It’s a terrible and predictable pattern: A young black male, often unarmed, is killed by a police officer. After much public outcry and controversy, a grand jury decides against prosecuting the law enforcement officer. Social media explodes. Sadness, hurt, and anger overflow.
Many African-Americans and those on the social justice left are outraged. How can we let this keep happening? When we will address police brutality? Why aren’t body cameras mandatory? Who will speak out against the systemic injustice that plagues our judicial process? This is Jim Crow all over again. Black Lives Matter.
Meanwhile, many whites and those on the conservative end of the spectrum are outraged by the outrage. Why are we turning police officers into the bad guys? How are they to know someone resisting arrest or waving a real looking gun isn’t a dangerous threat? Who will speak up for the men and women risking their necks to protect us? This is political correctness all over again. All Lives Matter.
How can we bridge this deep divide?
The short answer is: I don’t know. The slightly longer answer is that we can start by trying to understand what things look like from both sides. And by “sides” in this case, I mean the law enforcement community and the African American community.
It was surprising to me when I first heard–and have now consistently heard–from my African American friends that the one thing they knew they never wanted to be when they grew up was a cop. My mom told me I could be anything except a boxer (too violent) or a magician (David Copperfield had just floated across the Grand Canyon). Although my family has no history of police work that I’m aware of, and although my parents probably would have worried for my safety if I had chosen that profession, I have no doubt they would have considered police work a brave and honorable choice. I’ve had virtually no interaction with the police in my life, and what interactions I’ve had–at neighborhood picnics, at public events, even getting pulled over and given a warning for speeding–have all been positive. In my book, law enforcement officers are honest men and women, doing a hard and dangerous job to make sure people follow the rules and the streets are safe.
But that’s not everyone’s personal history, not everyone’s default position, and I want to understand why as best I can.
Which is why I was helped (and moved) by the chapter “Across the Racial Divide” in David Kennedy’s book Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America. Kennedy is white, with a background that is quintessentially liberal–raging against Vietnam, hating Nixon, reading Gandhi, going to Swarthmore, organizing anti-apartheid boycotts, and working at Harvard (5). I imagine his current religious, cultural, and political convictions differ from many of the people reading this blog. But Don’t Shoot, which is part memoir and part policy prescription, is unflinchingly honest and relentlessly focused on what works (rather than on what scores political points). What makes the book worth reading is that Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control and a professor of criminal justice, obviously knows and cares about police officers and obviously knows and cares about the inner-city communities he’s been working in and working with for twenty-five years.
It may seem uncouth for a white pastor to write about another white man’s experience with African American communities. I understand that posts like this are fraught with danger. But the alternative–for white evangelicals to refuse to think critically and refuse to speak about race-related issues, hardly seems like a healthy option. Caution, yes. Difference, yes. Complete silence, less helpful. I wouldn’t have picked up Don’t Shoot except that Ed Copeland, an African American pastor in Rockford, Illinois and a fellow council member of The Gospel Coalition, encouraged me to read the book in a private conversation a little over a year ago. Ed provided a formal endorsement for the book, and Ed himself is even quoted in the pages I’m about to summarize. I only mention this connection to make clear that Don’t Shoot isn’t just a “white person’s” book.
While I may not agree with every jot and tittle of his analysis, on the whole what Kennedy writes makes a lot of sense to me. I don’t know enough to know if his description resonates with other insiders, but for this outsider–an outsider to the African American community, and an outsider to the law enforcement community, and an outsider to the inner-city community–I found his description of the race divide realistic, sympathetic, and illuminating.
Let me try to explain.
Starting with the Summary
Here’s Kennedy’s conclusion, which he states at the beginning of powerful 16-page section (139-155) on race relations and the police.
The real issue was, the police thought the community was completely corrupt, from top to bottom.
The real issue was, the community thought the police were predators deliberately doing them horrendous harm.
The real issue was the way the relationship between the police and community was being poisoned by toxic racial narratives.
Here, things get real ugly. (139)
Kennedy then tries to explain what he’s learned by working closely for many years with African American communities and with police officers.
Listening to African American Communities
“Let’s start with the fact,” Kennedy begins, “that the idea, common currency in these neighborhoods, that the government is running a carefully organized racial conspiracy [e.g., introducing crack into the inner city so that blacks can be arrested and whites can have good jobs in jails and in police departments] against black America is not as crazy as it sounds” (140). We have to remember that it wasn’t that long ago that Jim Crow and separate but equal were legal, and even more recent that all sorts of illegal injustices (like lynchings) were overlooked by law enforcement agencies in cahoots with the KKK. “This was America, our America. Whites tend barely to know it, or to diminish it, or to set it aside as then against whatever it is that now begins.” (141). But in living memory for many in the black community, and in the collective memory of many more, are remembrances of police dogs and fire hoses set against peaceful demonstrators, of Bloody Sunday, of Klan-directed terrorism, of real racial injustices in our judicial system that most of us would find cringe-worthy and cruel. This may all seem like a long time ago, but not when it happened to your grandma or to your pastor.
