Prejudice or Racism? And the Difference Between

Did the furor die down about the police shooting on Skid Row in Los Angeles or did I just stop watching the news?  Or did a more recent death in Madison, Wisconsin steal the spotlight in the current news cycle?

Another young black man was killed by police Friday night, and people were interviewed to say how impossible it was that unarmed Tony Robinson could have done anything bad enough to get shot.  And again the press on the scene didn’t ask these character witnesses about Robinson’s confession and conviction for a home invasion armed robbery, nor about the multiple calls to 911 reporting him running in front of traffic and hitting passersby before he  attacked a responding officer. (Future columns will return to the falsehood that only armed persons can be lawfully shot by police.)

A protest group called Young, Gifted and Black has called on the police in Madison to cease patrol in the black community. Again, no media questioning of how this departure from safety, law and logic will work but the local police chief has already renounced this unreasonable request.   Cops need to be in the black community, as in any neighborhood, among both the lawbreakers and the good, kind and lawful majority of residents there.

These “killing of an unarmed black man” stories are easy for the national press to present, requiring little effort at the shallow depth of current coverage.  Video shows shouting protesters, crying family, skirmish lines with angry crowds on one side and beefy cops on the other.  No need to prove or document anything – someone on camera however distant or disassociated with the events at hand attacking the police with accusations of racism, terror or murder is enough to guarantee about two minutes of newshole filled at the beginning of the broadcast.

If it pleads, it leads.

A novelist I know wrote about relations between patrol officers and the black community, and why it appears that inordinate police attention is paid to blacks instead of whites. Here, from the book, is a conversation between a Field Training Officer (FTO), a senior cop, and his trainee, a recruit fresh out of the Police Academy, as they drive around discussing the requirements of a patrol officer’s job and the routine and constant demands on his or her attention.  They’re rolling now as the FTO speaks:

“How about the pedestrians you passed. Look at them?  Recognize them?  Do they belong here?  How can you tell?  We have blacks, whites, browns, yellows, everybody is here.  And everybody walks here, so a few black kids in a white neighborhood, while rare, doesn’t mean what you might think it means.  They could be just passing through.  Or they could be looking in cars for stuff to steal, so maybe you should go around the block and give them another look.  White guys in a black neighborhood?  More  rare. Are they buying drugs?”

          The Recruit snapped him a look.  “So all black neighborhoods have drugs? They the only ones with drugs?”

          “The only ones where drugs are sold openly on the street.  Sure, there’s powder cocaine in the bars, and probably in lots of the nice houses we drive past.  But we can’t see it.  We can see the dealers on the corners.  And there’s more of them in the projects, ‘cause that’s where they’ve always been so the buyers know to go there to buy.” 

          The FTO slowed, choosing his words more carefully here.  “Drugs like crack and PCP are more popular among the poor than the rich. Not that the rich don’t do drugs, just not street drugs.  Poor people are likely to be in project housing.  So drugs are likely to be in project housing.   And in this town, poor people are more likely to be black. Does that mean that black people are always gonna be poor, or drug dealers?  No.  But there is more crime in high-density, poor neighborhoods.  And in this city, that means black neighborhoods, ARHA neighborhoods.  The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority owns and runs project housing in three of the six major drug areas in town.  ARHA does what they can, even hires cops themselves to run patrols on detail.  But fill an area with poor people, drugs appear.  Go to the southwest, poor areas might be Hispanic.   Maybe the projects in Quebec are full of poor jobless French folks.  We’re getting a growing Hispanic population now.  They’re poor.  Hard to get good jobs when you don’t speak English, harder still when you might be illegal.  Still hard for blacks to get jobs, because of racism, lower educational offerings.”

          “Isn’t what you’re saying racism?” the Recruit asked.  “You’re saying black people are poor and drug dealers.”

          “No, not what I said.  Listen close.  We find drugs, street drug use and sales, in areas with poorer populations, and in areas where drugs have traditionally been sold for years.  Here in Alexandria, those areas are highly black.  And those are the areas we patrol, mostly.  You’re not gonna spend much time in Beverley Hills or the south side of Old Town, just driving through.  Nobody’s on the street, nobody’s speeding or running lights, nobody’s walking around to rob or get robbed. No, you’re gonna come down to the projects or the edges of them, where the people are.   So, it’s not racism to patrol black areas. It’s prejudice. You pre-judge.  In your judgement, you know you will do more good patrolling where people are, and where crime is, than where it’s not. That’s logic.  And it better be what you learn now.

          “Now, here’s where it looks like racism.” The FTO was spun up now, developing and explaining a defense of what was often cited as unfair police practices.  “We make dozens of marijuana arrests every month in Alexandria.  You figure, you’re a smart kid, figure blacks and whites smoke pot the same.  Reasonable?  Sure.  But we arrest five or six black people for every white person with pot.  That’s racist, right?  Sure has a racist effect.  But we don’t go looking for black people instead of white people.  They come to us.  They’re standing around where we can see them, and they get busted.  Sucks, but that’s how it is.  Tell me how we get around it?”

          “What if we patrolled high-visibility, lots of marked cars and uniforms, made it clear we’re out here so they’d go away so we wouldn’t have to arrest them,” the Recruit offered, his voice dropping at the end as he realized how weak that sounded..

          “Two things. We’ve tried that, but two things. One, they don’t stop doing stupid stuff, they just go around the block where we aren’t and do it there. And two, is it right not to enforce a law just because somebody might say it’s not fair?

          “It’s not racist, but it looks racist and feels racist, so they think we’re racist. And here’s where it can get really bad.  Sometimes we are racist, or we get that way. Spend your career arresting mostly black people, you can start to think, it’s ‘cause they’re black.  You gotta fight that.”

          The FTO tried to spin back down. Race relations was a touchy subject for most police. There were no simple answers to why more blacks than whites were arrested, were incarcerated. And the things that might affect this imbalance – jobs, education, bigotry – were outside the reach of a patrol officer’s arms.  Back to the job he could reach: training this kid to patrol safety and fairly.

          “So, you drive by and see a white pedestrian or a black pedestrian. Male or female.  You’ll make a judgement about whether they need your attention.  Ok, maybe a prejudgement, but still, you gotta decide do I stop and talk with him, check him out? Yes or no. Drive right by or get out.  If yes you’re gonna stop him, do you need backup?  Does he look like he might be armed, or have a knife, or just be big enough to knock you out and take your gun?  If he takes your gun, he’s not just gonna keep it or sell it.  Guy takes a cop’s gun, he’s gonna shoot him.  So if a guy’s about to beat you up, can you shoot him? Ever think about it?  You better.  You should be thinking all the time about what happens if.  If…whatever. And have a plan for it.  And by the way, the answer is yes. If a guy’s gonna beat you up, you can shoot him.  You are authorized to use deadly force in defense of your own life or the lives of others. 

          “But you’re also still following that car. Is it speeding?  What’s your speed now?”

(From Apprehension, copyright 2015 by JohnMarkBergin Enterprises Inc. Used by permission of the author.  Me, in case you haven’t guessed.)

One unusual note in this tragedy. The family of Tony Robinson is insisting that he be considered biracial.  Unsure how that figures into the national narrative. I bet it is ignored.


3 thoughts on “Prejudice or Racism? And the Difference Between

  1. You did a very good job of making the reader feel as if they were in that patrol vehicle listening to the training. You do a great job of understanding and then explaining this work. Keep it up, thanks Phil


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