DIALOGUE AND DEMANDS
©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Current attention to the cancerous issues of racial profiling and police brutality is long overdue. Growing numbers of people who are white are finally beginning to openly question and challenge the wrong-headed mindset that law enforcement agents are above criticism when they abuse and slaughter people of color. Young people have moved beyond agitation to activism in communities across the United States. Perhaps these and other developments are signs that our society may be, finally, arousing from a hangover caused by decades of “law and order” and “tough on crime” rhetoric and policies that were, in many instances, merely a veneer for racism.
But the mindset responsible for racial profiling and brutalizing of people of color by law enforcement agents will not be easily overcome. At the root of that mindset is a belief based on concern—if not fear—on the part of many people of white privilege about losing control over people of color.
The hard fought victories over more than 250 years of slavery and another 100 years of racial segregation struck fear into the hearts of people who depended on white privilege and a false sense of self-worth based on white supremacy. During the 1960s it became clear that black people were no longer willing to put up with segregation. The nonviolent civil disobedience efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the organization led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (led by young black activists such as John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Diane Nash, and Robert Moses) presented an outright challenge to white supremacy and white privilege.
Those campaigns also showed black people openly challenging the immorality of white supremacy, racism, and the law enforcement system established and maintained to enforce it. Racial segregation and white opposition to black equality have always been enforced by threats and acts of violence against people of color. Dr. King and others of his era showed white supremacists that black people would no longer cower in fear when confronted by racism-inspired threats of violence whether the threats came from Ku Klux Klan members dressed in white sheets and hoods or from uniformed baton-wielding and armed police officers, state troopers, and National Guards soldiers.
Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and other political and law enforcement leaders responded to nonviolent efforts of civil rights activists by denouncing efforts to achieve social and political equality as threats to “law and order.” Civil rights activists and the people whose equality they advocated—black people and white people joined with them—were viewed as criminal suspects, not patriots. The police became the foot soldiers in a deliberate effort to intimidate black people.
“Law and order” rhetoric and tactics eventually morphed into “tough on crime” tactics. The targets of the “tough on crime” agenda were black people—descendants of Africans who were enslaved, raped, robbed, murdered, cheated, and denied education as part of a calculated effort of racial control. Again, police officers were the foot soldiers for the “tough on crime” counter-thrust to black activism.
This is a thumbnail summary of the long and disturbing history of racial profiling and police brutality. That history lies at the root of the wariness many black people exercise during even casual encounters with people in law enforcement. That history is almost never acknowledged, let alone admitted, by law enforcement and political leaders who urge people of color to “trust the police.”
Police and civic leaders who want honest dialogue with people of color must recognize and admit that black and brown people have valid claims against the law enforcement apparatus that enforces white supremacy and upholds white privilege. Those claims will not be talked away in “dialogue” sessions, community forums, or other “meet and greet” exercises.
Black and brown people are not responsible for racial profiling and police brutality. Police and civic leaders who urge people of color to take responsibility for being victimized by racial profiling and police brutality are trying to shift the blame for racial profiling and police brutality onto the black and brown victims of those evil practices rather than accepting responsibility for confronting and ending them. People of color have no reason to expect positive results from “dialogue” with law enforcement and other civic leaders about racial profiling and police brutality when those leaders are not honest enough to admit that racial profiling and police brutality are evils caused by a law enforcement culture infected by racist notions of white supremacy and dedicated to protecting white privilege.
The time is past for meetings about “dialogue.” People of color and others who understand the forces behind racial profiling and police brutality now demand that the law enforcement community change its culture, thinking, and behavior towards black and brown people. Instead of talking about how black and brown people should behave during police encounters, communities of color demand that police leaders command their personnel to treat black and brown people with respect and dignity, not consider them criminal suspects based on their ethnic identity.
Simply put, people of color demand that the police treat them the way the police treat people with white privilege. That isn’t something black and brown parents need to talk with their children about. It is a discipline police and civic leaders must instill in and demand from every police officer. Until police and civic leaders demonstrate they have the integrity and determination to end racial profiling and police brutality, they should expect the distrust that many people of color have concerning law enforcement to grow wider and deeper.
The message to police and civic leaders concerning the evils of racial profiling and police brutality and the growing resentment toward the police by many people in communities of color is simple. Stop blaming the victims of police misbehavior for not trusting you while you defend abusive and homicidal police officers. Stop pretending you don’t know who the vicious people are in your police agencies and can’t get rid of them. Stop asking people of color to take responsibility for fixing the system you operate.
If police and civic leaders want to heal the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color those leaders should look in the mirror—to borrow from Michael Jackson—not across the table at victims of racial profiling and police brutality. You created and run this mess. Fix it.