Friday, July 8, 2016

Racism and Law Enforcement

DALLAS - At least five Dallas police officers were killed and seven others wounded Thursday evening as a protest over recent police shootings was interrupted by chaos.

Yes, there is institutional racism in America, and it does infect police departments and other law enforcement institutions. The job of the police does not call for a deep understanding and appreciation of the socioeconomic factors involved in driving certain segments of the population to commit crimes. Police officers see the obvious: the color of the skin of the people they often have to arrest. In time, intentions notwithstanding, they become adept at racial profiling, and the practice works enough times to make it self-justifying.

Involvement of so many people from African-American, Asian and Hispanic backgrounds in law enforcement does little to change the ruling ethos in these institutions so long as the levers power remain under the control of mostly white men.

More importantly though, considering the realities of police work which, as we noted above, often consist of policing underprivileged communities which often house people from minority backgrounds, police officers from these backgrounds in time fall victim to the same practices involving of racial profiling and even fear vis-à-vis their “own people.” That is, even when law enforcement institutions are diverse enough at every level or even completely dominated by people from minority backgrounds, they will remain vulnerable to the adoption of racist practices so long as crime-fighting consists, often enough, of policing minority communities and arresting people from minority backgrounds.

So, neither the development of a deeper understanding of the socioeconomic realities driving criminal behavior, nor coming from the “right” ethnic and racial background are sufficient conditions to changing police behavior and perceptions so long as the current socioeconomic realities remain unchanged. That is, so long as poverty keeps affecting people from minority backgrounds in a disproportionate manner transforming some of their neighborhoods into dens for gangs and drug-traffickers among other criminal behavior, law enforcement institutions will continue to operate under the sway of racist assumptions and attitudes.

The real challenge facing America at this stage then is not about training and reeducation, even though, these are important ingredients on the short-term, rather, it is as it has been for decades, about changing certain prevalent socioeconomic realities. But the real danger facing America is the fact that its political class doesn’t seem responsible enough to rise to the level of the challenge.

Academic studies of socioeconomic realities and their changing nature over the last few decades might challenge the accuracy of some of the assumptions made above, but our behavior is influenced not only by realities but by our perception of these realities. The analysis above is based on the “facts” as discussed by the media and the political class from across the spectrum since the mid-1980s, that is, since I came to America as a student.

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