Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Race and police misconduct

I’ve been following the case of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates with some interest. (Here's a quick bit of background, in case you've spent the last few weeks living in a sensory deprivation tank or on some sort of eremitic desert religious retreat.) On the one hand, I’m glad to see a police abuse of power get some serious attention. On the other hand, it’s saddening (though not unexpected) to see how much attention is paid to a Harvard professor being wrongly arrested and briefly detained when cases like the cold-blooded murder of Kathryn Johnston by Atlanta police and their subsequent attempt at a cover-up barely seem to warrant mention at all.

It’s interesting and unfortunate how mainstream opinion on the issue has split into the following two camps:

1. The police officer who arrested Gates, James Crowley, was motivated by racism, and therefore the arrest was not justified.

2. The police officer who arrested Gates was not motivated by racism, and therefore the arrest was justified.

This conspicuously leaves out the possibility that the arrest of Gates was not motivated by racism, but was nevertheless unjustified. I don’t doubt that black men are more likely to suffer mistreatment from law enforcement, but there’s ample evidence that there are plenty of police willing to abuse anyone who irritates them on an equal-opportunity basis, and thus far there does not seem to be any evidence that the arrest was racially motivated.

So, why the focus on the supposed racial angle to the almost total exclusion of everything else? I think part of the answer actually ties partially into my recent post contrasting the far left with mainstream left-liberals. Remember, one of the defining traits of the mainstream Left is that government-related unpleasantness is never the product of systemic flaws in the nature of the government itself.

If this is your worldview, the idea that the police are racist is paradoxically comforting.
Suppose it were the case that the unjust arrest of Henry Louis Gates, as well as the more extreme and gruesome examples of police misconduct that ironically get much less attention, were all motivated by racism. That means that the problem can be fixed with just a modest tweak to the system: all you need to do is get rid of the racists in the police department and replace them with non-racists, and things will be fine. There are no deeper issues with the underlying system, just some individual bad apples. There is no need to worry about the possibility that there are problems with law enforcement that might be inextricably tied to other aspects of American statism, aspects that many people like.

(As an added bonus, this also redirects the blame to voluntary society. If the behavior of the police is not the product of something inherent in the system they work for or the position they hold in it, then presumably it must be the result of the society they came from- their families, communities, churches, popular entertainment, or just the culture in general. The more dysfunctional voluntary society is perceived to be, the more pressing the need for the government’s help will seem.)

For those who reflexively defend the police, focusing on race also has benefits. People frequently treat a refutation of the most commonly heard argument for a proposition as a conclusive disproof of the proposition itself. If the case of alleged misconduct against Gates (or anyone else) turns out to have no racist motivations, and racism is the only imaginable cause of police misconduct, then the police are vindicated.

This is not to say that racism is not a genuine factor in police misconduct; there are ample cases where it clearly is. However, I think the focus on it here actually serves to shield police misconduct rather than expose it. The public is presented with two possibilities, both of which absolve the system itself. This tendency is reinforced by the dominant ideology of journalists and other opinion-makers themselves. The good-government progressivism that dominates the mainstream media rules out the possibility that statism is inherently damaging or corrupting, whereas the idea that everyone outside a small clique of enlightened liberal thinkers is a bigoted neanderthal seems almost omnipresent.

Potential factors coming deriving from the nature of the government and laws themselves- an environment where so many peaceful and largely invisible acts are illegal that the police are encouraged to treat everyone like criminal suspects or hostile foreigners under military occupation, the invasiveness and brutality needed to effectively enforce such laws, attitudes among both police and the general public that turn law enforcement officials into an elite quasi-military class that is largely unaccountable to civilians, the sort of personality that is disproportionately likely to be drawn to a job with broad coercive authority- do not come up. This is an outcome congenial to both sides of the mainstream political spectrum, since neither side is eager for the public to seriously question the near-infinite reach of the modern state into daily life.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been following the National Police Misconduct Research Project's (InjusticeEverywhere.com) bad cop news stories at


for a couple of weeks now and let me tell you it is disturbing how many criminals there are with a badge and the power of the state behind them. Get the word out about this if you can.