Reducing the subject of this community's racial problems to a number of overreacting and/or racist police is a convenient way of denying our shared responsibility
In an editorial published last Sunday, Statesman Editor Rich Oppel stood by his paper's reporting, attacking the Chronicle's and my criticisms. Elsewhere in this issue, News Editor Michael King deals with these charges ("Austin@Large," p.19). Here, I offer no rebuttal but instead reiterate my deeper concerns: Reducing the subject of this community's racial problems to a number of overreacting and/or racist police in a department that has neither will nor idea how to control them ignores the deeper issues.
The real culprits are all of us including police and reporters, readers and activists, whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. The racial divide and resulting tensions are ill-served even aggravated by being defined as a problem between the cops and minorities. We live in a racially divided society, but this is a problem we've largely stopped addressing. Minorities have run out of trust, progressives out of ideas. The right usually denies there is a problem, embracing it only as an excuse to promote their agenda (e.g., school vouchers). Many blame minorities for not taking more responsibility, ignoring the logical consequences of several hundred years of history. Politicians, special interest groups, and citizens all demand ever-increasing tax cuts, resulting in deeper and deeper budget cuts that mostly affect domestic social spending, leaving precious few tools for addressing social problems.
The anti-tax crowd charges that liberals support taxes as a way of taking your money and giving it to "someone else" (code for minorities). Thus, taxes are legalized theft.
I'd be willing to bet that the taxes paid by most lower- and middle-class Americans represent a small percentage of the real costs of the benefits they derive from government, without even factoring in social welfare costs. What government does, we ignore, deny, or take for granted. What we pay outrages us. The government provides roads, water, utility infrastructure, education, police, fire, defense, safety and environmental regulations, building codes, safety standards, and health and mental health services, as well as maintaining the judicial system. Those of you doing spit takes, proclaiming that we are overregulated and legislated, are mostly fools.
One of the deepest political differences dividing Americans concerns their basic conceptions of government's responsibility. Some believe the government that governs least governs best (though I would argue they have little idea of how such cuts will affect their lives). I belong to those who feel that government is a way for us to interact, cooperate, and help one another. This is not just bleeding-heart liberalism. The better things function, the more the whole community is included, and the less any group, race, or economic class is excluded, the healthier the society.
When I attacked Bush's dividend tax cuts, I was accused of advocating class war talk radio's defining term for that debate. But verbal attacks on the rich no matter how misguided, undeserved, and mean-spirited really don't promote class war. The creation of a large, increasingly and devastatingly disenfranchised lower class does. I support the social safety net, spending on health and human services, quality education, and opportunity for all, accompanied by pervasive societal inclusion, not only because they are morally right, but because they promise the best world for my grandchildren and their grandchildren.
Increasingly, mine is a minority voice, as our society heads full speed in the other direction. Sadly, along with shared social responsibility, the notion of an integrated society has lost commitment.
The police are us, all of us. They try to maintain order and structure as legislated and also as desired by society, those often being in conflict with one another. On the frontier of social change, cops are vulnerable and exposed. Carrying the history of the past's priorities, they are charged with enforcing our agenda for the present. They act as our agents, even if we disagree with specific actions; they preserve our way of life even if we deny it.
When police succeed, their efforts aren't noticed, though they are in evidence every day. When they fail, they are widely criticized. Blaming them for social problems is a convenient way of denying our shared responsibility.
The African-American community in particular deeply distrusts the police, who too often share the same feelings. This is not because the police are racists, as some would have it, or that African-Americans are lawless, as others would. In a society that has largely relegated this issue to sound bites, existing racial tensions nationwide are logically acted out at the point of the most interaction between communities which is when the law is being implemented.
When police stop a white driver, responses range from almost subliminal satisfaction that they are being protected to indignation at "how dare they be hassled?" When African-Americans are stopped, they feel threatened. The police know this, which means they are also more on-edge. Both sides have a learned history of confrontation with each other; it's not in itself racism or disrespect for the law but knowledge.
Those who wax most nostalgic over the lost past when doors were left unlocked and keys in cars are already indulging in fantasy. When they blame the disappearance on the absence of school prayer or legalization of abortion, they move to the hallucinatory. They are forgetting that was a time when a person of color or the wrong economic class could be stopped and rousted by the police for being in the wrong neighborhood. When there were no Miranda rights nor legally mandated civil defenders. When police brutality against the lower class was not just accepted, but expected, if it meant keeping order.
Bad social policies, as well as pressing problems we fail to address through legislation or budgeting, turn into police issues. In our short-attention-span world, we've forgotten about the history of race relations; the century of legal, widespread segregation; and difficulty of passing civil rights legislation. Currently, any notion that we are at the beginning of a social process, rather than at its conclusion, is lost. Unfortunately, the country is being run by conservatives: ideological heirs of those who fought integration, now born-again civil rights activists. Their aim is not to achieve equality as much as preserve the status quo, especially the rights of the traditionally privileged. They declare that now the playing field is level and that the true racists are now minority rights activists who complain about inequality.
This corrupt view of race relations, as does every societal failure and racial misunderstanding, becomes a police problem.
Almost every time I've been stopped by police, I was guilty of speeding, of running a stop sign, of making an illegal turn. Apologetically, I wait for their judgment: always admonishment, sometimes a ticket, others just a warning. The times I haven't actually broken a law, they've soon explained why I was stopped. Racing out of an alley late at night with a bike in my trunk, I was glad when they explained. It made the neighborhood feel more protected.
When I read about the confrontation between Scott Glasgow and Jessie Lee Owens, it breaks my heart. Without passing judgment: Both suffered the consequences of learned distrust. If only Glasgow had not felt the need to completely control the situation, instead answering Owens' question as my situation with the bike was explained to me. But, based on experience and training, he did. If only Owens trusted the police; but, based on experience and shared neighborhood wisdom, he didn't. The result was tragic, but blaming the police is denying how much of this is all our responsibility.
It's always amazing how most people are so willing to forgive their own mistakes but condemn others'. Read the opening of this column again, where I acknowledge a serious ethical error. If I were a cop, with so much more pressure on me every day, an error of that magnitude could cost a life. How would I ever recover from the burden of such a mistake?