I have a couple of friends in public safety who feel something between outrage and humiliation over the flood of stories about innocent, unarmed black men shot by police. The public, they complain, leaps to conclusions before the evidence is in. The media sensationalizes events when sober reporting is called for, so that when investigations are finally complete they suffer from public pre-judgment and stale newsworthiness. It diminishes the public’s understanding of how dangerous public safety work has become, especially with the explosion of personal protection firearms. It overlooks the good work public safety officers do, not daily but hourly. And it encourages such distrust of police that it increases the likelihood of violent confrontation. They wonder if anyone knows or cares how many cops are killed in the line of duty each year (it’s in the vicinity of 135). At the same time, they are angry about the Black Lives Matter movement because they understand it to favor black lives over all others, to encourage defensive resistance against any police contact, and to be unpatriotic in its disrespect of American symbols and ideals.
They have some good points. They are not wrong about everything. However, their emotionally charged posture of self defense and self justification blinds them to other voices. For instance, they cannot understand, because they don’t know, that the 300 years of American history during which black lives did not matter, lynching was not uncommon, blacks could not get fair trials, and that killings blacks was not a crime, ended, at least officially, in the mid twentieth century. That’s not ancient history. It’s not behind us. Remnants of it remain, and the extreme right wing polarization of American politics has given it hope for revival. They can’t understand that Black Lives Matter does not mean other lives don’t, that the movement might be patriotically pursuing what the American ethos promises but has not delivered. It’s hard for them to recognize that those choosing to kneel for the National Anthem may be honoring what it stands for but is not yet lived out in the lives of a large portion of the population. They honestly do not and cannot see what white privilege and institutional racism is or means. Moreover, they fear that any conversation about race, law and order, especially with someone representing minority rights, will result in them being verbally attacked, told that they are so hopelessly lost there is nothing they can ever do to make it right. And you know what? It’s a reasonable fear.
Maybe none of that is true where you live. Out here in our small city in the inter mountain West, it’s a problem for at least a few, not for everyone, but a few. What to do?
How about anti racism training? The approach many anti racism programs have used is a combination of hellfire and damnation preaching with Salem witch trial tests of possession. It doesn’t work. It starts with the name. If a program is about anti racism and your are in the program, then ipso facto, you are a racist – you neanderthal pig you! You cannot badger, condemn, and intimidate someone into admitting they’re an unrepentant racist in need of exorcism. It doesn’t work. But well meaning folks keep trying it anyway. Maybe they want to inflict as much humiliating damage as they can by way of revenge, or as an endorsement of their own delusion of self righteous sinlessness. It’s a fiendish twist on twelve step programs, one in which the leader confesses the racism of everyone present, and insists that no one will leave the room until they also confess, after which it will be discovered that the room has no exit.
Is there a better way? There are others far more qualified than I who can answer. As for me, I’ve attended a number of workshops conducted by Eric Law (Kaleidoscope Inst.) who focuses on understanding cultural foundations and effective ways of cross cultural communication. Although oriented toward religious institutions, his basic approach could, with some adjustments, be applied to the world of public safety. I wonder also about teaching a bit of American history with an emphasis on voices and views that have not been a normal part of high school texts (when few were paying attention anyway). It couldn’t hurt. Just a few thoughts. Maybe you have some.