Why Black and White People See The Police Differently

Filed in National by on August 25, 2014

In the multiple threads we’ve had here in the Ferguson incidents and the operation and obligations of the police, we had a request to talk about the long-standing poor relationship of African Americans with the police. Frankly, I think that the long history of this poor relationship pretty well mirrors the status of African Americans in the American community. When you are subject to slavery and apartheid for most of your history here, you aren’t going to see the country’s police forces as allies and friends. On the other hand, throughout our history, newly immigrant populations have documented problems with over-policing as well. Irish and Italian immigrants in particular lived with the kind of policing that African Americans have always been subject to and that’s reflective of the wishes and prejudices of the majority population that the politicians who direct the police are responsive to. Also, if you were outside of the “mainstream”, taking to the streets and other public venues to argue for societal change, the color of your skin didn’t much matter to the authorities — but the length of your hair or your clothes were the right signal. But rather than rehash history, I’m going to post the Storify record of a series of Tweets from Gene Denby, the editor of NPR’s Code Switch blog. In about 25 tweets, Denby breaks down why different demographics may view Ferguson and other incidents like it through very different lenses. I admire what he did here — it is focused and too the point without fingerpointing that inspires defensive postures rather than conversation.

So what do you think?

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"You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas." -Shirley Chisholm

Comments (58)

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  1. pandora says:

    That was extremely powerful… and true.

    My daughter’s boyfriend was visiting us this past week. His reality is very different than her reality. His was personal and probable, and that’s what’s scary. Watching his reaction to Ferguson broke my heart.

    People who say to wait for “all the facts” to come in don’t realize that that’s their privilege. Meanwhile, black Americans don’t have that luxury.

    Why is that so hard for some people to understand?

  2. Dana says:

    Yet we have so many large urban cities with black mayors, with large black representation on their city councils, with black district attorneys, and black police chiefs — think Philadelphia here — and we still have police officers having to resort to deadly force far too frequently.

    If discrimination on the part of local government and police is so much of the problem, as you try to tell us, shouldn’t the City of Brotherly Love be an urban paradise for black Americans?

    In a city that’s only half black, the vast majority of crimes are committed by blacks, and the vast majority of their victims are other blacks. How that’s discrimination on the part of whites escapes me.

  3. cassandra_m says:

    Don’t bother, P. Seriously. This one is always going to lead with his baggage.

  4. cassandra_m says:

    Matt Yglesias makes the point about differing treatment by police quite well : Michael Brown didn’t do anything as a teen that I didn’t — but only one of us got killed

    And Yglesias’ experience isn’t especially unique, either.

  5. Steve Newton says:

    Generally when the phrase “black on black” comes out in relation to crime or violence, followed closely by an admonition about “changing the ghetto culture,” you’re face-to-face (or keyboard-to-keyboard) with somebody who has never actually lived or worked with poor people in a city, and definitely somebody who has extreme difficulty in seeing three or four sauntering, laughing young African-American men on the street as anything but threatening.

  6. cassandra_m says:

    Yes. And you are face to face with someone who doesn’t get that your greatest chances of suffering a violent crime are at the hands of someone who is the same race as you. It isn’t a “culture” thing, it is a segregation thing.

  7. Dorian Gray says:

    Here’s what we know. Multiple unarmed Africa Americans were killed by the cops last month alone.

    http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/police-shootings-michael-brown-ferguson-black-men

    Something is very wrong and it absolutely does have to do with culture – white culture. The proclivity to stick our collective heads in the dirt and look for ways to complicate the issue.

    How long will it take this cop to be arraigned?

  8. Bane says:

    Arraigned? Hahahahahaah!! Whew!! Arraigned? That’s hilarious. You guys do know that cops don’t get punished for killing black men. Who does? Nobody. If the victim is a black man, whether the shooter is black, white, brown, police, or neighborhood watch you will go free.

  9. Dorian Gray says:

    I know. That was tougue in cheek stuff… It’s disgusting actually, but true. I read today that the cops kill more people each year in the US than die by guns in many other Western countries (UK, Germany, Canada, Australia). Reckon with that statistic for a minute…

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/08/26/why-killer-cops-walk-free.html

    U-S-A! U-S-A!

  10. cassandra_m says:

    That 400 or so arrest-related deaths also means that an American has a greater chance of being killed by a police officer than by a terrorist.

  11. Liberal Elite says:

    @c “That 400 or so arrest-related deaths…”

    It’s not 400… Not even close. It’s more like 1000.

    http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/another-much-higher-count-of-police-homicides/

  12. Aint's Taking it Any More says:

    This thread had potential that was squandered.

