So last week sucked didn't it? Two more highly publicized shootings involving police officers and an attack on police officers during an otherwise peaceful protest in Dallas. Nothing justifies the murder of police officers, and the underlying mistrust of our law enforcement officers which sparked this attack is a legitimate issue that must be addressed. And to further complicate things, new evidence about the background of Alton Sterling does not exactly show him as a model citizen. But those discussions are for another post. Instead, I want to talk about the issue of privilege and the unintended discrimination which may have contributed to the events in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights (the latter of which occurred just ten miles from my house). Again, this in no way is intended to diminish the reality of the suffering among the nation's police officers just as the events in Dallas do not negate the reality of what has happened to many people at the hands of some police officers.
First off, it's important to recall some historical context here. Things may seem bad now, but they are far from the violence and brutality the nation witnessed during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. There were numerous bombings, police beatings of peaceful protesters, and direct calls for armed aggression against police and white people. For the most part, police are protecting protesters and the main protest groups (like Black Lives Matter) are not calling for (and in many cases actively denouncing) violence against police. It should also be noted that crime is actually at an all time low in American history. During the Civil Rights Movement, protesters were agitating for reforms to overt types of discrimination (segregation, denial of voting rights based exclusively on race, and so on). But now, protesters are pushing back against much more subtle (and in turn harder to prove) forms of discrimination. That's what makes reform so much harder this time around.
Unintended discrimination is often hard to understand unless we also understand the concept of privilege. To be fair, all people of all levels and types of privilege (or lack thereof) are capable of both intended and unintended discrimination. So what is privilege? Privilege is essentially an underlying bias in favor of someone based upon a certain (often unalterable) trait (ethnicity, gender, age, disability status...). Privilege is important because it can (but does not always) help someone achieve success. This DOES NOT mean that, for instance, a white man did not work hard to achieve his success or that he was given his position in life because of his gender or ethnicity. It only means that, in some subtle and unintended ways, those factors could have made things a little easier. Think of it like this. We are all playing the game of life, but on different difficulty levels. A middle-class white male, for instance, MIGHT (but again, not always) be essentially playing on an easier setting because of privilege, while a poor, black woman is likely playing on a harder difficulty. We still all have to work hard for our achievements, but privilege means that some people might have to work a little harder to reach the same level of success as others.
Why is that? Because inherent in privilege is the reality of unintended discrimination. The key word here is unintended. We recognize that the vast majority of people probably aren't obviously racist. But there are certain associations that our society often makes about people based on race. I specifically remember the moment I started to understand the concept (at least as far as a white male can truly understand the life of a minority individual). I was still a student at the University of Utah and was waiting for the city bus to take me to campus (students ride public transit for free in Salt Lake City). Then, I remembered that I forgot my student ID which grants access to the metro system. I decided that I would throw myself at the mercy of the bus driver and tell him or her of my situation. But I was confident that it would work because I looked like a student. I was young, I carried a backpack, and (I thought somewhere in the back of my mind) I was white. Now I didn't think that someone would automatically believe me because I was white, or that someone would believe me if I were black. But I suddenly realized that being white probably (though again not necessarily) made my story easier to believe. That's what privilege can often grant you: the benefit of the doubt.
This extends to far more than just police encounters with black people though. For instance, men typically are not judged because their clothing was "suggestive." We usually don't ask men what they were wearing when they got mugged and then blame the victim for being attacked. At airports, people often get nervous around others wearing Islamic-style dress (even though the 9-11 hijackers wore plain clothes, because they wanted to NOT draw attention) or make assumptions about their intentions based only upon their perceived religion. It's why a white person with a gun is more often seen simply as someone excising their 2nd amendment rights, while a black person with a gun is more likely to be viewed by society as a potential criminal. In short, we as a society project certain assumptions (often, though not always incorrect) about people based only on their appearance. That reality, and the ways that police officers and society can understand and account for that reality, lies at the heart of today's movement for social and racial equity.
Still having trouble understanding? Consider this, you're a guy walking home down a poorly lit sidewalk after dark and you see a woman ahead of you walking in the same direction. What are you probably going to do? Well, in an effort to not scare her, you would probably slow down or try to walk another direction since you know that she might get nervous and think you're up to something. You know you won't do anything wrong, and she probably thinks that too. But she could think that you want to hurt her, and you know that wouldn't be an unreasonable assumption to some. Well that possible judgement (and the perception of judgement) is what it's like for minorities everywhere! The only difference is that you can choose a different way home, they don't have that luxury.
Of course, these are just trends, that's what makes it so hard to identify and understand. For the most part, there are no laws on the books saying "pull over more black people" or "pull aside anyone who looks Muslim for extra security checks." But on a broad level, our society is more likely to look favorably upon your average white person than it would on another ethnic group when all other information is withheld. Instead of laws, we have media narratives and training programs that subtly hint at this unintended bias. I do not believe that the officer who shot Philando Castile is a racist. I think it is far more likely that his training and our society may have instilled in him an underlying fear of a black person with a weapon and that he (if the current narrative is to be believed) acted rashly and very incorrectly by automatically escalating the situation to deadly force when it clearly was not warranted. Would this have happened if Philando was white? Maybe. Maybe not. And it is certainly true that armed black men have had perfectly normal encounters with police officers. But even the director of the FBI admits that this bias exists on some level. And even if we remove race from the equation, it is still clear that there are many instances where police (either due to poor training or a culture that does not discourage deadly force) are often too quick to escalate situations to deadly force.
Privilege is why we have gay pride parades but not straight pride ones, or women's rights movements but not men's rights movements. People generally aren't being beaten up for being straight or told they aren't fit to adopt children because of their sexual orientation. Yes all lives matter, but the reason movements like BLM exist is to highlight the problems faced by black lives. Saying "all lives matter" is like saying "well white people have problems too so stop complaining about yours." White people encounter plenty of issues, but those are often taken seriously much more quickly (opiate abuse among whites is considered a health crisis while marijuana and crack cocaine abuse among blacks is more likely to be considered a crime). Inappropriate use of force by police undoubtedly affects us all, but it seems to affect minorities disproportionately more. Correcting the issue of inappropriate use of force should be a priority for everyone.
So where does this leave us in an increasingly divided time? Those of us who understand that unintended bias is real, but also acknowledge that most police officers are good people doing a tough job need to speak up. Ours is the true silent majority. We want police procedural reform, but not dead cops. We want training programs that account for unintended bias, but not at the expense of making policing more dangerous. People who want these reforms need to speak up for sensibility and tell their representatives to pass laws that make change happen. While blocking roadways and protesting random events may increase awareness, it also alienates the same people who would be valuable supporters. Believe it or not, lawmakers do often respond to letters, emails, and phone calls (as long as they are respectfully and thoughtfully worded). We also need to break the narrative that police accountability and support for law enforcement officials are mutually exclusive. When we let divisive narratives rule the day, that's when meaningful communication breaks down and more tragedy occurs. Because when our discourse consists only of "black lives matter" or "blue lives matter," is it any wonder why we just end up getting bruised?