Policing and Racism: The Unsolvable Riddle
Here we are today, a late Sunday afternoon in Chapel Hill. I’ve just gone for a walk and returned from the pharmacy, with some ointment and a diet Pepsi. I’ve thought very carefully over the last two weeks about the murder of George Floyd, the protests, and the rioting. I have spent much of today thinking about what I am going to write. I am sitting down, sipping the Pepsi, moments away from starting this very blogpost. Suddenly, the music on my headset comes to a pause, and my iPhone rings. I see it is a number from within this same town, so it’s not a telemarketer, as they tend to call from Greensboro or Charlotte.
I answer, and a girl named Noah introduces herself. She is calling on behalf of the North Carolina Democratic Party from Chapel Hill and asks if I am interested in volunteering. I tell her, with no hesitation, what I plainly believe to be true: that I am not interested, that I have actively volunteered in the past and believe it all to have been a waste of time. She accepts my answer for what it is and lets me out of the call.
When Joe Parrish, aged 14, first learned about the lies and abuses behind the Iraq War and the broader War on Terror in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, it had an immediate impact. Before that, I had wanted to become an astrophysicist. In second grade, a book in our classroom about the origins of stars, planets, and the Universe itself had enamored me. I wanted to be a scientist who would uncover the next mysteries of existence, but the pressing concerns here on our own planet came to my attention in 2005 when we rented that film, and I made a decision that night, in front of my family, that politics would be my career, to right the wrongs of this world.
When I started high school in 2006, I made my first foray by joining the Teen Democrats. I attended every possible canvassing event that fall and rejoiced as I had immediate payoff with the Democratic victory in the mid-terms, which got Nancy Pelosi her first speakership. That next spring, my state senator employed me as her page in the North Carolina General Assembly. It was only four days, but it was the first form of employment I ever had. I eventually became President of the Teen Democrats and presided over Obama’s victory in 2008. After graduating in 2010, I started my degree in political science at UNC. Again, I volunteered for Obama’s campaign in 2012.
As I made my way out of college, I was plagued, however, by serious doubts. The Manning and Snowden leaks had shaken my trust in the Democrats’ ability to reform failures in national security. I had also spent many years by then learning the true extent of wealth inequality and poverty and the impact of money in politics. With a degree in hand in 2014, I felt uncertain and hopeless about my party, but I found new hope in 2015 when Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy. I saw, in him, a return to the best of the New Deal Era for our current century. I was quickly thereafter horrified at his treatment by the party, both the fair and the unfair, and his subsequent defeat to Hillary Clinton, who then went on to throw the election to Donald Trump.
I spent much of my time after that election actively working to get the party back on its feet, attending endless meetings, working on political campaigns, and even helping to set up new organizations. After all that I have done, I can’t help but feel like it has been for nothing. I am 28 now. 2020 would be the year in which I finally have spent most of my life as an active Democrat, ever since that day in 2005, and yet now I feel that the costs of doing so far outweigh the benefits, and if there is any issue that shines a light on why I feel this way, it is exemplified no more perfectly and to no finer tee than by the murder of George Floyd and the public aftermath, both as it concerned his individual death and the wider phenomenon of racism and police brutality in America.
The Democratic Party that I joined in 2006 was a different creature than what we see today. We had not yet had our first black President, and yet notions of the Party’s cosmopolitanism (that is, the view that anyone from any background can BE an American) were alive and well. It was possible to have interactions that seemed like actual collaborations with different races from a place of mutual trust. The same goes for questions of the sexes and feminism and for LGBT people and queer rights. Since this post concerns the killing of Floyd and racism, though, I’m going to continue this focus as it concerns race.
As a quick aside, I will point out that our notions of race, to me, have no merit at all. There is more genetic diversity within the continent of Africa than outside of it. There are black people that have more in common genetically with whites than with other blacks, so I think it is useful to take note, that when I talk about white America or black America or Hispanic America or anything like that, it is with a grain of salt. These distinctions are illusions that are only as real as we make them to be. We could just as easily talk about blonde America or brunette America, and yet we do not.
Moving on, the 2010s shifted us from that collaborative dynamic. The Democratic Party used to be a coalition based on mutual trust among its many groups. Now, all these groups distrust each other. I remember when Democrats only used to feel this way about Republicans, but now they feel this way about the world in general and toward each other. The coalition seems to be held together by a culture of fear and guilt. Cosmopolitanism was replaced by multiculturalism. The party is still diverse, and it is very much proud of that, but it is no longer in harmony, and it has no shame at all about that fact.
When the issue of police brutality, namely as it is caused by racism, comes to a head like this, this is almost certainly a context for failure. By failure, I mean that we, as a nation, will not get to an endstate where police brutality ceases to occur, and with it, the disproportionate impact it has on racial minorities (mostly blacks and Hispanics). For all the outrage that there has been since Floyd’s death, there has been almost no indication that it will snowball into making a better world, because conversation itself has broken down, and without conversation, this riddle is going to remain unsolvable.
As I write this, very liberal and enlightened people are having their careers grind to a halt because they are being outed as secretly conservative white supremacists (which they are not). There is this cult-like phenomenon of insisting that people immediately agree with a conclusion and that dissent can only be caused by virulent hatred. With so much opposition already from the Republican Party, I cannot imagine how Democratic voters will stitch together a winning campaign in 2020, much less in a series of consecutive elections so that any reforms they pass get to remain in place, lest we forget what happened to Obama’s one major feat of his Presidency.
