Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Is the way that police treat black teens an issue of race?

Ok, so, it's taken me a while to get back here, but the conversation around the recent situation in McKinney, Texas brought me back. The difference I see in how people perceive instances of possible police brutality is usually not what happened in a situation or on a video. Instead, it's usually how people perceive those events as either acceptable or unacceptable that causes disagreement. Some people think that police brutality against black teens is obviously a "race issue"; some people think that "all" people experience difficulty with police. Some people genuinely perceive young, black people as dangerous to police officers when they move, unarmed, toward police officers during a moment of brutality or they "talk back" to police officers instead of following orders. These people may say that all would be well if these kids would just "sit down and listen to orders". Some people, however, would say that this is ridiculous, because they see this logic as positing black youth and young adults as inherently more dangerous than other people. These people may argue that white teens are often able to talk back to police officers without fear of harm. I want to get down to how I feel about all of this, and why.

First, I want to bring in some history. Why? I would argue that our history certainly shapes us, and I feel it's very important to establish why I believe this is an issue of racial prejudice. To me, I am not "making this into a race issue"; the United States' long history of interactions with black people makes this into a race issue. Let's begin with slavery, where primarily African people were taken from their homes, families, and towns to be stripped of their culture and their very humanity so that they might become free labor. Slavery was abolished 150 years ago, yes, but that leaves nearly 90 years of the United States' foundation rooted in free labor from black people. Slavery was abolished via the 13th Amendment, which has the following wording: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Now, I recognize that our legal system is based in the involuntary detainment of people who have been convicted of crimes, but this wording right along the abolition of slavery is uniquely placed. It implies that in order to gain back that free labor, one need only convict former slaves of crimes, and that's exactly what happened. "Jim Crow laws", as they're now called, specifically targeted black people; they effectively gave former slaves two options: have most rights usually available to citizens of the US removed, or go to prison. Until just 50 years ago, when these laws were eliminated, our judicial system overtly targeted black people, disproportionately making them into "criminals". (If you need/want a more in-depth look at how our judicial system has historically targeted black people, feel free to read some Angela Davis, specifically Are Prisons Obsolete?) If that's our history, where are we today? Is this history still relevant?

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, white people are 64% of the US population and 39% of the incarcerated population, while black people are 13% of the US population and 40% of the incarcerated population. This means that black people are five times as likely to be incarcerated. Beyond that, according to the Center for American Progress, one in three black men is imprisoned at some point in his life. Among women, black women are three times as likely to be incarcerated as white women. In the younger population, 40% of incarcerated youth are black, and black students are arrested and referred to law enforcement more often than white students. If we look at specific crimes, these disparities become even greater; with drug-related offenses, 5 times as many white people report using a drug, but black people are incarcerated for these offenses 10 times as often, according to the NAACP. There are many other statistics I could list, but I believe that all of these numbers are sufficient to show that there is still a great disparity in the way black and white people experience our judicial system, and this likely spills over into how black and white people experience police officers, as many recent events display. I see race as a huge factor in police brutality and all interactions with the judicial system, and this is based on the facts of our history and our current judicial system.

As for whether instances like the situation in McKinney should be seen as police brutality, I believe that police should not use force unless absolutely necessary. It is never necessary to pull a gun on a group of unarmed, nonviolent teenagers. If I concede that the teenagers in McKinney were being "rowdy", even that their refusal to leave the neighborhood may have deserved an arrest, though I do not completely believe these things, I still fail to see how violence was necessary in this situation. No one is put in danger by a group of teenagers arguing with a police officer. The young woman who was slammed to the ground and who the police officer put his weight into did not threaten anyone. She, along with a number of other young women, shouted back at the police officer. Verbal refusal to cooperate should not be met with physical violence. When young men come to defend their friend, who has been thrown to the ground, and they do not threaten an officer or attempt to attack an officer, when they just get in his way of violently throwing around a young woman, they do not deserve to be threatened with a gun. Young people may not be perfect. They may run from police, and they may talk back to police and refuse to follow orders, both of which are illegal under certain circumstances, but it must be inexcusable for a police officer to threaten and use violence to subdue nonviolent youth.

Finally, a disclaimer: racial discrimination happens in a lot of ways in the United States, and it happens to all people of color; however, police brutality seems, to me, an issue primarily of antiblackness, and it's easiest to compare their situation to that of white people, the most privileged racial group, so that's why this post focused on only black and white people.

Prison Policy Initiative:
Center for American Progress:

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