What if Black Lives Matter Got it Wrong?

Much has been said about institutionalized racism in the American police force, but maybe that isn’t even the key problem?

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An 8-year old special needs child arrested in Key West, Florida in 2018

Following the American debate on racism from abroad watching the hardening rhetoric between American liberals and conservatives, I cannot help but think that neither of them have really grasped the fundamental issues America is facing.

Perhaps by living inside the US and only seeing American society, you become blind to the nature of its problems. Americans are very well aware of that they have problems. But the question is whether they are actually able to put those problems into context.

There seems to be a deeply held conviction among American liberals and progressives that if only people stopped being racist, so many of their problems would go away. This belief that American institutions, specifically the police really only has one key problem and that is racism.

Yes, I know that this is a simplification and that most American likely have a slightly more nuanced view of reality. But if you watch the rhetoric, it is almost exclusively focused on the racism of American police.

There are two competing views struggling to win the adherents. Conservatives like to say:

Meanwhile liberals and progressives like to claim that the US police is inherently racist. Progressives such as Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility meanwhile focus almost exclusively on introspection and self-flagelation. It is like a cult where the main focus is to shame regular office working white liberals into come to terms with their own biases and racism.

But as the arrest of this 8-year old white boy in Florida shows there is a much deeper problem that goes far beyond the race question, and which also isn’t about a few bad apples.

The whole system is rotten. Let us reflect upon this. It wasn’t a single cop who made a mistake here, rather everything was wrong at every level:

  1. The teachers should never have called the cops in the first place. An 8-year old kid hitting a teacher one is not a criminal matter. Teachers have been dealing with such situations all over the world for centuries without involving the police.
  2. That the teacher called the cops and no other teacher or authority objected to this action also speaks volumes of systemic dysfunction.
  3. The police accepted the call as if it was something normal and picked police to answer the call. Why did the police think dispatching the police to deal with an 8-year think that was appropriate use of limited police resources.
  4. They didn’t send just one cop. They sent two cops, to deal with an 8-year old with such tiny puny arms that he couldn’t even fit into the hand cuffs.
  5. The two cops accepted the mission without asking questions.
  6. They presumed to handcuff the child without anyone asking questions, about such a choice.
  7. The cop had the audacity to scold the child for putting him in that situation. In what alternative moral universe did this cop live in?
  8. The child was taken to jail and booked without anybody protesting or raising eyebrows.

The scare party about all the issues I raise here is that if I mentioned these things in a social media debate, a lot of Americans would tell me “That is just standard procedure,” as if that makes everything right. This is precisely the problem. The fact that the cops is that makes this even more horrible. Had the cops not followed procedure it would have been a bit more comforting. It could have comforted us in the knowledge that this was an outlier. An anomaly. A case of bad apples.

It makes about as much logical sense as claiming the gassing of Jews was fine as long as the camp commander followed the established procedure. No, the issue here isn’t to what degree the cops follow procedure. The whole problem is the immorality in the procedures themselves.

Americans are so seemingly used to this behavior that they don’t even react. That is a major problem. So it is usual to simply point out how unusual this kind of police behavior is. Outside the US, cops don’t come to a school over minor issues like this. There would have to be something very serious for a cop to show up. Perhaps if a child was wielding a dangerous weapon. The key test is if it is an issue that the teachers cannot keep under control themselves. Grown-up teachers can obviously deal with an unarmed tiny 8-year old.

In my native Norway and that goes for a lot of other countries, handcuffing a subject is not standard procedure. It depends entirely on how cooperative they are. The risk of them running away etc. A well behaved adult will normally not get handcuffed. The idea of handcuffing a small child is simply something belonging to an alternative universe for us. It defies all rime and reason.

What we are dealing with is thus a systemic issue. An attitude towards crime, misbehavior, police and justice which is totally out of whack in America. You cannot change behavior and attitudes immediately but you can change procedures. A system with procedures setup to carry off 8 year olds in handcuffs for minor misbehavior is a red flag for deeper problems.

Thus we cannot reduce this problem into an issue of a few bad apples or being about racism. It is the whole attitude towards crime and the procedures setup to deal with it which is profoundly wrong.

Consider this case with a black family with parents and children which had to lie down on the tarmac at gunpoint.

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Aurora Police were filmed detaining and handcuffing a black family with young children after they mistakenly thought their car was stolen

It is easy to turn this case into an issue about racism. And that was certainly a factor. However it was the which allowed this to happen in the first place. The procedure said that in car theft situations the suspects should be brought out at gun point and handcuffed in the manner which happened here.

Had the family been white, the police may have chosen to give them the benefit of the doubt and acted different. But the key problem here is that police procedures allow the police to escalate dramatically a situation like this. Blacks are treated worse by the police in most western countries, but there is simply not an allowance in the procedures followed to allow such a dramatic escalation as US police are allowed.

Hence the outcomes of racism are simply far less sever. Hence the bad outcomes for African-Americans in situations involving the police are not necessarily caused by the police actively being against them as much as it may be that they have horrible procedures and they simply don’t feel any empathy for the African-American caught in their headlights.

Hence there may be a far more pragmatic and simpler approach to bringing more equality to minorities of all colors. Rather than engaging in the somewhat futile attempt of erasing all traces of racism among white Americans, one should probably engage in more practical and concrete action of reforming police procedures and training.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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