I have not closely examined the most recent shootings of unarmed black youths by police. I do not know who is guilty of what or if anyone is secretly in The Klan. But seeing these things through the eyes of a gambler, I know that one event rarely tells you much about a broader reality, no matter how much we flap our gums about it.
That’s yet another reason why the news media are worse than useless. They take one case and turn it into a polarizing drama, like a sporting event. All of our concerns, political leanings and personal perspectives are distilled down to a rooting interest. The outcome of a trial will leave one side vindicated and the other side alienated and both sides will be angrier than they were before. The big picture and the real issues will slide off the table. It’s the same thing the media do to our political process as a whole.
I play about thirty hours a week of poker in Las Vegas and meet people from all over the country, with all kinds of political views. When the subject of misuse of the police, or abuse by the police comes up, it is always a hot topic of conversation. A lot of people are upset by police militarization. Others gripe about how we get $400 tickets from red light cameras that make private corporations a lot of money, but operate at a loss for the municipalities that run them. In other words, your tax money subsidizes an operation that serves no other purpose than to transfer bills from your wallet to corporate coffers and from there into campaign coffers. Just about everyone has had a run in with a bad cop. Many say they have been abused or unjustly cited or arrested. I’ve even met a bunch of cops. Most of them seemed like quite decent people. One was an obvious time bomb. Which is great because he is SWAT.
In such a context, the conversation is about the extent of a problem. We might disagree on the extent, but almost everyone sees the problem: the police are taking on an increasingly adversarial role with respect to the general population. In this context, people are willing to listen to other perspectives and they find a lot of agreement. Almost everyone is willing to acknowledge that blacks get the short end.
The way the media presents the issue, however, divides us into factions and the worst in us comes out. Our anger and animosity creates an obsession with the story. Our obsession with the story makes coverage of the story profitable. Not only do we watch for hours, the coverage needn’t investigate, question or discuss anything of value because we’re just there to root for our side. An important conversation is reduced to a WWE event.
Even the events themselves, and their causes, are distorted by the endless, moronic discussion. What happens when someone is shot by the police? It is a more complicated question than it seems, but it is dumbed down into its simplest possible form.
With a gambler’s eye, I see these events like so. An officer and a civilian have a confrontation. At every point in the confrontation, there are a range of outcomes. Are the first words they say to each other hostile or cordial or somewhere in between? How are those words interpreted? How quickly do things become physical, if at all? Does the officer draw a gun or a batton? How often does he decide to use the weapon? Maybe it’s 41% of the time with a white and 58% of the time with a black, a difference even the officer might not perceive, but which will make a difference over time.
Each party will bring a mindset that affects the frequency of each possible outcome at each point. Their personal histories and prejudices will come into play. Has the officer had a more difficult time with young, black men? Has the civilian had trouble with white cops? Sometimes one or both will be full blown bigots. But other times, they might simply be a little more afraid, or more on edge because of racial dynamics. Again, there is a whole range of attitudes, not only two fixed extremes. The more intense the conflict becomes, the less the way things should be will factor in and the more fear and adrenaline will dictate what happens.
The beginning might be something as simple as a white officer feeling that he needs to psych himself up and act tougher towards a black suspect to feel in control, where with a white suspect he might take a more relaxed approach. That’s going to influence the way the whole situation plays out. The end result will be that, even when the officer is not a bigot and even when the letter of the law is followed, we will see more bad outcomes when these conflicts cross racial lines.
I’m just scratching the surface but there’s no way to describe even this much in 11 seconds on CNN, so we wind up with, “are white cops shooting black kids for fun or were the black kids psychotic monsters? Vote in our bullshit online poll!” Social media is just as bad and there, we have to take most of the blame ourselves. We could say more reasonable things, but then we would get less attention.
It’s possible and seems likely that we see a higher frequency of bad outcomes and even deaths for blacks who cross paths with white cops, without those cops necessarily doing anything malicious. That’s how institutional racism works. But even people who like to use the words ‘institutional racism’ find themselves pulled into the more satisfying narrative of ‘KKK racism.’ Which is not to say that the ‘KKK racism’ never rears it’s head, just that it is less prevalent.
The insidiousness of institutional racism derives largely from the fact that it is so hard to fix, even when you are staring right at it. This characteristic means it can never fit into a WWE narrative. A white cop approaches a black suspect and one or both have some extra adrenaline, maybe a bit of built up frustration, maybe a bit of fear. Neither has to be a rotten person for things to go bad more frequently than usual. A one in a thousand, worst case scenario becomes a three in a thousand, worst case scenario. Doesn’t sound like much, but it is. The greater number of bad outcomes for black civilians is racism even if nobody wants it. Whatever approaches might improve the situation (police forces very closely resembling the communities they police, perhaps), they will be kind of boring and take years, so they won’t sell.