  13. Brock Landers says:

    Say that you belong to a group of people who have been subjected to slavery and apartheid (both legally declared and economically dictated), how would you view law enforcement?

  14. puck says:

    As a white guy I don’t especially attract police attention, but even I know to keep my distance from cops. It doesn’t take much for them to flip the switch to see you as another scumbag who might need to get arrested or maced, tased, or shot, whether you are white, black, or brown.

    Something deeply sociopathic has happened to police culture – the continuum of force policies have replaced their moral code and humanity. Any interaction with police is now based on perceptions of compliance, no matter how trivial. Something went wrong in the last generation or so of police.

    I think solution is neighborhood policing – communities need to know their cops’ names, where their cops live, their parents, wives and family, and their kids need to go to school with the kids of the neighborhoods they police.

    In that way communities can begin go hold their cops accoutable for their behavior and bring back humanity. No more anonymous centurions.

    A few killer cops going to jail would help too.

  15. pandora says:

    “This thread had potential that was squandered.”

    How so?

    Do you not see the reasons black and white people see the police differently?

  16. Aint's Taking it Any More says:

    Excellent question!

    My gut reaction is that I’d view them, at a minimum, with suspicion. That said, not being black, I am compelled to ask why folks here view slavery, in particular, as a genesis for historical police mistrust?

    The historical lack of real economic opportunity driven by too often by institutional discrimination has produced more modern day misery and disaffection than over-policing. The lack of opportunity, the denial of success, and systemic exclusion limit blacks willingness to buy into the economic system. That unwillingness to participate perpetuates institutional and individual discrimination. In effect, while whites have every incentive to participate in economic activity, blacks do not. That leads to race wide disenfranchisement from the larger social structure. That detachment destroys affinity with social norms and institutions. In short, value systems diverge because blacks both have no incentive to buy into the system or align themselves with its values.

    Once detached every social institution is necessarily viewed with suspicion. The police are society’s front line – the institution most likely to generate consequential interaction with blacks. They are not, however, the explanation for Ferguson.

    I am not confident that this resolves by action or inaction. Discrimination is driven by a primal need to differentiate. The need to differentiate was historically a defense mechanism necessary for self preservation. No matter how much blacks are integrated, their color will always distinguish them from non-whites. That distinction alone is too easily observed and for that reason some elements in society, if not the entire non white society, will always yield to that difference to intellectualize everything from the most subtle to overt discrimination.

    My two cents.

  17. pandora says:

    Oh my.

    “The lack of opportunity, the denial of success, and systemic exclusion limit blacks willingness to buy into the economic system. That unwillingness to participate perpetuates institutional and individual discrimination. In effect, while whites have every incentive to participate in economic activity, blacks do not. That leads to race wide disenfranchisement from the larger social structure. That detachment destroys affinity with social norms and institutions. In short, value systems diverge because blacks both have no incentive to buy into the system or align themselves with its values.”

    May I suggest you read up on systemic racism. You can start with this video by Jay Smooth. (Please watch this.)

    The paragraph (of yours) I’ve copied above comes across as, “Well, if only they adopted my values and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps everything would be fine. If only they had the willingness to succeed

    Red lining is a real thing. The quality of schools, and resources/programs inside them is a real thing, imprisonment for crimes that white kids get a slap on the wrist for is a real thing, driving/walking while black is a real thing, etc., etc., etc.. You seem to be blaming individuals rather than the system.

    I don’t know why Mike Brown’s killing became the tipping point, but I always knew there would be a tipping point.

  18. cassandra_m says:

    This thread had potential that was squandered.

    And ATIAM added absolutely nothing to the discussion, except to criticize it. You can add to the discussion or you can STFU.

  19. pandora says:

    I’m beginning to think ATIAM can’t add to the discussion. He seems to have his own narrative that he seems to be extremely comfortable with. (Notice the word seems. If I’m wrong, he can correct me.)

  20. cassandra_m says:

    The historical lack of real economic opportunity driven by too often by institutional discrimination has produced more modern day misery and disaffection than over-policing.

    For the last 30 years or so, the over-policing of African-American communities is mostly due to the War on Drugs. Even though these communities use and abuse drugs at a lower rate than white people, the policing happens in African-American neighborhoods. And in Ferguson, the city survived on the revenue generated by its police force in tickets and other fines imposed by the city. So in a majority African American city, it also looks like the police are out to fleece them as well.

  21. Aint's Taking it Any More says:

    WTF.

  22. cassandra_m says:

    I’m beginning to think ATIAM can’t add to the discussion.

