Our Nation: Black and Blue
A voice cries out, “Black Lives Matter”. Another screams, “Blue Lives Matter”. A voice shouting, “All Lives Matter” joins the chorus. They want tragic loss of life to be acknowledged. They want people to be treated with the value and dignity that they deserve. They all want the tragedies to end but they look around for a villain and find no one but each other to accuse. Some problems don’t have a villain though. Sometimes, a problem can get so deep into the bones of a society that it doesn’t need anyone to be evil in order to accomplish evil. Systemic problems exist outside of any individuals. The rules of our society, unintentional side effects of well intentioned actions and out of control feedback systems are where they live. Systemic racism has pitted our poor communities, our wealthy communities and the police against each other in much the same way that HIV turns your own immune system against you.
Police protect us from harm and help to create an environment in which society can flourish. This is not simply propaganda that the people in power say to justify racial injustice. It is demonstrably and factually true that the presence of strong and stable police forces make life better for everyone. Whether it’s on a national level or a local level, if people are able to confidently rely on the government to protect them, society is measurably healthier at every socioeconomic level. Some people are toxic and need to be cleared away so that our civilization can function properly. Everyone agrees that we need protection from murderers, rapists and thieves and it’s important to acknowledge that police in America really do protect us from these harmful people. In my lifetime, the homicide rate in America has been reduced by more than half. Much of that reduction can be directly attributed to increases in the size of police forces and increased incarceration rates for violent offenders. The police have been an integral part of America’s economic and cultural health and prosperity. Why then is it that so many of America’s citizens feel like they are under attack by America’s domestic defenders?
Members of some of our poorest communities have become just as afraid of police violence as they are of gang violence. The refrains “hands up, don’t shoot” and “stop killing us” have become the rallying cries for these people. This comes as a slap in the face to the police trying to protect them. It hurts the police not only because they are cast as the villains in that narrative but because they understand the real grievances that these communities are voicing. Many of them want to scream out, “It’s not our fault, we’re trying to help” or “It’s way more complicated than that”. Police departments regularly acknowledge the tragedy of the deaths of innocent citizens. Police, by and large though, are not public relations specialists and they are not politicians. They often choose silence rather than self advocacy.
The sad truth is that our society has been afflicted by a systemic problem for so long now that our basic ability to see straight has been compromised. Dysfunction has crept its way into the bones of our institutions. Sometimes it can be quite dramatic like cities whose neighborhood boundaries still match the “red lines” drawn eighty years ago to segregate whites and blacks. Sometimes it can be incredibly subtle like the impact generational poverty has on a person’s ability to get a loan. Sometimes it can be indirect like the fact that school funding is tied to the wealth of the community in which that school is located. Each of those things and hundreds more like them serve to weaken our poorest communities and perpetuate their poverty.
The symptoms of these afflictions then begin to surface and interact with each other. The chain reaction goes through generational poverty, leading to cultural depression. Cultural depression discourages investment in the future and a focus on the problems of the moment. Young men and women who could have been the doctors and engineers of tomorrow become the drug dealers and sex workers of today. Our poor communities begin to look like they may threaten the surrounding healthy communities. The police, as dutiful protectors of our society, respond and try to contain the threat. The tragedy is that by treating the symptoms rather than the disease the police are reopening the deep wounds of our poor communities over and over again.
Further complicating the problem is that treatments are often designed without a realistic understanding of human psychology. People respond to incentives. People are irrational. People think in terms of direct causes and don’t naturally view the world as an elaborate chain of dominos. People think about how to get police forces the resources they need and think about all of the resources that criminals have at their disposal. Wealthy communities don’t want to pay higher taxes so they tell the police to seek funding through asset forfeiture and heavy criminal fines for the smallest misdemeanors. Unfortunately, people never stop to think that they’ve now given police a monetary incentive to view as many people as possible as criminals. Privately run prisons and earmarked funds similarly create perverse incentives that give the most funding to the least ethical behaviors.
Meanwhile in the poor communities police are trying to protect, arrests and deaths take away the fathers and husbands who could otherwise become stabilizing forces. Uncertainty and doubt make the children more likely to choose the paths that lead others to view them as threats. It becomes a tragic self fulfilling prophecy that as our society continues to view certain communities as threats we take away the stability those communities need in order to become healthy. So they deteriorate further which leads to more stringent controls and attempts by the police to protect the communities which aren’t in a feverish cycle of poverty induced crime. The police understand this dilemma intimately well. Many of them are working very hard to work with local community leaders to come up with innovative and caring solutions to our country’s problems but often find that the system they are a part of is trying to drive a wedge between communities and the officers trying to protect them.
Previous attempts to address generational poverty have only further inflamed the problem. The housing projects of the twentieth century often served less as a crutch on which poor communities could lean and more as a quarantine zone in which they could be contained. Welfare programs become modern segregation acts further isolating communities from each other. When the various subcultures in America are connected and intertwined in healthy ways we see people, money and culture flowing between them. Treating our poor communities like infections which must be contained only serves to create situations in which our police have to decide which community they should protect at the expense of another. All communities are vital to the health of our nation and police should not be forced to make Sophie’s choice.
The degree to which people in different parts of our country have lost touch with one another has made the problem even worse. People in rural America are dictating how the federal government should address the problems in south Chicago. People in San Francisco are dictating how the federal government should regulate the coal mines of Kentucky. Conservatives believe that cities are filled with degenerate and violent animals while liberals believe that small towns are filled with small minds. The police are pulled one way and then another by the federal money and public opinion polls that control their ability to continue operations and the ability of their administrators to stay in office. What good is a well meaning sheriff if their precinct goes bankrupt? What good is a well meaning sheriff if they can’t remain in office long enough to implement change? The police of America are constantly caught between a rock and a hard place. So long as the narratives are full of inaccurate diagnoses, our police will continue to be presented with perverse incentives.
Police are, by and large, good people who have dedicated their lives to serving their communities. Members of poor communities are, by and large, good people who share the moral values of their wealthier neighbors. Members of middle class and wealthy communities are, by and large, good people who care deeply about others but are just as busy in their own lives and with their own problems as everyone else is. The people involved in this hateful shouting match are, by and large, good people who just want to see the world become a safe and healthy place where everyone can prosper.
We need to realize that the people involved in this terrible dance are not villains. We need to realize that the symptoms which are surfacing now are caused by a disease which infected this country a very long time ago. We need to realize that we are caught in a destructive cycle where community protectors are being compelled to harm those communities instead, often against their better judgment. We need to realize that there is a deeper problem which we haven’t even begun to diagnose yet. We need to realize that there are no villains in this story and that our deep desire to find someone to blame is part of the broken system which perpetuates these problems. We need to realize all of those things and more before we can start healing the deep wounds giving rise to this madness.