Only one candidate in last week’s Republican presidential debate was asked to directly address the Black Lives Matter movement, and that candidate was Gov. Scott Walker.
Moderator Megyn Kelly asked Walker:
“Governor Walker, many in the Black Lives Matter movement, and beyond, believe that overly aggressive police officers targeting young African Americans is the civil-rights issue of our time. Do you agree? And if so, how do you plan to address it? If not, why not?”
Walker responded with an answer about sufficient training of officers “not only on the way into their positions but all the way through their time” and about “consequences” for those who don’t properly perform their duties.
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Both the question and the answer focused an inordinate amount of attention on police conduct and not enough on revealing that they are simply the agents of policy instituted by officials at the behest of the body politic.
This deficit of examining systems exists all across this debate. It fails to indict society as a whole, as I firmly believe it should. It puts all the focus on the tip of the spear rather than on the spear itself.
Look at it this way: Many local municipalities experience budgetary pressure. Rather than raise taxes or cut services in response, things that are often politically unpalatable, they turn to law enforcement and courts to make up the difference in tickets and fines. Some can also increase the number of finable offenses and stiffen the penalties.
Officers, already disproportionately deployed and arrayed in so-called “high-crime” neighborhoods — invariably poor and minority neighborhoods — are then charged with doing the dirty work. The increase in sheer numbers of interactions creates friction with targeted populations and ups the odds that individual biases will be introduced.
Without fail, something eventually goes horribly wrong.
We look at the end interaction, examining the officers for bias and the suspect for threatening behavior, rather than looking at the systems that necessitated the interactions.
Society itself is to blame. There is blood on everyone’s hands, including the hands still clutching the tax revenue that those cities needed but refused to solicit, instead shifting the mission of entire police departments “from “protect and serve” to “punish and profit,” as Mother Jones magazine recently put it in a fascinating article on this subject.
Is it a coincidence that many of the recent cases involving black people killed by the police began with stops for minor offenses?
This “fiscal menace,” as the magazine called it, is added to a system often already addicted to ever-improving crime numbers — a statistically unsustainable condition — and a ballooning prison population. To maintain the momentum, cities needed to crack down on lower and lower-level crimes, sacrificing more and more lives — largely poor and minority ones — to feed the beast. Public safety gave cover for a perversion of justice.
In another moment during the debate, Kelly asked Ben Carson about race relations in America and “how divided we seem right now.” She continued: “And what, if anything, you can do — you would do as the next president to help heal that divide.”
First, before the answer, I have a nit to pick with the question. The framing of the state of race relations as a “divide,” to my mind, creates a false impression, an equivalency. It suggests a lateral-ness. But this discussion is about vertical-ness, about hierarchy. It is about whether state power is being used disproportionately as an oppressive and deadly force against minorities — particularly black people — in this country.
Carson responded with a prelude that seemed to label those demanding justice and equality “purveyors of hatred” seeking a “race war,” an outrageously exaggerated use of incendiary rhetoric.
Then he said:
”What we need to think about instead — you know, I was asked by an NPR reporter once, why don’t I talk about race that often. I said it’s because I’m a neurosurgeon. And she thought that was a strange response. And you say — I said, you see, when I take someone to the operating room, I’m actually operating on the thing that makes them who they are. The skin doesn’t make them who they are. The hair doesn’t make them who they are. And it’s time for us to move beyond that.”
This was an eloquent exposition of the absurdity of race as a biological construct but also an absurdly elementary avoidance of racism as a very real social construct. I wish it were that people could all simply “move beyond that” at will, that they were able to simply choose to slough off the cumulative accrual of centuries of systematic anti-black negativity. But, that is not a power people possess.
That is why when people respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter,” it grates. All Lives Matter may be one’s personal position, but until this country values all lives equally, it is both reasonable and indeed necessary to specify the lives it seems to value less.
© 2015 New York Times News Service