Furthermore, according to Kennedy, illegal police activities still persist in our inner cities, like “clearing corners,” going beyond the allowable pat-down without probable cause, and arresting everybody at a crime scene as a material witness (143). All of this is so routine in our inner cities, says Kennedy, that “Officers forget it’s even crossing a line” (143).
I was on the street with drug cops not long ago. Where isn’t the point, they’re not the point–they’re good guys, I liked them–the point is this is what goes on. They stopped a group of young black men, held them, got ID, called in to dispatch to check wants and warrants. The young black men had been through this before, knew their part, waited. One was respectful, contained, and very, very angry. After half and hour or so the radio check came back–nothing. The unit’s supervising officer told them that they could move on. There was no explanation or apology or word of thanks. There almost never is. The angry one–still civil and respectful, but furious–said, I live here. My house is on the next block. All I was doing was going home. Then stay in front of your house, the officer said. This is a drug area. You know what’s going to happen. (143-44)
What happens when the narcotics officers go in to a suspected drug house is worse. Everybody is shouted down, put on the floor, and cuffed. The place is turned upside down. Drawers pulled out and dumped on the floor. Beds upended and mattresses slit. Everything is torn to pieces. The guys in armor are hoping they don’t get shot, but they still stomp around and tear the place apart. The community hears the stories and repeats the stories. It’s another example of the outside world not caring about what happens in our world. It’s another cautionary tale of what might happen to you just because you’re black and don’t get to live in the suburbs or in the hip, foodie part of town.
And then add to this lethal concoction the epidemic of mass incarceration. Let’s set aside whether each arrest and imprisonment was fair or not, Kennedy suggests. Let’s suppose that each crime is real, each arrest and prosecution is fair, and each sentence is statutory. That still doesn’t undo the damage. One in nine: that’s the number of black men, twenty to thirty-four years old, in prison. Kennedy isn’t arguing about criminal justice reform at this point. What he’s emphasizing is the cultural and psychological effect of such widespread imprisonment: “People who know someone who’s been imprisoned tend to think that criminal justice authorities are racist, are less likely to call the police when they need help, are less likely to support community standards and actions against crime” (148).
It’s no surprise that many in these communities are so adamantly opposed to snitching and so reticent to cooperate with law enforcement officials. They just don’t trust that the police are on their side. “Given the truth of our American history, it is all too easy for angry black communities to believe that this is not just incapacity: that it is malign….It becomes not so hard to understand why conspiracy might seem a live option. Overseer, slave catcher, Ku Klux Klan, cop, DEA–all seamless” (149). Of course, there is no conspiracy. Kennedy doesn’t even think racism in the police force is the problem. “But if we were trying to play to the idea that there is, we could hardly do a better job. To a people that has suffered systematic abuse under color of law, that has not been accorded equal protection under the law, that has been deprived of economic opportunity, that has in cold fact been abused in long and terrible ways, it is no stretch to imagine outcomes today are the result of similar things done and left undone” (150).
Listening to the Police
So what do they think on the law enforcement side? That’s pretty simple, Kennedy says. “They think the community likes what’s going on, or at least doesn’t care enough to stop it” (150). Many people in law enforcement, both black and white, come from pretty gritty backgrounds themselves and are apt to think, My parents taught me right from wrong. I worked hard. I stayed out of trouble. I took responsibility when I made mistakes. Why don’t people try raising their own kids and stop looking for someone else to blame? Whether that’s a fair indictment of those in the inner-city, or whether it takes into account the problems inherent in rampant fatherlessness and imprisonment, the fact is that many in the police force see a community they are supposed to serve that doesn’t give a rip about its own problems (150-51).
While Kennedy doesn’t think this is an accurate assessment, he understands why the cops feel the way they do.
They’re right that there’s no consistent community voice against violence, against the dealing, against getting arrested over and over, against going to prison. They’re right that black men are killing each other but that nearly all the open community outrage is against the police. They’re right that the kids are working the corners and dropping out of school and the community voice says: racism. The big open meetings–The precinct commander will address crime in the neighborhood and discuss police/community relations–are hopeless. The cops sit at the head table and take a hail of fury. (151)
Kennedy’s been to many meetings like this. Too many. After being accused in one open meeting in Baltimore of not really caring about black people and only getting into this line of work for the money, Kennedy made a vow (that he’s been unable to keep) never to attend these police-community meetings. The cops, for their part, don’t understand the anger. They see excuses and victimhood. Kennedy says the police get tangled up in specifics, trying to explain standard police procedure, explaining how to file a complaint, promising to look into a particular case of alleged wrongdoing. They “miss the raging subtext: Why do you treat us like this?” (152).
