The Safety Myth

I have heard people, television show hosts, and family members make the argument that black communities are not over policed or over arrested because black people support the levels of policing that take place in their communities. I have heard the argument that confederate symbols really are not a problem because a famous black celebrity or athlete said they have never been bothered by them. I have heard the argument that black people want police protection and safety, so we should not be critical of our police who arrest black people in our ghettos and low income neighborhoods.

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at this argument and is able to break down some of the thinking taking place. He writes, “according to this theory “safety” was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value.” Arguments to preserve our policing and arguments that discrimination and inequalities arise because they are what poor and minority communities want misplace the importance justice in our system.

Arguing against safety is difficult. It is hard to say that being safe and protected in your home or neighborhood is not something you want. Everyone would like to have a police force that could be relied upon given the dangers of society, but when  that police force is part of a system that does not provide equal justice, then there are problems in relying on them for protections, crime prevention, and security.

Coats continues and writes about his childhood and walking to school in Baltimore, “What I would not have given, back in Baltimore, for a line of officers, agents of my country and my community, patrolling my route to school! There were no such officers, and whenever I saw the police it meant that something had already gone wrong.” What Coats shows here is that our system was not forward thinking for black communities, but reactive to problems and crimes. Rather than operating in a system meant to reduce and limit dangers, the police reacted to dangerous incidents. Coats says that things had already gone wrong when the police arrived, but I think it is reasonable to say that things had already gone wrong when restrictive housing policies and racial segregation moved wealthier white people to suburbs, created inner city ghettos, and restricted poor minorities to less healthy environmental living spaces. If we valued justice more than our personal safety, we wound not just arrest black people and claim that our unequal justice system was justified by poor communities’ desires for protection from crime.