Happy Juneteenth! Change is in the air! Aunt Jemima is finally retiring, and it sounds like Uncle Ben is soon to follow. The Confederate flag is leaving NASCAR, and some of the many monuments to the Confederacy are coming down. It’s true, these are just the symbols of our racial caste system, and there’s a lot more work needed to dismantle the system. But it’s a start.
The Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd have now been going for several weeks. The protests against police violence and discrimination have been mostly peaceful, with more black people coming out and more white people joining in. Amazingly, the fires and looting that took place in the first few days seem to have stopped. More recent violence has involved police attacking peaceful protesters. And happily, that violence level seems to have come down, too.
On the radio and in the papers, I’ve picked up bits and pieces of discussions about how to address chronic violence by police against black people. More conservative types tend to favor increased training to address bias, while more progressive types propose reallocating the police responsibilities and their budgets. But there seemed to be a lot of agreement that something needs to be done about the abuse and killing of black people by our police.
There is, though, a continuing counter movement, which views the protesters as violent insurgents, and the police as valiant defenders of civilization. That Blue Lives Matter is an odd point to be pressing at this moment. They do, of course, but no one is threatening to arrest and kill Blues.
In this right-white universe, there are a lot of hymns to the heroism of the police. Here again, there is an element of truth to the hymns. Police work can be hard and dangerous, and we should be grateful to those who do it with fairness and integrity. But the point being made by the hymns, even if by accident, is less noble. That subtext of the hymns is: we’re glad to see the police acting tough and violently attacking peaceful protesters, particularly black ones.
We probably don’t know as much about police work as we assume. We tend to think of it as a lot about finding and arresting dangerous felons, but that actually happens very seldom. Much more often, police are responding to noise complaints, domestic violence, illegal parking, public drunkenness, and other minor disturbances of the peace. The weapons they carry around are intimidating, but not often helpful in these situations.
I used to enjoy watching television shows about cops. The cops were so manly, and tough! Except for Charlies Angels, who had such beautiful hair and legs, and could also kick butt. I particularly liked The FBI, with the well groomed cops who always carefully did their homework to bring down vicious criminals. Later, I enjoyed Miami Vice, with its stylish cops, speedboats, and explosions, and violent deaths for drug dealers.
My takeaway from so many cop shows was that police work required a lot of violence. It was normal to shoot criminals, if you couldn’t beat them up. It didn’t seem there were any other possibilities. This seems to be where a lot of the right-wing proponents of police violence are now. They, and in fact most of us, have not received any training in searching for peaceful resolutions.
It may be justified once in a blue moon for a cop to shoot a fleeing black man in the back. It could be that the black man has just stolen the nuclear codes and is about to blow up the world, or that he’s making off with deadly bioweapons to start a massive plague. But those cases are infrequent. More often, police shoot black men because they’re black, and they refuse to obey them.
Why do we think it’s OK for police to attack black people? It goes back a long way. When I was a kid, there was a lot of talking about desegregating the schools, but we didn’t really do it, and we aren’t even talking very much about it these days. Indeed, there are a lot of people today who would vigorously resist a desegregation program.
The people who opposed, and still oppose, desegregation may not know why they don’t like the idea, but I’m pretty sure I know. They’re afraid of black people. But why are they afraid? Because they have very little contact with them, and they’ve been taught from an early age that they’re scary. Some of their leaders keep reinforcing that message with racist fear mongering, which those leaders use to get votes.
If people of different races went to the same schools and churches and lived in the same neighborhoods, it wouldn’t work. They’d figure it out. White people would gradually realize their black classmates and neighbors are OK. Not scary. It would take some time, for sure. But eventually we’d quit thinking that the most important thing about a person is his or her skin color. Eventually differences in color would matter no more than whether you have a sun tan, or don’t.
This would be great, except for those who benefit from the existing caste system, like fear mongering politicians. And, to some extent, every person now defined as white. White people will lose some advantages, like getting preferred over black people for jobs, schools, and catching cabs. But nothing huge. With black people competing on a level playing field, white people may need to raise their game. But that’s just too bad.
In fact, it would be good. It would definitely feel good to be rid of the shame of racial oppression, of secretly knowing that we’re involved in something morally despicable. It would be so good to take down the walls and fences, and have available more friendship. We’d feel so much better.