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Jun 1, 2020

Manufacturing racism

28 years ago, I was watching the Rodney King riots in LA, in a living room of a Notre Dame dorm. I was in this country for about 8 months, and had only the vaguest idea about what is going on. Few of us, international students, could comprehend the events. We all tried to apply the various frameworks we learned in our own countries. 28 years later, I see similar pictures on TV. It is a bad kind of déjà vu. The US have made a lot of progress confronting its homophobia and gender bias. However, the country seems to be completely incapable of addressing the police violence against its African-American community. The very lack of progress makes the crises we are witnessing now almost inevitable.

The Black-White race conflict is very difficult to explain to people who do not know the US context. I tried many times, with very mixed results. The closest analogy I could find is this: Imagine a foreign occupation. The occupation can be brutal or gentle, and you can have a better or worse trained army. Yet every occupation will result in abuse and violence towards the occupied population. There were literally no exceptions in history that I know of. Why? – because the occupied population does not accept legitimacy of the occupation, which is why the occupying army will always operate in a hostile environment. The soldiers’ attitudes will inevitably harden. A soldier must have a way to dehumanize the occupied in order to justify his presence there, and explain away the hostility. Of course, some do and others do not, but the pressure is in the wrong direction. Any number of biases including racism will be reinforced among the occupation soldiers. Yes, we must hold individual soldiers accountable for any atrocities. Yet deep down you know, that if you put regular flawed human beings in a chronically stressful situation among hostile locals, many of your soldiers will become callous and some will become abusive. The ultimate responsibility lies with those who commanded the army to occupy.

The attitude of African-American urban communities is not exactly like that, but somewhat similar. They do not fully acknowledge the legitimacy of the predominantly White police forces for a number of historical and practical reasons. They rightly suspect that there is a larger effort to suppress their community through invasive policing that other neighborhoods do not experience. The stop-and-frisk practices evoke the images of foreign occupation. I am not sure if it is effective, but it is certainly humiliating. A White man, I have never been stopped and frisked, never been pulled over for little or no reason. I have a luxury to presume the police will be generally on my side if anything happens. None of these assumptions are shared by African-Americans. The mistrust is definitely justifiable. By the way, there are a number of other communities, including some White ones that deny police its legitimacy (watch, for example the Murder Mountain series). And of course, the longer the “occupation” lasts, the more it is reinforced. Hence, we are caught in a vicious circle: the population’s distrust will push police to be more racist, and the racist police will make their acceptance more difficult. Under the situation of a structural conflict, appeals like “support the police” and “don’t be racist” are only of limited utility.

Many progressive police departments understand the dilemma, and apply major efforts to build strong connections between the police force and African-American communities. The Flint police chief recently has shown what can be done. The smart chiefs figure, if you reduce distrust, you remove the major cause of racism among your officers. It does work to some degree. However, I will betray my structuralist bias: look deeper. Perceptions are not all local; they also shaped by the national agenda. Those people in Minneapolis wear uniforms similar to those your local cops do, so the trust is fragile and never universal. Similarly, American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan tried to build stronger ties to local communities, but in the end, the local people wanted them out. Ultimately, unless the major gaps in wealth, housing, health and educational opportunities are closed, the gentle police will be perceived as a gentle occupation force. It is better than the brutal police, but it is still a force that protects a perceived unjust world order.

This is why we are stuck. This is why we are watching the rerun of 1992 LA, which was a rerun of 1980 Miami, which was in turn a rerun of 1968. The society at large does not want to make difficult political decisions that includes significant equalization of income and opportunities. We failed to deal with the economy that no longer creates good jobs in sufficient quantities. We the public have sent our police to defend the indefensible, and then are eager to blame everything on individual racist cops. Every politician has condemned the bad apples; because it is so easy to do. But the individual racism, as inexcusable as it is, is only a symptom. Urban police departments do not recruit racists. Let us acknowledge, at least some of them become more racist in the course of their work. And we the voters and our political representatives are responsible for that. Either we invest in the disadvantaged communities, or keep cleaning up the broken glass every few years.

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