Believe it or not, this is NOT a blog about politics.
Growing up, my family was very political. More than political, it was opinionated. And, there is probably an even better word than opinionated, at that!
The dinner table found my dad discussing state representatives, and what they were and weren’t doing to help him. The governor was never doing quite enough for my mom. It seemed like every decision he made was a wrong one. My parents sympathized over spaghetti.
Not everything was negative! There were plenty of politicians who were doing things right, and there were others who were fighting for causes that my parents held dear. These men and women always belonged to my parents’ political party. In fact, the people who identified with my parents’ political party seemed to do NO wrong.
If there was ever a politician from the opposition who agreed with or helped someone from my parents’ party, that person was praised for “Seeing the light.” In the same breath, they would also be ridiculed for disloyalty to their own party.
This mentality went beyond the dinner table. When observing the behaviors of people in public, I overheard my parents suggesting certain individuals probably voted for the political party they viewed as “The Enemy.” I witnessed my parents treat people wearing clothing that supported things they disagreed with badly. Mostly, we stayed away from people who overtly promoted ideas we didn’t like.
When my parents thought that they were speaking in private, I heard them call other people names. The way they said these epithets, it felt like they hated those kind of people. Around me and my sister, nicer language was used, but the message was clear: “Those people are ruining our country.”
Would my parents get rid of “those people” if they could? The older I got, and the more I learned in school, It seemed like you ought to be able to vote bad ideas out of political power. My parents seemed to complain about voting as much as they complained about politicians.
I could go on with this analogy, but I think that is enough fuel to energize my thought experiment. When people populate their thoughts with slanted views, the way they see the world and its inhabitants is biased. Every action is interpreted through this mental lense.
Rather than politics, this analogy has to do with police brutality. Ijeoma Oluo titled chapter 6 of her book “So you want to talk about race” with the question “Is Police Brutality Really About Race?” (Oluo, 2019). The story that she wrote about in that chapter, and what I have heard from other people of color, that seems to hit a nerve is a pervasive bias among police officers toward Black people (Eberhardt, 2019).
Oluo (2019) tells a story about her brother being pulled over by a cop. When her brother asked, “Why am I being pulled over?” the police officer retorted with, “Is there going to be a problem, here?” There are many things to discuss in this tiny interaction, but what I want to focus on is the “other-ness” factor.
With racial tensions flooding the mainstream media for months, social media has teemed with personal anecdotes displaying similar stories to Oluo’s. I have seen people post articles and produce data that points to the idea that White people do experience brutality and even death at the hands of police officers (Thomsen, 2020).
The fact is Black people in America are 6 times more likely to be killed during an interaction with law enforcement than White people (Jagannathan, 2020). This stat varies in geography, the rate being lower in some areas and higher in others.
It is like someone took the bias of my fictitious family at the beginning of this blog and transferred it from political opposition to plain old color of skin, and then pumped it into the police force.
I’m NOT suggesting that every single police officer in America hates people of color. The politically charged family of my analogy has an aunt who does not engage in the political banter at picnics. She’d rather just stay out of it. She’ll vote, but she doesn’t feel strongly one way or the other. There is an uncle who actually disagrees with the rest of the family. When the family is frothing about some civic story, he doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up. He witnessed what happened to his brother, who is no longer invited to anything.
Make no mistake about it; Law enforcement is a family. There is bias toward people of color (Eberhardt, 2019). The degree of prejudice varies, but studies show that police officers are more likely to connect crime with color. This leads to pre-judging individuals. In other words people of color are not interpreted as “law abiding citizens.” This is not a blanket to cover every cop, of course.
The metaphor of bad apples has been floated a lot lately. The problem is that it has been misused (Cunningham, 2020). It was a proverb of warning that just one bad fruit could contaminate and ruin a whole basket.
What can be done?
Unless the family lives in a compound, each member is going to interact with unrelated people. Individuals gravitate toward like-minded people, so even outside of a compound, cops are not likely to hangout with unbiased folks.
However, there is bound to be a pool of brackish water; A place between ocean and river, where ideas mix, ideologies are less potent. Saltwater salmon swim upstream to lay their eggs.
Just suggesting that police officers have a bias might be a seed for thought that could spur self-assessment.
The reason I chose to use a family that is fired up about politics is many-fold. One is that this is where we are as a country. Most people have witnessed this behavior on both sides of the isle. Another reason is that political leaning is so ingrained and difficult to see past. It seems impossible to be open-minded to the potential that the “other side” could have any good ideas or do anything right. Lastly, and most dangerously, as each news story blows up phones, ideologues seem to double-down on their philosophies. It is trench warfare. I hope that this metaphor melts soon.
I write this text to help people understand that bias runs deep, blood-deep. We cannot expect prejudice to evaporate quickly or easily. Each person, regardless of skin color, must be seen as a human. Projecting criminality onto color is wrong. “Is there going to be a problem here?”
Cunningham, M. (2020, June 14). ‘A few bad apples’: Phrase describing rotten police officers used to have different meaning. Retrieved September 17, 2020, from https://abcnews.go.com/US/bad-apples-phrase-describing-rotten-police-officers-meaning/story?id=71201096
Eberhardt, J. L. (2019). Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do. New York, New York: Viking.
Jagannathan, M. (2020, June 28). Black people are up to 6 times more likely to be killed by police, Harvard study says. Retrieved September 17, 2020, from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/black-people-are-up-to-6-times-more-likely-to-be-killed-by-police-harvard-study-says-2020-06-26
Oluo, I. (2019). So you want to talk about race. New York, New York: Seal.
Thomsen, I. (2020, July 16). THE RESEARCH IS CLEAR: WHITE PEOPLE ARE NOT MORE LIKELY THAN BLACK PEOPLE TO BE KILLED BY POLICE. Retrieved September 17, 2020, from https://news.northeastern.edu/2020/07/16/the-research-is-clear-white-people-are-not-more-likely-than-black-people-to-be-killed-by-police/