Fear and paranoia now firmly grip African Americans and police officers in the United States. Most recently, another grim chapter to this nation’s nightmare was added by the murder of two police officers and a sheriff’s deputy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
A weary President Barack Obama is calling for national unity and imploring us to “temper our words and open our hearts.” A majority of Americans say the next president should focus on improving race relations, no doubt in response to the racial tensions underlying police killings.
It is difficult to say something profound, but perhaps we can start with what is not helpful. What is not helpful is to blame the words and actions of President Obama for getting cops killed. Data from the Officers Down Memorial Page actually show that police fatalities are lower under Obama than the previous four presidents.
What is not helpful is to blame police deaths on anti-police rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although there is no doubt that anti-police rhetoric has created a climate that has produced police killers, we should not lose sight of the fact that the anti-police rhetoric is in response to the repeated extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men that, more often than not, do not result in police being criminally charged or convicted.
Just as anti-police rhetoric is being rightly condemned, killings of unarmed black people should be condemned with just as much righteous indignation.
What is also not helpful is the valuing of one life over another, which is the reason that the Black Lives Matter movement was created. However, an unfortunate binary has been created that forces people to see the deaths of police officers as more tragic than the deaths of black people, or vice versa.
When police officers are killed in the line of duty, some politicians have loudly and repeatedly responded by saying we need toughness and law and order. When Alton Sterling was killed by police, Donald Trump initially avoided making comments.
When he finally commented about Sterling and Philando Castile, he made a generic statement about the “senseless and tragic deaths of two motorists,” with no mention or acknowledgement of the concerns African Americans have about policing of black people, thus stripping it from its racialized context.
It is tempting to make this into an “us versus them” dynamic, but it is not that simple. The intersection of identities complicates it.
Consider the plight of black police officers. David Brown, the African American police chief of Dallas, exuded strength and character in the wake of the Dallas police shootings. He acknowledged that on most days police do not feel appreciated. Yet his impassioned words struck a powerfully emotional yet nonaccusatory tone as he sought to bring healing to his police department and community.
We have to stop seeing a person or group of people as being intrinsically different from oneself: a process referred to as “othering.” Our nation’s unresolved problems around race make it difficult to see our shared humanity and feel one another’s pain.
Race and institutional racism have desensitized us to the tragedy of the loss of life. What is forgotten in all cases, regardless of race, is that someone has lost a family member. The pain of losing a loved one is no greater for the families of slain police officers than it is for the families of slain unarmed black men and women.
We must recognize this simple fact. We are at a crossroads as a nation. As we have seen, hypermasculine posturing evoking law and order will not solve our race and policing problem. Militant groups espousing violent rhetoric will also not solve our race and policing problem.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once famously stated, “We must live together as brothers [and sisters], or perish as fools.” Only time will tell whether we as a nation finally come to terms with our race and policing problem and implement the necessary changes to policing that will create more trust and reduce the fear that exists on both sides.
Kevin Cokley is director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices fellow.
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