September 23, 2016

Often the most dangerous people don’t carry a gun, they carry a pen (or keyboard)

I’m just going to come right out and say it. While I support the #BlackLivesMatter movement (stridently), I think many of the people who are ranting about police shootings are missing the real point, and, moreover, the real opportunity (assuming there is hope for meaningful change, that is – which, as an eternal optimist, I hold out for).

Here is what statistics (in the only reasonably scholastic study I have been able to find) tell us: police do not appear to have a racial bias toward firing specifically at African-Americans when it comes to discharging their weapons. This is not meant to discount the lives lost or the suffering of the families left behind when an officer does take a life. However, I’ve yet to see any evidence of bias when it come to actually pulling the trigger (while, at the same time, I have seen evidence against the existence of such bias).

But here’s the thing… THAT fact doesn’t matter, THAT fact is not a reason to think things are okay. Because long before the relatively even handed act of a police shooting happens… the acts of systemic racism, and the miscarriages of justice, have already occurred. African-Americans are pulled over twice as often as their Caucasian counterparts, and that disparity grows when you remove moving violations from the mix. More to the point “investigatory stops” – where officers pull a car over for trivial reasons because they suspect something more serious may be going on – are wildly out of balance.

So you have more black people being pulled over, every single day. Once they are pulled over, they are treated more physically in almost every way (the exception, the aforementioned officer shootings), take a look:

Less someone be inclined to suggest that African-Americans are more prone to resist and that is the reason, lets take a look at “compliant” stops (where the person being pulled over obeyed all orders by officers):

The likelihood of police putting their hands on a black person actually increased and the number of times they were pushed into a wall were largely unchanged. These are people who are actively following instructions by police, and yet, they are getting abused at a significantly and consistently greater rate then people of different ethnic groups.

This is where the real underlying problems are, because these things are happening day in and day out. They, unlike police shootings, are regular occurrences… these are our habits. It’s also where – perhaps – some solutions lie as well. The question becomes why do officers treat black people differently than white people when their behaviors are relatively the same? Like many things, the origins of this may be rooted in the generalized action of our society. Culturally, in the United States, we have almost always rendered black people (particularly men) as fearsome creatures. There are many media techniques for doing this:

  • African-Americans criminals are not named in photos roughly half the time (leaving the general classification of their race to be associated with the criminal act), Caucasians are named roughly two thirds of the time.
  • African-American suspects are shown in motion about half the time (showing a suspect in motion humanizes them, and reduces association with general characteristics like race), Caucasians over 2/3′s of the time.
  • African-Americans are depicted being physically held or restrained 38% of the time (images where the accused is being held imply they are more violent), Caucasians are show without restraints over 82% of the time.
  • African-Americans are nearly 4 times more likely to be portrayed as criminals than police officers on television news.

This is just a small sample, there are far more statistical facts available in support of the simple premise that we are systemically creating and fostering a culture of fear when it comes to African-Americans. Let me say that more clearly: we are taught to fear black people.

Terence Crutcher, in the words of police, as he was being shot, was a “big, bad dude.”

Terence Crutcher is probably dead right now because Betty Shelby was trained (her whole life) to be afraid of him. We know she scared, in her own words: “I was never so scared in my life as in that moment right then,” To be honest, I’d be scared too if I thought someone was reaching into a car to pull out a weapon; but that’s not the point I’m making. I believe, and there is ample evidence to support this theory, that officers (and everyone else) are more scared of black men then they are of Caucasian men. I suspect Officer Shelby is no exception, and the reason this is true is because she has been socially conditioned her entire life to react just that way (note: this is not – in any way – offering an excuse for her actions, it’s just a possible path toward minimizing the number of times those actions are repeated by others in the future).

Which brings us to where I think so many of the protests are missing the mark. While there is a problem with police shootings, it is by and large a small number of people doing (very) bad things. For example, in one study covering 1.6 million arrests, guns were fired in only 507 cases (that is three hundredths of a percent – .0003 – for those of you keeping score at home). By contrast, most of our media is consistently reporting stories in the manner discussed above; specifically, with a significant amount of racial bias. It is this generalized fear-mongering that creates a culture of perceived threats, itchy trigger fingers, and – ultimately – dead black men.

The circumstances around police shootings are almost always going to be to grey, and – case by case – far too unique to form any generally prescriptive solutions from them; however, there is action that can be taken with regard to how the media reports the news. You can call your local stations (or, even the national broadcasting companies) and request (demand?) that they start to uniformly report on criminal cases. When they fail to do so, use the power of social media to call them out on it (when they succeed, call that out as well – their competitors will notice).

Step one is making people realize that African-Americans are not raging violent beasts, but rather, simply Americans, just like everyone else. Once we normalize the perceptions and get over the institutionalized fear, it becomes far easier to correct the issues as we see them playing out on the street. But make no mistake, the root cause of all of this violence and death is not people with guns… it’s people with pens (and keyboards).

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