I recently ran across a Pew Research Center national poll about the police actions and killing of Michael Brown, the eighteen year old black male shot by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer. The poll’s results were interesting, in that roughly 2/3 of black respondents said that the police had gone too far, while only 1/3 of white respondents felt that way. Now, many people would immediately claim that such differing reactions represent either white racism or black overreaction. While some of the white response likely is racist, and some of the black response overreaction, I have strong doubts that majority of the difference between whites and blacks represents those at all. I suspect it represents something far deeper than hatred, racism, or prejudice, not that I’m condoning or excusing any of that.
The problem with ascribing the differing reaction of whites and blacks to racism is that racism and overreaction are too simple an answer, and, more important, attacking the problem by trying to eliminate racism or overreaction won’t solve the deeper difficulty lying behind that difference in opinion.
From what I’ve observed, both directly and indirectly, over a moderately long life, and what is also revealed by various studies, is that, in general, but not necessarily in all individual cases, blacks and whites react differently to authority, particularly “white” authority. Like it or not, white authority has a history with the various black subcultures of supporting white suppression of black rights. It doesn’t matter that this white authority today ranges from not very much different than in the past in some areas to close to equal treatment in others. The perception by all too many blacks, particularly young black males, is that police authority is to be distrusted, avoided, and sometimes even flouted. Given history, and given the way the enforcement and provisions of law, particularly drug laws, where drugs prominent in the black drug culture receive far stiffer sentences than the same drugs used by whites, if in different formulations, this distrust, anger, and resentment has a basis, if sometimes tenuous, in fact.
On the other hand, whites, again in general, but not necessarily in all individual cases, have a far more positive experience in dealing with law enforcement.
This difference in outlook further gets exacerbated by economics and by reality. Again, like it or not, police are far more likely to encounter violence and life-threatening situations in economically depressed areas, and far more areas where blacks live are economically depressed. Then add to that that young males are more likely to act out and do stupid things than any other age group, and unemployed young males even more so, and add onto that the factor that a greater percentage of young black males are unemployed. All of these factors make police far more wary and frankly skeptical of groups of young blacks. That skepticism, especially when overtly displayed, in turn fuels resentment and anger among minorities, especially blacks. By the same token, the often seemingly arrogant reaction by young blacks when stopped or questioned by police doesn’t make matters any better… understandable as that reaction is when those stopped are innocent.
All of the outcry over Michael Brown also tends to ignore that being a police officer in the United States is a dangerous job. According to FBI figures, over the last ten years, on average 170 police officers died every year in the line of duty, roughly half of whom were shot. More than 50,000 officers were assaulted each year, and more than 15,000 were injured every year. With 300 million firearms in circulation and a long history of violence, the United States is not the safest nation in the world for police officers, and the majority of areas with high levels of economically depressed blacks are even more dangerous. The leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 44 is homicide, and in something like 90% of those shootings, the shooter was black.
Compounding this problem is that the statistics show police distrust, in general, nation-wide results in black arrest rates that are far higher than for whites – even when the statistics show that blacks are no more prone to certain types of law-breaking than are whites. Marijuana use rates, for example, are the same for whites and blacks, and with more than six times as many whites as blacks in the U.S, one might think that the arrest rates would be similar, but a New York Times study noted that blacks are four times more likely to be arrested and charged than whites.
In an interesting counterpoint, there have been demonstrations, but no violence to date, in Salt Lake, where last week a “non-white” police officer shot and killed an unarmed 20 year old white male. Unlike in Ferguson, the officer was wearing a body-camera, although the photos have not yet been made public. I do think that body and police car cameras would be a very good start in Missouri, and everywhere, since at the very least, they would eliminate much of the speculation about who did what and when. So would better training in how to approach individuals about whom police have concerns. Again, studies show that greater politeness by police actually reduces violence and confrontation, which actually makes the police safer as well. More ethnic balance in police forces is also useful, particularly in places like Ferguson, where only three out of fifty-three officers are black.
Nonetheless, with all these factors in play, in some respects, it’s amazing that there aren’t more incidents between police and young black males. I frankly don’t have an answer, easy or otherwise, but I do have great concerns that the extremists on both sides are making matters worse, one side in demonizing the police and the other in demonizing young black males. Both sides have legitimate concerns and worries, but a “them” versus “us” confrontation isn’t going to do much to improve things in Ferguson… or anywhere else.