April 23, 2020
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As a former police officer who transitioned to academia, Glenn McNair, associate professor of history, has a unique perspective on the recent events in Cleveland, New York City and Ferguson, Mo. McNair, who focuses his research on relations between African Americans and the criminal justice system, offers his insight.
It’s both. It’s a race problem because it’s just a continuation of a very long history of race and issues of racial control within police culture going all the way back to the beginning of the country. The criminal justice system from its inception put blacks in a separate category, and much of the function of the police was to control blacks who were mostly slaves. So, from the start, the goal wasn’t to protect and serve in the same way it was for the white population. When you layer on top of that America’s issues about race and white supremacy and racial control, then you get a culture that doesn’t change very much and that’s a reflection of race in this country.
If you’re black, these issues are very real and very racial and are matters of life and death.
We’re having more problems, and we’re learning more about them. Again, it’s always been an issue in communities of color, issues of police brutality and mistreatment. It’s been going on, but with the advent of the Internet, cell phone cameras and police cars with cameras, you’re actually being able to see it. Because honestly, if we didn’t see it, most Americans would not believe it.
That was always a big problem with race in the country historically — that blacks in the south were undergoing all of this horrific treatment but, to the world outside the south, it’s like if you don’t see it, could it really be that bad? Until we get to the 1960s and television and things like Birmingham being broadcast. So it’s like, yes, America, this is really happening.
But even though people are seeing it, they’re still interpreting it in these racial ways. I’ve had students say this and this has popped up in the comments sections in everything about Ferguson: The police have a difficult job and surely those people must have done something to warrant that reaction. So there’s this inability to truly grasp what’s going on and say yes, police are doing this stuff.
The thing that stands out to me most is if you look at each one of these incidents, for the most part, the officers are exhibiting poor judgment and engaging in equally poor tactics. As a police officer, one of your principle responsibilities is to not create a dangerous situation where one doesn’t exist or to make a dangerous situation worse or to take a nondeadly situation and make it into a deadly situation. In each one of these cases, the officers did that. There were other things they could have done that would have kept this situation from going from zero to ten.
Does it come down to poor training? I don’t think so. Because these things are policing 101. They are taught to you the first few weeks that you are in the police academy. This is basic.
A perspective you don’t hear is the police perspective. What did these officers do wrong? How are they violating their training? To what extent is this a function of police culture? One of the reasons you won’t hear those voices is because police officers have the “blue code” that we have to stick together under practically all circumstances. Because it’s us against them.
Protesting is fine. But nobody is listening to that stuff. Nobody is proposing anything in any real way.
I talked to students during the past couple years who have been involved with issues of social justice on campus. They say their friends are resistant to talk about any of these issues. Some students feel like we’re good reliable racial liberals so we need to be talking to other people. They don’t investigate their own issues with race at all. These kinds of subconscious things that we’ve been talking about? They’re not questioning that at all. That’s part of the problem.
I really do think that is the final frontier. We’ve done a good job of integrating our public lives. We work together. We wander around together. We shop together without incident for the most part. But it’s on that next level of engaging human to human and seeing each other’s humanity. And not only seeing it in an abstract intellectual way, like yeah, all people are equal. But to really feel that. So when Tamir Rice is killed, you feel the loss of a child in these horrible circumstances. Not in the abstract. You actually feel that sense of loss in a real way.
One of the things you can do is really do some serious introspection. Do you find yourself being uncomfortable in some real way in racial situations? Do you have these thoughts that you don’t even confess to anybody but they’re in there? You really have to dig down deep and grapple with these issues. Participate in debates as they happen. Reach out. Think of this as an important issue. Learn about it. That’s why you’re in college. The heart of a liberal arts education, to me, is not preparing you for a job. But preparing you to be a human being and a citizen in the world. That means thinking about the most difficult issues of your day.