The past two weeks have ripped at the heart of America.
We have had to witness senseless killings and we’ve had to witness far too many of them.
The nation witnessed with outrage and grief the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, their names added to a list that is already disproportionately heavy with those of black people killed by police. These were not just any killings, not that there is any such thing as just any killing, but these killings were done by those sworn to protect us from harm. These killings were done by those who have the power of the state behind them. These killings suggested to us that some lives, indeed, black lives, do not matter.
The nation witnessed with grief and shock the lives of police taken by different gunmen in Dallas and Baton Rouge, as we added the names of Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, and now, from Baton Rouge, Montrell Jackson, Brad Garafola, and Matthew Gerald to the list of those killed in the line of duty. The killings of police officers were not just ordinary killings, not that any killing is ordinary. These were killings of people who have sworn to protect us. These were killings of people who put themselves in harm’s way. These were killings that remind us the police have dangerous jobs. When the people who are empowered to make us safe do not feel safe themselves, what does that say about all of our safety?
We have also had to face again the reality of hate crimes. If all killing is abnormal, then a hate crime is itself a special type of killing because hate crimes are perpetrated against someone specifically because of their group membership.
We are not talking about addressing personal bigotry. Yes, there are some people who kill blacks not just out of fear, but out of racial hatred, but they are a small minority and should be dealt with. Yes, there are some blacks who are indeed dangerous and would take the lives of others who they believe stand in their way, but they are a small minority, and all communities need protection from them too.
But most bigotry is not personal, it's institutional. Institutional racism is not only expressed in the taking of black and brown lives, it is happening in every quarter of our country. It happens in the drinking water of Flint, it happens at the voting booth in Florida. It happens as we accept the destruction of public schools in Kansas City and Minneapolis. It happens in the way we give credit at the banks, it happens in the way we pick the themes of our movies. It happens as a large number of people refuse to accept that Obama can be a real American. It happens as we create a war on drugs as an excuse to incarcerate large segments of the black and brown community. It happens in New York City as stop-and-frisk policies are carried out on thousands of black bodies.
Is is happening everywhere we look.
As a number of studies have shown, many Americans live in fear of black Americans not because of the actions of blacks, but from a deeper unconscious place, resulting in the false belief that “dangerous blacks” are part of our national story, going back to the days of slavery in this country. And there is a pattern that for black people, no matter how young or how innocent, that gaze of fear can disrupt or even end their life.
There is a lack of symmetry between the police and the communities they are charged to protect. Yes, like all of us, the police are human and want to go home safely at the end of the day. Also like all of us, the police are likely to carry unconscious racial biases. Unlike all of us, however, the police have been given the power of the state to stop people, to question them, and then far too often have inflicted violence on people from black, brown, and poor communities with little or no accountability by the system. When the law extends the protection of the police to discharge their guns because they are in fear, there is a problem. Even as we recognize that the police may truly be afraid, that cannot ever be an excuse to take innocent life.
Can we learn from these tragedies? I believe we can and we must. In order to make sense of these events, we must hold several things in our minds and hearts at once. Here are some of them.
Things have gotten better: we have people of color in positions of power and authority. Things have gotten worse: we have a criminal justice system that is much more destructive of black lives today than in the 60s and 70s. Things have gotten better: we are much more likely to have people of color and women on the police force than a generation ago. Things have gotten worse: we have a police system that is fearful, militarized, and largely unaccountable to the black communities they have sworn to serve. One could continue with this comparison through the lens of our schools, boardrooms, cultural spaces, and neighborhoods.
Learning from these tragedies requires us seeing how some lives, yes black lives, do not matter now. It requires recognizing that the lives of police matter, but that we are not all similarly situated. It requires recognizing that there are in fact dangers that we must confront, but we are safer when we confront them together. It requires us to pay closer attention to what our structures and institutions are doing to either shorten and devalue life or to enhance and promote life. It requires challenging those who, through their words or their practices and policies, deny that some lives matter. Even while challenging them, we must also hold on to their humanity in order to fully claim our own.
We must engage and hold on to the humanity of black people. We must engage and hold onto the humanity of police. It is not enough to support the police and ignore black lives being killed with regularity by the state. It is not enough to only care about black lives and ignore that most police take their role to protect seriously and that it is a dangerous job. And it is very problematic to insist that because people of all stripes are protesting in our democracy— in our country that was born of protest—that the protesters are un-American.
Can we tell a different story? I believe we can and we must. It starts by recognizing there is not just one story. There are many stories and they all touch on part of the truth. When we learn to hear each others' stories and build a more inclusive story, we will make progress. Our country is in flux and it’s also increasingly polarized. But when we insist on giving into polarization, there is little room for hope.
We must reach for a new story. This story requires a new language that is not binary. A language that can hold respect for the police while challenging structures that do not serve us well. This requires dropping the impossible demand that blacks must first prove that their lives matter. This requires being willing to ask more of the black community, but not the impossible.This requires asking more of the white community, but not the impossible. This requires recognizing that the black, white, brown, Asian, Native American, and mixed race communities are all our America. This requires that we be willing to do things differently, whether it’s in how we fund and populate our schools and police departments to how we approach guns and violence in our society.
Most importantly this new story requires that we recognize that we are all a part of each other and that we make all our practices reflect this. This new story requires more than words. It requires actions. It requires reaching inside ourselves and out across the gulf that threatens to divide us. This new story requires that we lean away from hate and into love. We will make mistakes and there will be setbacks, but we can collectively give birth to a new story and a new way of being.
Some will insist that things have improved. And they have. Some will insist that things have gotten worse and they have. The question we must ask is: How do things get better? And equally important: What is our role in creating a new story to ensure things will?
- john a. powell
Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley