The death of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice and so many other unarmed black males at the hands of the police over the past year has sparked national conversation about racism in law enforcement. Many commentators justifiably question whether, despite a burgeoning black middle class and an African American president, the U.S. has made significant racial progress since the civil rights era.
Police practices certainly deserve closer scrutiny. In addition, we need to look at these practices more broadly than we often do. The police, after all, are public servants. They're paid by our tax dollars and their work reflects what we ask of them. If we're unhappy with the job they're doing, we ought to take a hard look in the mirror.
When I teach my sociology students about this topic, I begin by asking them to jot down whatever comes to mind when they think of crime. Most often, they mention violence committed by low-income men of color. This is unsurprising given what they typically see -- on crime shows, TV news and at the movies. Their racialized views about crime are in line with broader public sentiments, according to a 2014 report by the Sentencing Project.
And these attitudes, in turn, shape expectations of law enforcement. While we publicly condemn racial profiling, we've given the police a racially coded mandate to "get tough on crime." As Michael Javen Fortner writes in his new book Black Silent Majority, this mandate has historically been especially vocal from the very African-American communities most prone to this profiling.
Most of us want the police to keep our streets safe and to treat all people equally. But, as long as racial images pervade public attitudes about crime, we can't have our cake and eat it too. Brutal killings of unarmed black men rightfully offend our sensibilities. Yet, these killings will continue as long as they remain the byproduct of police practices that have widespread public assent.