“The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.” Author Ta-Nehisi Coats wrote this in his book Between the World and Me to describe the relationship of our nation’s police force to the citizens of our country. The quote is brutal, honest, and hard to talk about, especially in today’s environment.What Coats argues is that our police behave in a way that society encourages or at the very least accepts as normal.
Much of the debate surrounding police shootings of African American men focus on the idea that a single bad officer made a bad decision. We understand that not all police officers are bad or act with racist motives, but have trouble addressing crime, disparities in our criminal justice system, and trends among law enforcement and lawbreakers. We have trouble fitting personal responsibility (on both the officer’s and the criminal’s side) with societal expectations and observations. Coats encourages us to look beyond the actions of the police, and understand the climate in which the police operate. A society that truly did not accept police violence against racial minorities or against the population as a whole would not structure itself in a way that put police officers in difficult situations where they had the option to use deadly force or act in ways that allowed implicit bias to affect the lives of other people. There are choices we make as a society, and Coats argues that our society has chosen to allow a system to be in place where officers through no fault of their own intention, find themselves in situations where the use of deadly force (particularly against African American men) is justifiable in the moment, even if it does not seem justifiable in hindsight.
Coats argues that we cannot pin all the blame on a minority of police officers with poor attitudes. We equip our officers with weapons, send them to be the first point of contact when dealing with everyone from known criminals and gang members to psychologically traumatized but otherwise typical citizens. By organizing a society where minorities lived in tightly concentrated (and easy to police) neighborhoods, we built a system where policing and enforcing our laws lands disproportionately on certain individuals. There may not be easy solutions to these problems, but these problems did arise at least to some extent as a result of societal decisions. These decisions were made with tribal instincts operating under the surface, and often with fear driving the emotional state of individuals and communities.
By understanding that policing and crime does not take place in a vacuum we can understand the meaning of the quote at the start of this post. It is not just a few bad officers or individuals who have created a system that is racially charged and has lead to disparities in arrest rates or disparities in the use of deadly force. It is the will of a society that accepts violence against the poor, against racial minorities, and against those who seem dangerous that has created the explosively charged environment of our society today. Unless we acknowledge society’s role, we will never make the changes and address the issues that allow the situation to continue.