    Indeed. This thread started with a pretty remarkable series of tweets that laid out really well why black and white people see the police differently, And rather than engage with that, ATIAM wants to complain that this thread isn’t giving him a chance to trot out the usual received wisdom.

  23. pandora says:

    ATIAM says, “WTF”

    Could you expand on that?

  24. Geezer says:

    How, pray tell, does lack of opportunity “limit blacks willingness to buy into the economic system”? Are you trying to say something about people on welfare?

  25. ben says:

    If a society treats a group of people like crap for over 200 years, one could understand why people in that group wouldn’t want to participate in what that overbearing majority says is “society”
    It’s not that any group of people “doesn’t want to make money” or “doesn’t want to be educated”, (as some on the right seem to love to say) but why on earth would a person of ANY ethic minority choose to move into cul do sac USA where it is highly likely their neighbors are white, old racists? Perhaps that is what ATIAM meant.
    Decades of red-lining has created some very hard-to break segregated communities and while people (like me) disagree that there is a “black” or “white” culture… there is most certainly an “urban” and “suburban” cultures….. unfortunately, that distinction (because of the actions of policy) tends to appear to fall along racial lines.
    I know one thing…. from living in urban/low-middle income areas by whole life. Non whites make MUCH better neighbors than white people. The “American dream” suburban folks are suspicious of everyone.

  26. Geezer says:

    I”m not going to try to guess what he means.

    You’re wrong about people of color migrating to the US. They do it quite frequently.

  27. ben says:

    Geezer, I didnt say people dont migrate to the US. I said…
    this…
    “but why on earth would a person of ANY ethic minority choose to move into cul do sac USA ”

    there are other places to live than milquetoast suburbia. sorry for the confusion. My point being, not wanting to live in the “real America” isnt a negative thing. It’s an understandable reaction to how “real america” could be perceived by anyone not born into it.

  28. pandora says:

    I go crazy every summer when I take the kids to the beach. Far too many middle/upper middle class white people who sound a lot like ATIAM. Yes, there are some who, while not living in a diverse area, are eager to learn more, but most are comfortable in their prejudices.

    Last December I had friends up from Vienna, Virginia and they were amazed at the diversity of my friends. I hadn’t given it a thought – since it was Mr. Pandora’s BD and he asked that I invite his favorite people – which always includes Cassandra! But the evening was an eye-opener. My friends from Virginia talked about the evening all summer, and they invited us to visit their home (which we’ll do this fall), but kept saying that their friends were boring. I doubt that. What I suspect is their friends are insular – which, I’d guess, would describe ATIAM’s friends.

    I don’t claim to understand the black experience. What I do is shut up and listen.

  29. cassandra_m says:

    “but why on earth would a person of ANY ethic minority choose to move into cul do sac USA ”

    Plenty of ethnic minorities move into cul du sac USA (where do you think all of those ” some of my best friends are XXXX come from?) and even more have ambitions to move into cul du sac USA.

    ATIAM says:
    The lack of opportunity, the denial of success, and systemic exclusion limit blacks willingness to buy into the economic system.

    Which is so wrong in so many ways. Let’s start with the willingness to buy into the economic system — *most* African Americans absolutely want to be a part of the economic system and for the exact same reasons why white people do. AND most of us are a part of the economic system.The systemic exclusion means that you have to work harder than your white counterparts, if you can overcome the pretty high barriers that are thrown in your path. And those barriers are different depending upon whether you are poor, middle class or wealthy. So even then, the broad statements don’t quite work. There are multiple failure points in the system — the War on Drugs, the systematic destabilization of public education in poor neighborhoods, the destruction of jobs in favor of having cheap stuff in Walmart, the neglect of poor communities are among those things that make it alot harder for poor African Americans (and even poor rural white people to a similar extent — poor rural whites identify with the people who perpetuate their troubles, tho) to even participate in the economic system.

  30. Geezer says:

    Yeah, see, my next door neighbors are from the West Indies, and they’re quite happy to be living in cul-de-sac USA. Maybe you ought to learn who your enemies are before you start issuing broad-brush insults.

  31. pandora says:

    Everyone should watch Jon Stewart – all the way to the end.

  32. Steve Newton says:

    The further irony (to build on cassandra’s reply above) is that disillusionment with the economic and social system among African-Americans has been, to a large extent, a product of (1) the Interstate Highway system hollowing out cities; (2) de facto vs de jury segregation; (3) the War on drugs; (4) the War on poverty; in really short:

    1. The Interstate led to the commuter society and the removal of industry and its associated worker base (read “tax base”) from the cities. Early suburbs were successfully segregated de jure and later de facto.

