White people and police—our own complicated relationship
David R. Weiss
November 26, 2015
Disclaimer: I am not a scholar of race, privilege, or policing. And as an introvert, when the conversation gets loud (even on social media), I tend to sit silent at the edges. But I’m getting increasingly edgy out here at the edge. I need to say something. And what I say is not nearly enough, but it’s a start.
I’m beginning to understand the persistent pervasive mix of fear, anguish, and rage that far too many of my African American brothers and sisters (and that means fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, siblings, grandparents, cousins, and friends—a whole community) experience in the face of … at the hands-feet-club-taser-gun of … the police.
I’m also beginning to see this is about much more than any individual police officer. It’s an entire system that both casually and carefully covers up abusive policing at least as often as it holds it accountable. It’s a system that polices more trivially and more vigorously in black communities, sending black persons into a legal system where they’re prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated at rates much higher than the white community.
If “justice is blind,” then in this case what she’s blind to is not the race or status of those who stand before her but the deep injustices built into the system over which she keeps watch.
But all this only names my growing awareness of the very troubled relationship between African Americans and police. There is an equally problematic relationship between white people and police that is just as important to name—especially by those of us who are white.
Policing has always worked (more or less, but mostly more) to maintain “law and order”—and often with a preference for order over law—within a larger system of power and privilege. Even though police officers are, by and large, working class members, the laws they enforce and the order they maintain tend to benefit most directly the interests of the powerful and privileged.
True, not all white people are powerful and privileged—far from it. But most powerful and privileged people in this country are white. And race has been the single most effective way to keep the rest of us divided against ourselves. And policing has been an unwitting partner in this. I don’t mean innocent; I mean “without full understanding.” None of us are innocent.
Born into, raised up within, nurtured and misshapen by a system that prizes privilege over community, and power over justice, we who are white become adept at the choreography of privilege not by choice but by default, by habit, ultimately by instinct. We experience privilege at (widely) varying levels, most often correlated with our access to power, but even poorer white people act in a symbolic universe that accords whiteness privilege, both in how they think of themselves and in how they are perceived by others.
So, as I find myself uncomfortably, inconveniently challenged by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is what I realize: the worst actions of white police officers are merely the tip of (my!) iceberg.
These are NOT the actions of a few bad apples, they represent—unmasked in their brutality—the unholy values that operate at the core of our whole society. The problem isn’t police violence; it’s privileged violence. It’s the violence of the system in which police stand at the vanguard, most visible, in some ways most vulnerable, and in many ways permitted to be most violent. Police are privilege, embodied and revealed as brute force. They are privilege not because they experience it themselves (they rarely do, except in the adrenaline rush that might pass for privilege but truly isn’t), but because they enforce it on behalf of an entire society.
When we white people read about and react to the worst cases of reported police violence that are multiplying across the country right now (and what’s multiplying is not the instances of violence but the reports of them—their visibility is up) this is what I see:
There are lots—frightfully lots!—of white racists who would give anything to have a gun plus power. Unencumbered by the “moderation” to which police are beholden, these people would “enforce” privilege through racial violence at the drop of a hat. They thrive in the online comments sections of news stories and social media, but they also show up in person, their faces shrouded by white sheets, or by facemasks (as at Minneapolis’ Fourth precinct), or proudly displayed for all to see.
There are also lots of white conservatives who don’t openly espouse racism and who would not identify as racist, who would perhaps even reject racism as wrong, but for whom order has such value that police violence is excused or lamented as the ugly but unavoidable “flip side” of a functional well-ordered society. Much of white America is here, which explains why Donald Trump’s race-tinged rhetoric resonates so well. He sells the façade of privilege under the guise of hyper-patriotism, but behind the rhetoric it’s racist division that he’s hawking.
BUT—and this is my critical, self-indicting insight—even most liberal/progressive white people are so entangled in the system of privilege in which we live and move and have our being that our reaction to police violence, our patience with the investigatory process, our dismay at the social disruption of Black Lives Matter actions, and our lethargy at making our own voices shrill and our own bodies present, all of this is the disconcerting (no, damning) measure of what we will reluctantly tolerate as the price of letting privilege run amok in our world … precisely because for us it is more comfortable and convenient to live with privilege than to live against it.
I’m not anti-police, and, all things being equal, I’d certainly prefer to hold on to my comfort and convenience. But that’s exactly the point. All things aren’t equal. And that inequity is having toxic and deadly consequences for black Americans. So if I want a society, a future (for my grandchildren as well as for theirs), that embraces equality and community, not power and privilege, then (at least for the time being) comfort and convenience need to take a back seat to a passion for justice. And that involves acknowledging that police violence is less about unjust officers than about an unjust society that police are tasked to maintain. My unjust society. Police violence is the flip-side of my privilege.
The longer I tolerate inequity—which benefits me (which makes tolerance far easier than resistance)—the longer I remain complicit in the conditions in which police violence will continue to erupt, the ugly but inevitable dark side . . . of the life I’m fine with.
I’m not fine with it anymore.
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David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013; www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well asTo the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”