Two years ago, on February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot dead on his way home from a local convenience store by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. Following Zimmerman’s acquittal last summer, the national race narrative was dominated in part by a conversation that black parents feel compelled to have with their sons—in which they remind their boys to defer to and be polite with police, walk with their hands outside of their pockets, and keep their hoods down. Calling for a national conversation on race, President Obama fanned the flames: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” White Americans were polarized; some sympathized, while others’ knee-jerk response was to push back against the resurfacing claim that racism still profoundly affects American life.
Though George Zimmerman was only a neighborhood watch volunteer, his actions resurrected a common sentiment that law enforcement officers are racist. This widely held belief, reinforced by highly publicized news stories on police abuse and by anti-police music, blinds many to the societal racism in which the police and all other Americans operate. In reality, the police are no more prejudiced than anyone else. Yet by directing the public’s attention toward accusations of police racism, the media diverts attention from the racial biases of society as a whole.
“It Ain’t No Secret…”
The media and popular culture have written one storyline to describe the police, focusing on inflammatory stories of police racism, while often neglecting significant details. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) has been at the center of the media firestorm for the past fifteen years. The criticism it has faced is representative of the larger public perception problem faced by police across the United States.
This problem is often fueled by highly inflammatory individual incidents suggesting police racism. For example, 13 years before the shooting of Trayvon Martin, headlines across the United States were dominated by the story of another innocent black man who had been shot dead. His name was Amadou Diallo. A 22-year-old immigrant from Guinea, Diallo lived in the Soundview section of the Bronx on Wheeler Ave.—one of the most crime-ridden areas of New York City. Shortly after midnight on February 4, 1999, four NYPD officers approached Diallo because they thought he looked suspicious. When he reached into his pocket, the officers mistook his wallet for a gun and shot Diallo 41 times.
However, many people do not know the details of the Diallo shooting. While these details certainly do not make the shooting any less tragic, they do call into question the media’s portrayal of the events. Retired NYPD officer Hector Berdecia said in an interview with the HPR that “a lot of the facts that came up later during the trial and the grand jury hearings were never put out in the media, ever, and the media has a big role in how the community sees cops.”
…Or Is It?
When the four police officers on Wheeler Ave. saw Diallo standing on his stoop, they thought that he resembled a wanted serial criminal. Approaching Diallo, they identified themselves as police and told Diallo to stand still. When Diallo disobeyed, instead moving in the other direction and reaching into his pocket, one officer thought that he saw a gun. He alerted his fellow officers, and together, the four fired 41 shots at Diallo.
News outlets suggested that the number of shots fired indicated deep-seated racism on the part of the police. Yet, as one former FBI special agent, who wished to remain anonymous due to FBI rules, told the HPR, law enforcement officers are trained to stop shooting “only when the threat is no longer a threat.” Though the amount of time it would take four officers to fire 41 shots would vary depending on the weapons used, the agent wagered that the shooting would have been over in a matter of seconds. Arguably, it could have taken this long for the officers to process that the threat was over. Conveniently, the media largely neglected to report these facts. While the police may be depicted as racist in the media and in popular culture, their actions are often driven not by personal hatred but by procedural guidelines and the brain’s inability to function clearly in stressful and potentially dangerous situations.
Still, though police training protocols may explain the number of shots fired, no one knows whether the color of Diallo’s skin influenced the officers’ belief that he was a threat. The decision to shoot needed to be made quickly. As retired Harvard police officer George Downing told the HPR, “You don’t realize when you get that call or you get out of that cruiser, you have a split second to make that decision.” Given the nature of the job, when police officers face potentially dangerous situations, they must rely on judgments made in the blink of an eye. Such rapid decisions are especially likely to be based upon unconscious biases and instincts.
However, even if the officers were motivated by some degree of racial prejudice, their bias would not be unique. The average white American possesses some level of anti-black prejudice. According to a study involving implicit attitude tests, white Americans of all age groups, even the youngest, demonstrate a striking unconscious pro-white, anti-black prejudice even when purporting to view both races as equal. An implicit attitude test reveals unconscious attitudes and stereotypes towards different groups by measuring respondents’ associations of one group of things with another—for example, their associations of black people with good or bad things, as opposed to white people with good or bad things.
Stories alleging police racism blind Americans to the truth that the police are not the only ones still struggling to get past deeply ingrained racial prejudices. Len Levitt, a journalist and writer who has followed the NYPD closely for more than 15 years, commented to the HPR, “I don’t think their [the police officers’] stereotypes are much different from everyone else’s.” In other words, the police are just like the rest of Americans—embroiled in a past fraught with racial tension.
This deeply ingrained and often unobservable prejudice likely comes into play when police pull the trigger on racial minorities like Diallo. Of course, the controversy stirred by stories of individual incidents is compounded by more institutionalized policies, such as “Stop and Frisk,” which appear less justifiable because they are not the product of split-second judgments. Because blacks and Latinos are most likely to be stopped and frisked, and because 90 percent of those stopped and frisked are found to be innocent, many charge that racism motivates police in deciding whom to stop or frisk.
However, it is at least possible that police officers are more likely to stop and frisk minorities because minorities are more likely than whites to live in high-crime neighborhoods. As Berdecia said, “The bottom line is this: you’ve got to go where the crime’s happening … and unfortunately violence is in poor neighborhoods.” Levitt added that the disproportionate targeting of minorities by police has “less to do with race than with poverty.” What appears to be targeting of minorities by police reflects instead the fact that minorities often live in poor, crime-ridden areas—the product of America’s failure to eradicate the racism with which it has wrestled for centuries.
Yet the police continue to receive the bulk of the blame, from both the media and popular culture. In a blatant allusion to the Diallo shooting, Bruce Springsteen released the song “American Skin (41 Shots),” in which he declares, “It ain’t no secret/No secret my friend/You can get killed just for living in your American skin.” Following George Zimmerman’s acquittal of charges of both second-degree murder and manslaughter, Springsteen performed the song in dedication to Trayvon Martin—insinuating, regardless of his intentions, that incidents like the shootings of Diallo and Martin stem from the racial biases of law enforcement officers.
Like Springsteen, other popular artists have capitalized on this wave of anger mistakenly directed at police. Artists like Jay-Z portray the police as bigots who pull people over because of the color of their skin, while others like Michael Jackson claim that the police “don’t really care about” them. Unfortunately, this storyline of police racism taints many Americans’ view of the police, even though the police are no more racist than the rest of the country.
The media and popular culture may appear to be serving a valuable role as watchdogs protecting minorities. However, by intensely criticizing the police, as though law enforcement officers are unique in their degree of racial prejudice, they actually prevent average Americans from recognizing their own racial biases. It is time that Americans stop being part of the problem and start becoming part of the solution.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons