The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations
Why do we expect so little of the police we venerate so highly?
|May 31|| 5|
What I’m Reading
Roxane Gay: “Eventually, doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people will continue to wait, despite the futility of hope, for a cure for racism. We will live with the knowledge that a hashtag is not a vaccine for white supremacy. We live with the knowledge that, still, no one is coming to save us. The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free.”
James Baldwin, 1962: “People more advantageously placed than we in Harlem were, and are, will no doubt find the psychology and the view of human nature sketched above dismal and shocking in the extreme. But the Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards . . . In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law—in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.”
Jelani Cobb: “Our problems generally do not stem from treacherous unknowns; they’re the result of a failure to make good use of what is known already. In July, 1967, after a brutal police raid at an after-hours bar in Detroit, that city exploded in retaliatory violence. A month later, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech to the American Psychological Association, in which he described riots as “durable social phenomena” that arise in conjunction with discernible conditions—acts of lawlessness that mirror the excesses of those charged with upholding the law. Leaders cannot predict the future, but they can be cognizant of the immediate past, and the possible dangers it suggests. They cannot be clairvoyant. They need only be intelligent.”
Nikki Addimando shot her abusive partner. She had reams of evidence. Why was she treated like a cold-blooded killer?
Graeme Wood on how little we know about what’s causing disparities in coronavirus deaths.
What I’m Writing
For CNN: “The story of Amy Cooper, the white woman who called the police on an African American man who was bird watching in Central Park and who asked her to leash her dog in accordance with park rules, is about racism, yes. But it's also about how racism is more than just whites' hostility toward people of color. Racism is more than a feeling; it's a system in which white people can and do exploit their own social positions, assumptions about their innocence, and the presumption that they're telling the truth.”
The View From Here
Like so many in America and around the world, I’m watching, horrified, as police in cities across the United States escalate violence against protesters — people they are sworn to protect. Last night felt like a turning point, when police the nation over decided it was time to reassert their authority through brute force; when they made clear that they saw the people protesting not just as their critics, but as their enemies and their lessers.
Journalists were bloodied, bruised, and even blinded by police bullets. This wasn’t an accident; reporters and their teams were targeted. Without provocation, police attacked crowds of people. In New York, two NYPD SUVs drove into a crowd that had done nothing more than yell and throw trash. In Minneapolis, police officers fired at people standing on their own front porch.
Police officers are given near-total authority over the people they are policing. Police officers are agents of the state, vested with the responsibility to serve the public and to keep us safe. Police officers carry state-issued weapons, and have the state-sanctioned authority to physically restrain, detain, and incarcerate civilians. Police officers are paid to assume the risks that this work entails.
Except they don’t assume the risks. The public does.
Police officers are many, many times more likely to kill the people they are supposed to serve and protect — the people paying their salaries — than they are to be killed. We don’t even really know how many people are killed by police, because there’s no national effort to count. Statistician Patrick Ball in Granta looks at the available data and estimates that there are about 1,500 police homicides in the United States every year. That means that one-third of Americans who are killed by strangers are killed by cops.
The number of civilians killed by police every year is about the same as the number of police officers killed in the line of duty in the past decade. About half of these officer deaths are accidental — that is, not the result a crime. Most of those officers were killed in car crashes.
Police officers are given broad protections that civilians like you and I cannot rely on. Police officers have a greater duty to the public, and yet they have more latitude to abuse, assault, manipulate, lie to, choke, beat, and even kill members of the public than civilians do. Civilians are held to a higher standard in our interactions with each other and in our interactions with police than police are. We are expected to deescalate and adapt to police whims; we are supposed to understand that they have a hair-trigger, that we will pay the price if something goes sideways. Civilians are expected to be the ones to navigate police racism — it is African Americans who have to tread the most carefully, for whom police interactions reflect little relationship between behavior and outcome, who often rightly understand the police as antagonists and potentially deadly threats. This appallingly, horrifically backwards.
Some jobs come with risks. If you are paid by the taxpayer and assume the role of protecting the public, you are assuming a certain level of risk — you don’t get to make the public shoulder it for you. Yet we have so venerated and protected our police forces that we expect them to take virtually no risks, and we have insulated them from consequences when they show virtually no restraint.
There are outstanding questions about whether certain personality types are drawn to jobs that allow them to dominate others. But we very well know what conditions foster abuse. A hierarchal system in which the people on top believe themselves to be good and righteous, and believe that the people they have control are bad and dangerous. An insular community where loyalty is not only prized over decency, but is the primary measure of decency. A culture of impunity, where there are few consequences for bad acts. A narcissistic sense of self-righteousness and self-justification, that by virtue of one’s position or identity, one is a better-than-average person and therefore justified in whatever they do.
This is the police.
Instead of casting police as the public servants they are, we talk about them as heroes and warriors — the people going after the bad guys, the people shooting at criminals. And indeed, for Americans who look like me — white, middle class — the police are understood as a protective force. With the big exception of sexual violence, I generally know that I can call the police if I am the victim of a crime and they will be responsive. Because of the color of my skin, I never worry that the police will interpret my very presence as criminality. The white Americans who venerate the police as our heroes and protectors play an enormous part in this farcical system of pretending the police are heroic, uniquely brave tough guys who take on extraordinary risks; this allows us to justify handing them expansive legal and cultural cover as if they’re the most delicate, special, and vulnerable among us. It should not work this way, that one group has both so much power over others and so very little obligation to them. That one group floats on the myth that they are the warriors for peace and safety — that they put their live on the line so the rest of us can be safe — while in reality the risk is pushed off onto civilians, and there are no consequences when those same officers are active and ongoing threats to peace and safety.
Do you shake your head and think “how awful” when a citizen busts out a store window? I hope you find it many, many times more awful when a police officer pepper sprays someone for protesting. The civilian has a basic obligation to follow the law. A police officer has a heightened obligation: They are an officer of the law. Why do we hold them to a lower standard? Why do the same people who claim to most value the boys in blue have such diminished expectations for these adults, who have been honored as heroes and entrusted with the public safety?
This is an important question: What are the police for?
Not for this.
What I’m Eating
Can you really think about food right now? I cannot really think about food right now. But I got all my summer herbs set up this weekend and got some great pork chops from a local farm, so this was my dinner last night. This is also great with a nice seared piece of tuna, and I imagine it would also be great on swordfish or large shrimp. I usually add a diced habanero or other spicy pepper to the salsa verde to make it extra spicy.
Seared Pork Cutlets With Green Garlic Salsa Verde
¼ cup chopped parsley
3 tablespoons chopped mint
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic chives or regular chives
2 tablespoons finely chopped green garlic
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed
⅛ teaspoon chile flakes
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 eight-ounce boneless pork loin chops, butterflied (1/4-inch thick)
Black pepper, as needed
Combine the herbs, garlic, lemon, 1 teaspoon salt and chile flakes. Stir in 1/2 cup oil.
Season the meat with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and reduce heat to medium-high. Add the pork and cook without moving, 3 minutes. Flip and cook until meat is just cooked through, about 3 minutes more. Let rest 5 minutes before serving, topped with salsa verde.
Enjoy your dinner. Then go protest, donate, clean up, and agitate for something better than this.