their way and therefore results in the myriad criminal justice disparities. But here you have a black female college professor refusing to show ID--as any good libertarian would--and getting thrown to the ground and arrested. How many times does this sort of thing happen to black people before libertarians recognize that maybe her race may have played a role? It's journalism--you're supposed to stick to the facts and keep speculation down, I know. But the fact is black people have a long history in this country of being singled out and abused by people in power and, to my knowledge, there's been no magical moment when that has stopped being true.

I've written about this libertarian blindspot at length in my latest essay at Libertarianism.org.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

*NB: My father was a police officer.  Many years after he retired, he went back to work part time at the police department because it was home to him. I got to know many police officers and I continue to respect police officers today. But that doesn't make the history any less true or troubling.

1 comment:

Giant Phony said...

Not to go #NotAllMen on this subject, but I do wonder what kind of power dynamics would have come into play if the professor had pulled out a university faculty ID card, instead of a state ID/nothing, as I imagine the officer was expecting. (assuming, of course, that faculty IDs exist and she had it on her).

Maybe that still wouldn't have kept this cop from feeling compelled to physically dominate a "disobedient" (nonviolent) black woman. Then again, sometimes power structures end up working in your favor, and I say take advantage of it when you can.