The police wonder why the community is silent about the criminal behavior in their midst. “They’re your sons, what are you doing about it,” they think. The community is reticent to stand against guns and drugs and violence when that means standing on the same side as your race enemy. And so, in too many communities there is silence–at least publicly, privately is a different matter. The police hear the silence and interpret it as complicity and corruption (153). They don’t hear how much the community hates whats happening, how much they want the violence to stop, how much it hurts to lose a son or daughter to drugs, or to prison, or to gang violence. They don’t hear how much the community hates that too many people assume all blacks are “that way.” Perhaps, Kennedy suggests, there is too little awareness for how routinely aggressive policing, even from good people risking their lives day in and day out, can add more fear and mistrust in a community already filled with both.
Here is the perfect, awful, searing symmetry of it. Both sides look at the other and say, You want this. You are corrupt and hollow and beyond hope.
They’re both wrong. It’s infinitely complicated, but it’s also at its heart very, very simple. Both these core ideas are wrong. Law enforcement is not indifferent, is not deliberately implementing a genocidal conspiracy. Troubled black communities are not all living off drug money, do not support violence, are not filled with sociopaths.
Not true. (154)
It’s a classic case of the worst suspicions being confirmed every day. Except that the suspicions are wrong and the confirmation bias is real.
What About Racism?
So here’s the big, provocative question in most people’s minds (at least those inhabiting the Twitterverse): Is racism the main issue?
Not really, says Kennedy, at least not very much. He believes there is disproportionate treatment of blacks all the way through the system and that this treatment is evil and wrong. But he doesn’t think racism is the driving force. “I’ve never heard a racist word spoken in all my years with cops–never” (154). Kennedy doesn’t discount the presence of unconscious stereotyping, but he doesn’t think cops are motivated by racial animus. The police have not written off black people; they’ve written off certain neighborhoods. “It’s why what many hoped would change these dynamics, having more black cops, hasn’t. Black cops don’t hate black people. This isn’t about black and white. It’s about the community of the cops and the community of the neighborhoods. The first has given up on the second” (154). And the second doesn’t trust the first.
Racism may not be the driving problem, but the whole problem is soaked in race. “The racist history, the long trauma of black America, makes relations between cops and black neighborhoods especially jagged, especially hurtful, especially explosive. It shapes them, gives them different meanings” (154-55). Which is why whenever a Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice dies at the hands of the police, we end up arguing about much more than the particularities of a given incident. We are arguing about the Big Picture and lamenting that the other side just doesn’t get it.
I imagine there are parts of Kennedy’s analysis you like and parts you don’t like. What about the systemic racism I’ve faced? What about the ways I’ve seen the tough on crime policies of the 90s make my city safer and its urban core revitalized? What about all that black leaders have done in my city to speak out against drugs and gang violence? Maybe Kennedy has not described your experience with the inner-city or your experience in law enforcement. Maybe you think he’s out of his element trying to summarize either. I found his analysis helpful not because I presume it’s true everywhere all the time, but because it makes sense of wildly different and equally plausible narratives–competing narratives I’ve heard from people I respect on both sides of this issue.
Does any of this help solve the problem? Perhaps not. But if it helps us understand–or at least begin to strain to try to understand–why brothers and sisters in Christ who agree on so much precious doctrine can see these incidents so differently, maybe that’s worth something.
Get to Know Me
One last thought in an already way too long blog post. I’m reminded of Rod Dreher’s poignant piece from last summer on why he loves the South, even though he abhors aspects of its history. This was the money paragraph for me:
At the same time [i.e., facing the full moral horror of what his white Southern ancestors did], the moral preening and hypocrisy of many Northerners is extremely hard to take. Just about every white Southerner who has lived outside of the South for any time has had to deal with it. It’s as if there were nothing to know or to be said about the South except slavery and segregation. Many of us Southerners who agree that the violent, racist legacy of our region is an indelible stain on our history, and who agree that we whites have not fully dealt with that legacy, either in public or in our hearts, can easily get our backs up when some fat-mouthing Yankee scold presumes to lecture us on our wicked, wicked ways, without knowing the first thing about us.
Isn’t this what makes seemingly intractable problems even worse–hectoring someone or some group of people without knowing the first thing about them? Isn’t this why evangelicals get upset when those in the mainstream media think they are in a position to lecture us about doctrines they don’t believe? Isn’t this why African Americans get so frustrated when the response to the loss of another innocent black life is to talk about abortion rates or homicide statistics? Isn’t this why you’ll complain about your own family and then defend them to the death if someone else tries to do the same? Listen to me, we want to say. Try to understand–at least a little. Get to know me first, just as you’d want someone to know the first thing about you and your hurt and your history and your heart.
Love as you want to be loved. That’s not the only answer. But I think Jesus would say that’s a start.