Homelessness crisis. Coronavirus pandemic. Racial tensions and disturbances. What’s next, earthquakes?
The typical Orange County person might be forgiven a certain degree of shakiness. We’re not used to seeing loud, angry rallies, confrontations between police and protestors. Boarded-up storefronts – especially ironic just a few days after those businesses are allowed to reopen – add to the grim picture.
In commenting on current events, I usually try to take a lightly humorous approach to things, but that’s difficult right now. It’s especially difficult because the solutions may not be well received by those who need to hear them.
Not too long ago I had a black student who was an ex-Marine returning to college to finish his degree. He had interrupted his studies to enlist in the Corps and serve his country.
Now, if you have a stereotypical image of a young black man wearing gold chains and his pants down below his fundament, set it aside. He typically wore a three-piece suit and drove a late model BMW sedan.
Despite all of this, he was repeatedly pulled over by police. For no reason that was apparent to him, he had to sit there fuming while the officers checked for outstanding warrants. Since his record was clean, he was free to go … until the next time.
This is not a rare occurrence. There are two conclusions from this.
1) There is different treatment for young black men and anybody else. I can’t magically reach into the minds of the officers who “hassled” my student, but there are two conclusions to draw here: either they considered black men more likely to be criminals, or followed the admonition to “look for anyone who looks out of place” in an area.
2) Absent racism, the practice of targeting all “out of place” folks needs a re-think. Even if well intended, this approach does not serve good relations between police and the people they serve.
I’m not an expert in law enforcement, so I may be talking out my elbow here, but there is ample evidence that current policy just isn’t working.
Let me also point out that there is a big difference between sincere protesters and opportunistic looters, as well as provocateurs just wanting to stir up trouble.
Aside from my anger at the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the next most outrageous thing that happened in the Gopher State on May 25 was how the three other officers who stood by while Derek Chauvin – now charged with murder – did nothing to intervene while Floyd and bystanders pleaded for more humane treatment for the prisoner.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the vast majority of people in law enforcement are good people doing a difficult job. It’s not easy being a cop. It can be exhausting, scary and dispiriting. You have to literally carry a heavy burden. An officer typically wears a Kevlar vest beneath his long-sleeved dark uniform, and has a belt holding a pistol, handcuffs, a Taser gun and other stuff. Even when not in danger, being a police officer is taxing work.
The burdens of the profession create a bond among its members. And what grows out of that is a sense that a standup guy doesn’t rat out a fellow officer who may have crossed a line, legal or moral.
This attitude needs to be changed as much as any law about use of force. A culture needs to grow that says “Hey, bud, go easy” to your partner when that’s appropriate. That can sometimes be a more difficult thing to do than facing physical danger, but it needs to become second nature if we are to restore confidence.
Addressing the issue of racial inequalities is also a sensitive matter. Do we believe that if cops would only act more like social workers, a new era of peace and prosperity would dawn for African Americans?
Racism does exist in America, as it does in virtually every society. What it comes down to is fear of “The Other.” People who are different from you. Doubting its existence is like pretending that too much or not enough rain can’t be a bad thing.
There are some serious issues in black America that have little or nothing to do with the cop in the cruiser.
- Black median income is rising, but still lags behind every other major ethnic group. According to the Peterson Foundation, the 2018 median income for blacks is $41,361, compared to $51,450 for Hispanics, $70,642 for non-Hispanic whites and $87,194 for Asian families.
- The high school graduation rate – according to the National Center for Education Statistics – among blacks is the lowest among any major ethnic group other than Native Americans (American Indians).
- A person with a four-year degree makes an average income twice as big as those with only a high school diploma, and the difference in lifetime income can amount to anywhere from half a million to a million dollars.
I know we can look at statistics until our eyes get blurry, but it seems to me that the fastest and most permanent way to erase (or at least reduce) any racial divides it to enshrine education as the best way up and out.
And that goes for both sides of that street. Everybody needs to figure out a new way to do things. We must be willing to live our lives a different way and discard our non-useful habits of thinking, or we will do the same things over and over again.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted on Wednesdays.