Recent events in Louisiana and Minnesota reflect a long and dark history between African American males and police officers who patrol in the communities where they reside. The fact is that in many cases, it is a white male officer and an African American male suspect who later becomes a victim.
This manifestation is the legacy of policing in the African American community to the extent that the outcome becomes predictable and fuels a reaction from a cross section of people who see images that suggest police officers don’t value the lives of African Americans. In nearly every situation, the victim is without a weapon, or the weapon is concealed and cannot be accessed during the interaction.
The question, then, becomes, why are African American police officers not involved in shooting unarmed African American males at the rate that white officers are?
This question is relevant, particularly because African American police officers engage in police misconduct at a rate comparable to white officers, and they treat African Americans equally as badly, and in some cases worse, than white officers do. The only difference seems to be that they don’t shoot them.
This alone, in the eyes of the African American community, lends credence to the notion that race is the single driving force. It doesn’t matter whether this is actually true because in America, when the specter of race becomes the focal point of social discourse, logic is set aside, emotion takes over and nothing seems to get resolved.
A lot of times, things get worse. Just look at what happened in Dallas — an unspeakable retaliation aimed at white people in general and white police officers in particular. Now we are engaged in a national conversation on race relations. The discussion is couched in policing, but it is really about the legacy of race in America.
What is clear from all of this is that African Americans are not interested in research studies or what city and community leaders are telling them. They are guided by their personal experiences and the images that depict callous disregard for the lives of people who look like them. The community is stout in its belief that under the same set of circumstances with a white person, the outcomes would have been different.
Therefore, what needs to happen is that we need to fundamentally change the dynamics of policing in African American communities. We need new, strict policies that better promote a representative bureaucracy. The idea of a representative bureaucracy, whereby the number of African American police officers is proportional to the number of people living in the community where they patrol, is the only acceptable remedy to address these issues.
The pain of policing in African American communities has caused a collective and longstanding psychosis that has lasted for more than 100 years and cannot be cured with the status quo. Low-income communities are where many of the shooting incidents occur. These communities are devoid of trust and have little faith that police officers are there to protect them, much less help them.
It is difficult to find an African American who has not had a negative experience with a police officer. Learning how to interact with police officers is tantamount to slaves learning how to interact with overseers. This level of social conditioning is normalized and stifles the development of children and is carried on from one generation to the next.
It may turn out that the rate of police-involved shootings of African American men remains the same. If that is the case, the focus on race and policing in these communities must shift to other areas of structural and fundamental change. In the meantime, race is the one and only issue of concern.
Terrence Allen is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.
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