This is not only true of people who dissent but of people who take time to pause and think. There are people who have not attended protests, who have expressed reluctance because they want more information, either about police brutality itself or about the ways in which they might pursue activism more effectively. These people are being castigated. They are being told, “White silence is violence.” Well, what if noise becomes deafening? Is that really any better? Ironically, the only thing that doesn’t seem to be violence anymore is violence itself.
Undoubtedly, there are some who will have read this far and see my post as an example of “white fragility.” They will see an enraged, white male who can’t handle criticism from people of color. I expect that I will even see comments to this effect. Such responses, as they may very well come, will be tragically clueless about the true essence of my post.
What frustrates me is my inability to help because of this pandemic of mutual distrust. Think of any healthy relationship between two people. These relationships are always based on trust and clear communication, but there is a fad on the political left now that insists we refuse to do that at all. People, such as myself, are told that we are incapable of understanding another’s experience but that we must also agree with an experience that we do not understand. Does anyone know of a single, successful political movement whose members could not share common understandings of human suffering? I don’t think it’s actually possible for any such movement to succeed, and yet we see people trying to fit that circle in that square peg.
Why do we fail to subject our political relationships to the same standards of healthiness that we do our personal ones? I don’t waste my time with friends or relatives who can’t engage in honest, co-equal relationships with me. This is not because I wish them ill or because I am fragile. I just realize that it is not possible for me to continue. I am unable to be a positive part of someone’s life who does not want to let me. Even if I am as privileged as they come, my capacity to help runs out when my aid is consistently refused.
Can the left have such healthy, rewarding relationships, when every white person is chided as your racist uncle on Facebook? That is whom the recycled arguments, almost always quoted verbatim, are meant to disarm. We all know that white America is more then just your racist uncle, and yet every white person is expected to be your racist uncle’s representative, whether they want to be or not.
This is not merely a matter of being rude. People are getting fired over this confusion, and in the context of income inequality and a recession caused by a major public health crisis, losing one’s job has existential concerns. If people are not getting fired, it is only through an elaborate act of preference falsification.
There is no future in which we prevent another death like Floyd’s, as long as this is the case. We live in a democracy. The ones who rule are the ones who vote together and people only vote together when they are on the same page, when they can review the facts together, honestly, and solve an identified problem. We are seeing what happens when people are denied that.
The real danger, though, is that most white people are not like me (because most people in general are not like me). They are not patient and slower to become angry. Many of them, after being told they are the racist uncle, will begin to believe that, and when that person votes, it will be a disaster. Thus, we can either refuse to learn anything useful or encourage vast swaths of society to work backward. We won’t move forward, at this rate.
For the record, I do think that racism is a persisting feature of American society. It’s inconceivable that five centuries of prejudice would disappear in about two generations. Having said that, we create negative incentives for the final end of that prejudice when we refuse to believe the people who have managed to overcome it. Just imagine the level of deterrence at work, when egalitarian behavior itself is the smoking gun of racism, as typically explained in a fourth-dimensional meta-meta-meta-analysis from some millennial scholar. I genuinely worry that, instead of saving people, we are going to continue our descent into bitter ethnocracy and all of the loss of life that entails.
This can all change. We can begin to discuss the nuances of why black and Hispanic America suffer in the criminal justice system at the rate that they do. How much of it is because of racism? How much would remain if we got rid of the racists? What would we do about disparities then? Only true, honest answers can give us the means to solve the problem.
We can raise standards for police, both in hiring and training. If defunding the police comes at the expense of this, then we will have a hard choice ahead of us.
Even better, we can federalize the police. So many things can be swept under the rug because what is a national issue of police brutality is a consequence of local administration. We advocate for reform like it is a federal issue. That won’t really mean anything until it’s actually federal. We federalized abolition. We federalized integration. To some extent, we have federalized the criminal justice system, through the Bill of Rights, Miranda warnings, and publicly offering legal counsel. Nevertheless, it is mainly a local phenomenon.
Maybe localization is the thing we need to abolish, rather than the police. After all, why should one’s rights as a citizen be dependent on the jurisdiction where they find themselves? Floyd might have died in Minneapolis, but he was born and raised in my state of North Carolina. People assume that their rights follow them wherever they go in this country. Maybe we need to make it that way. Maybe police forces should be offshoots of the FBI or run parallel to it. Maybe we should no longer have sheriffs, district attorneys, and magistrates who are the products of nearby folk wisdom. Maybe.
Has anyone else thought about this? I know I haven’t seen it discussed, and I suspect there are other systemic solutions to what are systemic problems of racism and police brutality that I haven’t heard. Solutions that I don’t get to hear are solutions that I don’t get to empower with my vote. So long as this is the case, racism and police brutality will be unsolvable riddles. Our police forces won’t get any better, and we’ll wonder why the next Floyd, Garner, or Castile was slain, why nothing happened after all this outcry.
It starts with a “maybe,” to entertain an idea. That is the pathway to solving a problem. It’s not by playing on the guilt of groveling white people. In fact, if you want any example of white fragility, it is in that crowd, the people who don’t test ideas, who seem to suffer their own issues of anxiety and self-esteem, and who crumble at the slightest bit of pressure. It’s good that they clearly do care about the issue, but the self-flagellation is neither useful nor insightful.
I want to be useful. Joe Parrish, aged 14, didn’t make the decision that he did because he wanted something for himself. He wanted to contribute, and the man he became would still like to do that. Given the state of the Democratic Party, and the internal divisions that now plague it, I wonder if this is possible. I look at the news about Floyd’s murder and the public reaction, and I wonder if we have an unsolvable riddle before us.