The painful issues raised the last few months by the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of heavily armed white police officers are tangled, complex and emotional. We view these clashes increasingly through tribal, ideological lenses. That’s dangerous and exhausting.
But it seems like a few threads of our national conversation can be teased out and made a little bit more clear — at least for those of us interested in having a real dialogue, and not simply shouting and race-baiting.
First, I think most of us generally agree that police officers need considerable leeway when it comes to enforcing our laws and protecting public safety. They also need a generous level of understanding from the public about their behavior when it comes to protecting their own personal safety and welfare. For cops, things happen fast. Decisions are made in real time, often under awful circumstances, and much of the Monday morning quarterbacking that happens is deeply amateurish and misguided.
Second, it’s equally clear that America’s police culture has deeply ingrained and destructive racial biases when it comes to young, black men. The data is unequivocal that police stop and interfere with African American men at wildly disproportionate rates. It’s not just a handful of unarmed black men winding up dead. It’s black men feeling constantly surveilled and suspected and targeted. This experience of being regularly handled and managed by government agents without probable cause violates everything that we stand for, liberal and conservative alike.
And yes, far too often, these encounters escalate to violence when black men are involved. It’s reasonable for the black community — and the rest of us — to be angry and dismayed by those facts.
Now here’s the part that I think we can clear up. It’s possible for well-meaning, thoughtful Americans to hold both of these ideas in our heads at the same time. Let me say it again, really bluntly: We can love and respect and admire our police and understand their unique concerns. We can also — at the very same time — acknowledge that our system of criminal justice has a deep and long-running problem when it comes to its treatment of African Americans.
This kind of complex gray-zone thinking is hard and it requires getting away from tribal, us-versus-them lines in the sand. But it’s also, almost certainly, the only way forward.
So here’s my stab at nudging the conversation toward healthier place. I want to suggest that if you’re watching a TV network or listening to a radio personality or relying on websites for your information and those sources refuse to acknowledge the possibility of seeing both sides of this coin, you should be suspicious. If you’re being told that cops are angels and the dead black men we keep seeing on our screens are all thugs, you should question their agenda. On the other hand, if you hear a community organizer or a protester or a politician insisting that cops are all race-haters and that America is a police state, you should be equally skeptical.
Here’s why. Once we make our thinkers and our leaders move past these ideological dead-ends, it’s possible to start wrestling with this in more nuanced and productive ways. We can start talking about how to help police officers deal with America’s gut-level racial tensions better, through training, equipment and logistical support. We can talk about police, particularly on beats where they’re patrolling black communities, wearing more body cameras so that better records are kept of these counters. Not just the violent encounters, but all the encounters where black men are feeling intimidated, hassled, and disrespected.
We can talk about establishing better liaison programs that open lines of dialogue between cops and the people they’re charged with protecting. Also, we can talk about the urgent need to aggressively hire and train more African American police to serve in places like Ferguson and New York City. And we can explore new systems of accountability for police that don’t rely entirely on local prosecutors, who often have close working relationships with officers.
We can begin to talk more broadly about why some African American communities still suffer unacceptable levels of crime and violence, despite the heavy (and sometimes heavy-handed) presence of law enforcement. There is strong and growing evidence that this approach to community policing isn’t working for many neighborhoods of color — and not only because it leads to violent confrontations. We can also talk more broadly about the lack of opportunity and economic development in black America, where unemployment regularly runs two-times higher than in nearby white communities.
In other words, we need to ask ourselves some painful questions that go beyond that wretched, sickening moment when a black guy lies dead in the street. Why is it that when white rural communities suffer economic malaise and stagnation, we respond with pipelines of cash and public-sector jobs and Farm Bill subsidies? And yet when black urban communities stumble into similar down-spirals, our best response appears to be a heavy police presence, huge numbers of arrests and incarcerations? Why do we pump billions of taxpayer dollars to turn tiny, inefficient small-town school districts into marvels of modern education, while urban school districts are allowed to decay and unravel?
I think conservatives are generally correct that the answer to our present crisis isn’t to obsess about the indictment (or more to the point, non-indictment) of a handful of officers. Yes, some truly lawless, racist cops deserve to go to prison after these ugly incidents. But the real answer — the answer that might take us beyond the rage and despair — is to begin a much harder, more complex policy debate over the way our society thinks about the value of black American lives. We need to acknowledge that when we’ve reached this kind of flashpoint, our criminal justice system — our entire society — has already failed miserably, and not just because one cop may have made a terrible choice in the field.
The bottom line is that we can love police and respect them and also demand that they treat young black men better. Those two ideas can co-exist at the same time — and they should co-exist in the mind of any American who believes that justice is possible.