My husband and I both work in public service in different capacities. My career is in the nonprofit sector; his is in law enforcement. We both work in Detroit. A few years ago, I represented my then-organization at a "Communities in Action Annual Convening" held by the Kellogg Foundation. The summit included several breakout sessions with groups strategically assembled to promote productive dialogue. A response to a focus question in my group prompted me to ask, "But isn't the assignment of values to an entire set of people, by sole virtue of common physical traits, the definition of racism?" The man responded, "Not MY definition of racism." I've considered the concept of race relations completely differently ever since. Now that I am married to a police officer, that experience has been further inlaid.
My husband and I have had hours-long discussions about the events surrounding Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, and others both contemporary and historic. We've talked at length about all that can go wrong on facially benign runs, the compulsory paranoia instilled in police during their training, arm-chair quarterbacking and the distressing lack of transparency in the grand jury process. I have (probably unfairly) asked him to defend the most well-intentioned scenarios he could dream up, to give even a shred of "two sides" to what I was seeing. My husband is a good man and a good officer. He is also an obviously white cop in a predominantly black neighborhood, so I have evident concerns for his well-being and safety. This is a climate where widespread outrage is focused on police officers as state actors, with specific attention on those who have the appearance of being white; I do worry that his features could lead to unfair (and unfounded) assumptions. This is not, however, a plea for white guys or a defense of the police institution. I just don't believe we're looking at the problem broadly enough.
The current conversations on "fixing" various systems only go so far to acknowledge the depth of the challenge. Because the most recent events are both mired in tragedy and involve state agency implements versus black members of our society, it is easiest to insist that policing itself is the rotten root; or to ferret out flaws in the men and boys who were killed. There are those who would vehemently insist that the results of these incidences are specific to their principals, and while that could be partially true, it doesn't address a distinctly probable cause originating in our American social tapestry: we are traditionally taught to fear each other, whether we say it out loud or not. We continue to pass down some deeply race-based beliefs by reaction alone. Maybe a mother does not tell her children that black men are dangerous, but her children subconsciously learn if she stiffens and quiets in the sudden presence of a black man. That same mother may even make a conscious point to impart inclusive life lessons regarding human equality, but physical cues are powerful: her children will absorb her fear responses. Their children will learn as well, just as the children of those taught that they must necessarily fear the police will have the same reactions. I felt this from my own parents growing up, and I know this to be true of many others from hushed conversations in the shadows of years. Stigma avoidance is an effective muffler.
Attempts at solutions to racial issues have largely centered on access and integration, with hope that granted passage will imply value and lead to changes in perception on both sides. But addressing the issue of fear is not the same as recognizing worth in differing subsets (nor is it the same as addressing hate). Certainly there have been some exceptional efforts in rift-bridging through education and celebrations of cultures; the recognition of tradition and beauty is important. But appreciation and fear are not mutually exclusive; volcanoes and lightning storms are brilliant but also signal danger and the necessity of distance. How do we teach people that their wary gaze is not fixed upon lightning storms at all, but something much more approachable in nature? There has to be a comprehension that bright lights don't equal tempests, and it must go beyond simply declaring that we understand. Our bodies betray us as humans, and in the deepest moments of fight or flight they can prove fatal on a false assumption. This is true of both private citizens and those who have taken the oath to enforce the law; Constance Rice spoke eloquently on this with NPR's "Code Switch."
Until we can discuss how to deconstruct a prejudicial fear trigger, there is no chance to approach complete objectivity. Certainly the fact that police officers are sanctioned to exercise elevated power necessitates a deep look at how they are taught to wield it. But what if their brains/bodies are initiating protocols in response to generationally-programmed threats, provoked by set of physical traits, logically unrelated to a person's proclivity to do violence? That rightfully delegitimizes the "fear for your life" standard. If a person is trained in force techniques to be used at his or her judgment, then functional discretion must also be taught. Here's something I learned during the last several weeks: a large amount of available police training is optional, not mandatory. A lot of training is also considered complete by sending communiques and assuming they are read and understood by officers. So when departments say they are "training" officers in diffusion tactics, application of judgment, and/or community relations, I think it is important to ask those departments what "training" really means, and how that should change in the light of modern day. But to the heart of the heart, the root of the root: it is to what (and how) we are conditioned to respond, long before we choose our careers, that most deeply impacts our ability to access any sort of training in moments of panic. Not all future officers are going to be the sons and daughters of current officers; diluting potential latent fears within the ranks of officers is important, but so too must they be addressed in our homes: ALL of our homes. Many triggers are buried deep in the unwillingness to regard their existence, only to surface in moments of limbic hijack.
I do not mean to suggest that all white persons are afraid of black persons or vice versa, or that all black persons are afraid of the police, or that all cops have good intentions and are merely unaware of their own latent prejudices. The answer is not as simple as a blanket statement and cannot be all inclusive any more than motive for choosing a job. I do believe, however, that this is a substantial and neglected piece of a puzzle that would impact communities -- and their police departments -- in a profound way, if treated as relevant and worthy of conversation. Much of this is hearsay, that's true; but so is most of what has shaped societies for generations. And in Detroit, hearsay is admissible in grand jury proceedings.