Another week, another unarmed black man killed in the street by a police officer for seemingly no reason (though we all know the reason). This comes on the heels of a black woman getting murdered in her home by police, which comes on the heels of a black man gunned down while jogging, which comes on the heels of decades upon decades of white supremacy and police brutality terrorizing black and brown people in this country.
The reaction of many white people and police to these injustices continues to be “Not me.”
Counterpoint: Yes, you.
When the Catholic church’s child abuse scandals were brought to light, we didn’t defend them by saying, “well, not ALL priests.” We understood that not every single priest — in fact the overwhelming majority of them — were not child molesters. But, we recognized that this was a problem endemic, if not exclusive, to the priesthood. There were conditions within the Catholic church that allowed the abuse to flourish, and we called upon the church to fix the problem.
And so it is with the police and white Americans. No, not every cop is a racist killer. No, not every white person is an overt bigot. But, like the Catholic church with child abuse, there are agents within these communities that act as catalysts for racial oppression. For white people, an incomplete education on race, a blind eye toward the perspectives of people of color, a racial caste system from which we benefit, and deeply ingrained socialized perceptions about black people, many of which are intended results of criminal justice and economic systems that target communities of color, drive the problem. Combine those with the authority of a badge, high-stress interactions, and the punitive cover of the “thin blue line,” and it is clear how even small racist underpinnings become exacerbated in a police uniform.
This is not a call for self-flagellation, white or cop guilt. Of course not every white person or cop is personally responsible for every individual instance of racism or police brutality. But every white person and cop is accountable for recognizing the parts of the perpetrators that exist within themselves; change at the institutional level begins with introspection at the personal level. It is not mere coincidence that unarmed black citizens from New York to California and everywhere in between have been killed by white people, by cops. Nor is it some fluke that police brutality is one of the leading causes of death of black men in the United States. It is a defect in the system (or as those who designed the system would say, a feature). So who needs to change the system? The people who run it. Recently I spoke to an NYPD officer who didn’t know basic facts about police brutality against the black community, who argued that because some white people also experience it, a racial disparity must not exist. She is not the only cop who thinks this way. Even after years of national attention on the subject, many police officers haven’t put in the minimal work toward their own professional development on an issue so prevalent in their job.
When calls for accountability and intervention by white people and police are met with “Not all white people!” and “Not all cops!” what black people are really hearing is “Not my problem!” If we don’t reflect on our own biases, hold each other accountable, advocate for and intercede on behalf of black and brown Americans, then we are barely better than those who commit the actual crimes.
Amy Cooper probably never thought she’d be the subject of a racist Karen video. But when put under even a little stress, she weaponized her race against Christian Cooper because she knew she could. Derek Chavin must have seen countless videos of cops killing black people, and the national outcry that followed. Yet something within him still justified suffocating George Floyd to death even as he pleaded for breath. These are not isolated cases because there is a little Amy Cooper and Derek Chauvin in all white people, all cops, the natural result of learned, societal racism. Without the work of acknowledging and suppressing them, who knows what will cause them to come out. As these videos keep showing us, even a little unconscious racism, when put under pressure, can lead to terrifying outcomes for people of color. We need to recognize biases big and small within ourselves and our racial and professional peers so we don’t continue to perpetuate race-based violence and outright murder.
So YES, all white people and all cops. You, personally, may not be guilty of the racist [killing, threat, comment, interaction] this time. But what steps are you taking to ensure you’re not adding to black trauma the next time?