On Monday, New York Times columnist Charles Blow reminded the nation, that being black in America has consequences when African-Americans interact with the police. He relayed the story of how his son, Tahj, a Yale University student, was confronted at gunpoint by a campus police officer. The young man was unarmed and had committed no crime. He had just left the campus library. However, because Blow’s son resembled the description of a burglary suspect, an officer accosted the student, and forced him to the ground.
In his opinion column, Charles Blow expressed anger and concern over the way his son was treated. He proclaimed:
I am reminded of what I have always known, but what some would choose to deny: that there is no way to work your way out — earn your way out — of this sort of crisis. In these moments, what you’ve done matters less than how you look.
While expressing outrage at how the police treated his son, Blow did not mention the race of the officer who confronted Tahj. That officer was, like the suspect, African-American. When right-wing bloggers discovered that the detaining officer was also black, it set off a frenzy of writers upbraiding Blow for being a race-baiter. Breitbart.com proudly declared, “Race-Hoax Debunked: Cop Who Detained Charles Blow’s Son is Black”. Other right-leaning publications offered up similar rebukes. The New York Post, The American Thinker, and NewsBusters, all weighed in. Each right-wing site basically argued that the incident could not have been racial, because the officer involved was black.
In a follow up interview on CNN, Blow argued that the race of the officer was not as important as the fact that police culture encourages officers to profile black men. Academic studies support Blow’s argument. Sure if Blow knew the race of the officer when he first wrote his column, he probably should have mentioned it. Divulging the officer’s race would not have undermined his narrative, but it could have insulated him from later criticism alleging that he was hiding important details. However, nothing Blow said, or did not say, changes the reality that African-American men are viewed suspiciously by police officers, black and white alike.
Black males between the ages of 15 and 19, are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police officers, than their white male counterparts of the same age. White police officers account for the vast majority of deadly force incidents. However, when black officers do shoot and kill, the person they are shooting is usually African-American.
Conservatives seem incapable of comprehending the complex dynamics of modern American racism. In their simplistic understanding, all that is required to remove race from the equation is a minority police officer. If a black person is victimized by a black cop, conservatives reason that race must not have been a factor. To suggest racial assumptions could still be relevant is to “play the race card”. Yet, this shallow point of view fundamentally misinterprets how racism in police policy works. Police culture reflects some of the underlying biases held by the larger society. Racial profiling and police brutality are not typically the individual excesses of openly racist officers, hell bent on ethnic cleansing. Rather they are symptomatic of a covertly racist society that has yet to acknowledge the persistence of its own latent, but enduring prejudices.
The idea that a black police officer is automatically insulated from charges of anti-black racism because of his skin color is a misunderstanding of the complex nuances of racism. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke is no less a racist than Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Clarke’s contempt for the African-American community he is supposed to serve, is a glaring example that a black cop can be every bit as much a bigot towards African-American men as a white cop. American police culture, reflecting the society that created it, has a race problem. That problem is manifested in the behavior of police departments, and individual officers, both white and black.