A 1968 Harris poll indicated that whites and blacks were deeply divided as to what they perceived to be the causes of race riots. “Police brutality against Negroes” was a major cause according to 51 percent of blacks polled and of 10 percent of whites polled.
Almost 50 years later, a gap still exists in the perception of police. A 2014 CBS poll found that 74 percent of blacks compared to 28 percent of whites polled thought that police are too quick to use deadly force.
What must the numbers say now, in light of highly publicized shootings by police and of police? What is the reason for a credibility gap that falls along racial lines? Is there an incident, a statistic or any credible voice that can close the gap?
Star Witness With Studies
In a memorial for five Dallas police officers shot by a black gunman, President Barack Obama walked in gingerly. He talked to two communities. On one hand, he said, painting all police with a broad brush of bias is not honest and creates a dangerous atmosphere. Police are thus at risk so are the communities they serve. On the other hand, growing despair over disparate treatment must not be overlooked in the wider, whiter community. How can you ignore this, he asked, “when study after study shows that whites and people of color experience the criminal justice system differently . . .[?]”
“[W]e cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid,” Obama said to applause, according to the White House Press Office. “We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism. To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and coworkers and fellow church members again and again and again—it hurts. Surely we can see that, all of us.”
Obama’s words will be critiqued through the lenses of political analysis, or entertaining commentary. Many blame him for what they perceive as new rates of racial division. A “Wall Street Journal” article in July reported the disparity in viewpoints on that very issue: “Among blacks, 51 percent say Mr. Obama has made progress, a sentiment shared by just 28 percent of whites. On the other end, 5 percent of blacks and 32 percent of whites believe Mr. Obama has made race relations worse.”
If President Obama’s word and experience hold little weight, can we draw from our collective human experience instead?
Unfortunately, everyday experiences for most whites do not include real black lives or experiences. Good luck finding someone for a jury or citizen review board who understands the disparate treatment of their fellow black citizens. A 2013 American Values Survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute indicates that the social circle for most whites is still very segregated.
The social networks of most whites is 91 percent white, 1 percent black, one percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, 1 percent mixed race and 1 percent other race. Seventy-five percent of whites move in networks that are completely white, according to the article “Self-Segregation: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson,” published in Atlantic Monthly in August 2014
“Therein lies the fundamental difference: a radical contrast in experience and, therefore, perspective,” wrote Sojourners founder and CEO Jim Wallis in his book America’s Original Sin. “Believing that black experience is different from white experience is the beginning of changing white attitudes and perspectives. How can we get to real justice if white people don’t hear, understand, and, finally, believe the real-life experience of black people [?]”
Enter the poster-child witness:
After 32-year-old Philando Castile was shot by police in June, loved ones of the St. Paul, Minnesota, school cafeteria supervisor wanted the record set straight.
“Once again we have the death of an innocent black man whose life was taken at the hands of an officer, due to his “wide-set nose,” Shiloh Baptist Church pastor, Steve Daniels, preached loudly. “He was not selling CDs. He was not selling cigarettes. He was not resisting. He was not running. … He was hardworking, respected by men, and, most of all, he respected the law!”
Castile was described as “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks” yet, since age 19, police stopped him more than 30 times. They cited and fined him for minor violations 50 times. The profiling resulted not in additional safety to anyone, but in an unnecessary and unjustified death.
Roll the footage:
As Philando Castile lay bleeding in his car, his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, calmly captured his last breaths in video on her mobile phone. She posted it to Facebook. Upon being stopped—whether it was for a broken taillight, as Officer Jeronimo Yanez told her, or because he looked like an armed robbery suspect—Yanez shot Castile to death.
“That guy reaching for his registration papers was not a dangerous situation,” said Diop Kamal, a former cop and long-time police abuse crusader and CEO of PoliceAbuse.com. Of course he wasn’t there, one would argue. He could not know the factors that played into the officer’s decision. But without the video evidence, statistics show Yanez would be credible to the wider public. Fortunately, this time, it’s on video. But even that is already being refuted.
There may never be evidence that stands up to the scrutiny of biased thinking. Credibility is in the eye and will of the beholder. We have to want to make things fair and right.
That is what the president alluded to in Dallas. “[S]o much of the tensions between police departments and minority communities that they serve is because we ask the police to do too much, and we ask too little of ourselves.”