Police Violence Is An American Problem More Than A Policing Problem

Racism is a problem that infects all of American society.
Demonstrators with Black Lives Matter march past a Metropolitan police officer blocking traffic during a protest in Washingto
Demonstrators with Black Lives Matter march past a Metropolitan police officer blocking traffic during a protest in Washington, U.S., July 9, 2016.

On July 7, 2016, 5 police officers were murdered in Dallas by snipers. The actions of the snipers were unconscionable and, it is important that we, as a society, mourn the loss of these police officers and that we keep their family members in our thoughts.

The senselessness of the tragedy in Dallas does not, however, detract from what Black Lives Matter was protesting. Far too many African Americans, like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, are killed by police officers in situations that do not call for such action.

It is important that we as a society take action to reduce the number of African American deaths that occur in encounters with police. Many of the proposals, such as better training for police, the elimination of military style weapons, and increased legal accountability for police officers who use excessive force, are worthy measures to fight for. However, these proposals, and many others, are based on the premise that police violence is caused primarily by problems with police officers and within police departments. This ignores the fact that police violence is an outgrowth of a much larger and more universal problem. Racism is not unique to individuals in the police force. Racism is an American problem, particularly a White American problem.

Racism is not unique to individuals in the police force. Racism is an American problem, particularly a White American problem.

A key tenet of America is that everyone has an equal opportunity to get ahead. This tenet, however, is a dangerous myth. Ever since this country’s founding, America has been set up to systematically exclude African Americans for the benefit of White Americans. Slavery, Jim Crow, the exclusion of African Americans from the New Deal, and Redlining are just some of the policies that have allowed White Americans to accrue advantages generation after generation at the expense of African Americans.

The equal opportunity ethos combined with policies that have systematically excluded African Americans have resulted in a situation in which White Americans have little contact with African Americans, little understanding of the unique challenges that face African Americans, and little empathy for, and understanding of, the conditions that have created some of the social problems, such as high levels of violence, that exist in some African American communities.

Given the reality that African Americans have always been viewed as “other” throughout American history, is it really surprising that police officers are more likely to fear and kill African Americans than White Americans? Since racism is a problem that infects all of American society, do we really think that police violence can substantially change if we focus our efforts solely on making reforms to policing, rather than on reforming society more broadly?

If we are to reduce police violence, White America as a whole must confront its ugly legacy with race head on. White America must be humble. We must acknowledge that we do not live in a society where there is equal opportunity for African Americans. We must acknowledge that we have no idea how hard it is to be African American in America, but make it clear that we want to understand better. 

As White Americans, we are responsible for the conditions that have produced police violence...

We need to fight for policies that will reduce racial disparities. We need to support African American progress as American progress instead of responding to it by declaring that we want to “take our country back.” And we must teach our children about America’s pernicious legacy with racism that continues to this day.

Until White Americans acknowledge these truths, take action to reduce racial inequality, and commit to doing no more harm, we will continue to live in a country where far too many African Americans are killed by police, regardless of whether we enact policies that are designed explicitly to reform police departments. As White Americans, we are responsible for the conditions that have produced police violence and, therefore, must take appropriate steps to remedy the situation. 

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