This was my testimony on Wednesday night September 28th, at the East Side neighborhood meeting on the Community Safety Act (CSA) here in Providence. The East Side is a predominantly white part of the city, and the goal was to convey to our elected officials that people here care deeply about having an accountable police force and criminal justice system that both reflects and respects all the people who live within it.
In thousands of households around the country
tonight, there are young black men receiving “The Talk” from someone who loves
them. It is happening in Charlotte. It is happening in Tulsa. It is happening in Providence. It is happening in wealthy families, poor
families, middle class families. It is
happening in the homes of black policemen.
It has happened, generation over generation, throughout the entire
history of this country. Attorney
General Eric Holder, who is black, got the talk from his father when he was
young – and he recently gave it to his own son.
Eric Holder, who was until recently the highest-ranking law enforcement
official in the United States.
Does everyone know what I mean by ‘the Talk’? I am white.
My 10 year old son lives here on the East Side with us. I doubt it ever occurred to my father to give
me The Talk. The fact that I know some
of my son’s school friends have already received it, and that he will never
have to, horrifies me. This conveys a
message to our children, about who we are – and who they are. It is not a message that is consistent with
any of our faith traditions, or the best of our national ones. It tells us, in the words of black writer Ta
Nehisi-Coates, that “something went very wrong, long ago…something we are
scared to see straight. That something
has very little to do with the officer on the beat and everything to do with
Our society has tolerated the conditions
which have necessitated The Talk -- even encouraged them – for centuries. In modern societies the state, at all levels,
has a monopoly on violence. In American history, that monopoly has
consistently been used to contain black people, and to protect white people and
their property. It was true under slavery, when access to arms by white
individuals and white militias was 'needed' to deter and suppress slave
rebellions, and to chase down fugitive slaves. It was true out West in
the 19th century, when the state used its military power (and granted white
citizens related power) to displace and destroy native economies and peoples.
It was true in the Jim Crow South, where the primary role of police
forces (and of the 2nd amendment) was first and foremost to reinforce the
racial order. And as blacks moved to Northern cities by the millions
1910-1970, the job of all-white urban police forces in black neighborhoods was
to maintain racial boundaries in housing and public spaces; they were generally
absent when needed, and abusive when present. Virtually every Northern
black protest movement of the 1960s -- and virtually every riot -- began with a
focus on police brutality.
Whether conscious or not (and for most of our
history, it was very much conscious), this has been the clear will of white
Americans for most of our history. The injustice of this, Coates
tells us, “compounds, congeals until there is an almost tangible sense of dread
and grievance that compels a community to understand the police as objects of
fear, not respect.” When Officer Timothy
Loehmann got away with murdering a 12-year-old Tamir Rice, white Americans may
have believed it was aberrational, however awful – but it was consistent with
generations of black experience.
The problem, ultimately, is a deep one.
When police officers encounter citizens of
color, they do so in a situation that white Americans have spent decades
constructing and defending. Too many
whites hide (literally as well as morally) from the consequences of their
complicity behind housing segregation, and explain away what they can’t ignore
with platitudes about black criminality and white innocence.
Our 'policing problem' is really a societal
problem. A policy problem. A white problem. Cops don't make policy. Citizens do.
You can't ask people to do the dirty work of white privilege, and then
blame them for being dirty.
Just last week, the head of the
Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division – the entity tasked with
investigating the police departments in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities –
told a legal symposium that “Unconstitutional policing undermines community
trust.” “Blanket assumptions and
stereotypes about certain neighborhoods and certain communities can lead
residents to see the justice system as illegitimate and authorities as
corrupt. Those perceptions can drive
resentment. And resentment can prevent
the type of effective policing needed to keep communities and officers safe.”
In many black and Latino
communities today, police derive their power solely from the force they
deploy. This is dangerous to those being
policed, but it is ultimately dangerous to do those doing the policing
too. A liberal democracy, a society
based on the rule of law, will not long survive if all the law represents is
If the police are seen as having no
legitimacy in certain communities -- as having a license to exercise power that
is arbitrary, capricious, and unaccountable -- they will be increasingly seen
as an occupying force, and mistrust and resistance to them will be seen as
legitimate. Endangered and ineffective, police will focus more and more
on force protection, and will have implicit and explicit biases confirmed,
further delegitimizing their authority. Whites, fearful that the
'criminality' in black communities will threaten them, will enact policies that
make the situation worse. This is not
where we are in Providence. Not yet.
White Americans have never lived under those
conditions, not in the past, and not now. That is why white Americans of
good will have to learn their history, they have to listen as empathetically as
they can, and they have to act.
The CSA is an important and powerful step in
the right direction for Providence, and I fully support it.
No competent professional should fear a
system of accountability, as long as there is adequate training and due
process, and the system of accountability is evidence-based. In fact,
they should welcome it. It buttresses and legitimates their authority,
and it ensures that they are surrounded by other professionals who know what
they're doing, enabling them to be more safe and effective.
Let us create a Providence in which the
generations to come never need to give or receive The Talk, and in which police
officers of all backgrounds can do the people’s will safely, effectively, and