    2. “White flight” is an unlovely issue, too often not studied (for, gee, what reason) by white scholars, but the mechanisms for de jure segregation (to include largely white policy makers attempting to legislate “remedies” for overwhelmingly poor cities populated by people of color–as in Delaware) are well known and–as pandora likes to say–are a feature and not a bug in our economic system.

    3. The War on Drugs has always been a war on poor people, and specifically a war on young African-American men with all sorts of unexpected double ironies (Read “why drug dealers live with their mothers” in Freakonomics).

    4. The War on Poverty could not have been better designed to break up poor families had that been its intent (and, structurally, I think there is a case to be made that such was the intent of some of the votes passing it). Note that I am not raging against public assistance, but looking at key policy decisions like the original AFDC program.

    The truly gruesome irony is that during segregation, when none of the four items mentioned above (and I am sure others could be added) existed, African-American urban communities showed great entrepreneurial spirit and were hotbeds of emergent self-organizaton.

    Read Gilbert Osofsky Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto some time, or other works on the emergence of a parallel black middle class society in our cities during segregation times. The killer, of course, was always lack of access to capital, but the point is clear: African-American societies in urban environments were remarkably forward-looking and self-organizing right up to the time that white policy makers began making decisions FOR them rather than taking the path of making decisions WITH them.

  33. ben says:

    It’s not “living in a cul du sac” that I think people dont want….. rather, living in a community where one could end up being that token friend all of one’s would-be white neighbors reference…… (btw, i think the “some of my best friends are XXXX is such a level of BS, i usually assume no person of that group considers the person an actual friend)
    Also….. “What I do is shut up and listen.” That again?
    Pandora…. honest question. Hopefully it comes across as respectfully and genuine as I am trying to ask it.
    How long do you feel it is appropriate for someone “outside” the group to not have an opinion, listening to people from that group, before they are allowed to have their own informed opinion.

  34. Geezer says:

    I think it’s a lot easier to deal with being “everyone’s token black friend” than with living in a ghetto. I think my neighbors think so, too, though I’m not sure the many Asians in my development give much thought to how many black friends they have.

  35. cassandra_m says:

    Can we stop with this?

    It’s not “living in a cul du sac” that I think people dont want….. rather, living in a community where one could end up being that token friend all of one’s would-be white neighbors reference

    Black people make their choices about where to live the same way white people do. Considerations of schools for kids, safety, work commute, alignment with how you want to raise your kids, access to amenities, etc. If the things that are important to a black family are present in that cul de sac, being the token friend is the least of the things they’re worried about.

  36. cassandra_m says:

    Steve, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about a couple of books documenting the policy that created some of America’s ghettos. Beryl Satter’s Family Properties and Tom Sugrue’s, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North — which sounds like there is a good deal of scholarship in segregationist policy going on now.

    West Center City has a similar story of policy that created a ghetto — and some of the landlord policy that lets that continue persists to this day.

  37. Geezer says:

    Amen, Cass. Whether for good or ill, lots of people see cul-de-sac living as safer and more secure than city living, and many people moved to my area in the (I believe mistaken) belief that this area’s schools (read: feeder pattern) were better than others.

  38. ben says:

    what is your opinion as to why sub-urbs are still 90%+ white? Red-Lining? economic disparities that are still around today? I’d agree with the latter…. maybe the former 30+ years ago…..

    I see some pretty impressive (NON “GHETTO” mkay?) urban neighborhoods that are very diverse. (Baynard blvd/ the Triangle vs…. say, Fairfax/Shipley) Fairfax is a nice destination for WASP families, but as someone who isnt in that group, I have no interest in participating in that community. White sub-urban America is hostile to outsiders…. that shouldnt be a new, or controversial statement. Our urban areas and cities finally have a bigger population than not. That is something to celebrate.

    Stands to reason that, since we are all humans, other’s MAY come to the same conclusion . Notice, im not saying “black people think like this”…. im saying “humans act this way” only reason to tell someone to “shut up and listen” to THAT one, is if you are implying they arent human.

  39. Geezer says:

    Even before reading that, make sure you read Coates’ Atlantic essay on red-lining. It should be in the running for a National Magazine Award, and I expect it will be.

  40. Geezer says:

    I honestly don’t know, and I don’t care all that much. The red-lining might be officially gone now, but its effects live on, mainly because blacks were shut out of neighborhoods that increased most in value; building up equity in housing is the traditional middle-class method of building wealth, and it was closed off to blacks and other minorities until relatively recently.

    Coates’ essay deals with this extensively. Here’s a link: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

  41. Steve Newton says:

    @cassandra to be clear I said that white scholars had generally avoided the area.

    And major publishers have avoided publishing about it.

  42. cassandra_m says:

    That Coates piece is one towering piece of writing.

  43. pandora says:

    @Ben

    “How long do you feel it is appropriate for someone “outside” the group to not have an opinion, listening to people from that group, before they are allowed to have their own informed opinion.”

    You are allowed to have any opinion you want. I’m saying that if you aren’t part of the group you’re discussing it’s better to be open to that opinion evolving – which would require listening to those in the actual group who have actual life experiences.

    And this…

    “Stands to reason that, since we are all humans, other’s MAY come to the same conclusion . Notice, im not saying “black people think like this”…. im saying “humans act this way” only reason to tell someone to “shut up and listen” to THAT one, is if you are implying they arent human.”

    … is nonsense. But you know that.

  44. ben says:

    I dont believe it is nonsense. It’s just overly sensitive and overly disclaimered… as usual.
    The point of this thread is not, however, who is “allowed” to voice their opinion and why. It is why black people see cops differently than white people.
    On those points, we agree. We disagree, as usual, on HOW the conversation should be had. I think that is generational, since I have a much easier time communicating with my age-peers on such issues. We’re much more open to everyone’s thinky-voice. I’d welcome a thread where everyone over 35 is encouraged to tell all us youngeons all about ourselves.

  45. pandora says:

    Here’s some more interesting reading. The article is titled: Minorities in the Suburbs Have the Least Trust in Local Police.

  46. cassandra_m says:

    @Steve — I didn’t notice any comment you made re: the scholarship or race of those scholars. Since you posted a book, I posted links to two books discussed by someone I admire since it looked like there was more scholarship going on around this topic. And I checked — both of the authors who were discussed by Coates are white, and published by Macmillian and Random House.

  47. Steve Newton says:

    @ cassandra: you’re right; I wrote that originally, then cut it out, then forgot I cut it, and didn’t go back and look. Senility is a wonderful thing.

  48. Aint's Taking it Any More says:

    WTF – to many idiots here.

    I should have taken note of the fact that, on certain subjects such a sex and race, some frequent blog commentators don’t participate. I should have followed their lead.

    Enjoy the mental masturbation but remember too much of it causes intellectual blindness.

    Done here.

  49. Geezer says:

    Too bad. Here’s another story that might give you a hint on the dysfunctional police-citizenry relationship in Ferguson:

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2014/08/27/ferguson_police_dog_urinated_on_michael_brown_memorial.html

  50. pandora says:

    I was going to ignore this, but…

    “I should have taken note of the fact that, on certain subjects such a sex and race, some frequent blog commentators don’t participate. I should have followed their lead.”

    Which translates into: White men, like you, can’t relate to (or listen to) women and minorities. Believe me, we know that. After all, we’ve read this thread… and other threads.

    (And don’t assume other people not commenting is an endorsement of your views. It’s not.)

  51. cassandra_m says:

    This is the complaint, right here:
    Enjoy the mental masturbation but remember too much of it causes intellectual blindness.

    Because he is not allowed to write his own mental masturbation here without challenge and he still doesn’t know what to do with his own intellectual blindness being exposed.

  52. ben says:

    oh i see. just because someone makes discussions about race or sex all about them and their feelings, and gets all victimized, it automatically makes them a white man…. how very generalizey of you :)

  53. Steve Newton says:

    So ATIAM (who we all know is still reading) says everyone needs to have the jury out on what happened between the unarmed dead black guy and the white cop. Because, you know, there’s always a presumption of, well, something like innocence.

    Except when there isn’t.

    This five-minute video of an articulate black man waiting for his children being hauled off and arrested in Minnesota for DOING NOTHING is one of the most painful and informative videos you can watch. If you want, for five minutes, to understand EXACTLY what it feels like to be black in American society, or if you think you can watch it and rationalize it away–whichever. Just watch.

    http://rare.us/story/what-these-minnesota-cops-did-to-a-man-peacefully-waiting-for-his-kids-will-infuriate-you/

  54. pandora says:

    That video is heartbreaking. Those cops should be fired and that poor man should lawyer up and sue the pants off the department. What is it with these cops trampling on people’s rights?

  55. ben says:

    Imagine if gangs had access to juror information. Imagine if jurors knew that the gang they would be testifying against could easily find out where they live….legally.. One wonders why cops never seem to be convicted of anything coppy…..