(Warning: contains a bit of quoted language)
One of the greatest differences behind opposing views of the Ferguson tragedy is the level of trust in the police. Many of us have a high level of trust in law enforcement officers. We view them as brave, sacrificial servants who daily put their lives on the line to protect the rest of us from criminals. We have never had a negative experience with police officers. We don’t know anyone who has had a negative experience with police officers. Many of us may even be friends or relatives of officers. We have such a strong positive association with police officers that we rarely or never question any police activity, and we associate any such discussion as identifying with those dangerous, uninformed radicals attempting to undermine the fabric of society by relentlessly attacking our greatest heroes as anything less than very, very good.
Now as Matt Chandlers explains in one of the most informative and non-threatening descriptions of white privilege I have yet come across (a topic I am still greatly pondering), we can “fall into the trap of universalizing experiences and laying them across other people’s experiences as an interpretive lens.” We “may not understand why anyone would mistrust a public servant simply because [we] have never had a viable reason to mistrust a public servant.” But if we are going to understand problems in our city, we need to realize that some people grow up in a very, very different world, and Ferguson is a prime example.
For those who are just tuning in, Ferguson is a relatively small northern suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, with a population of just over 21,000 that is roughly two-thirds black, one-third white, having quickly shifted from being 99% white in the 70’s, with a police force that is still over 90% white. Missouri’s attorney general reports that, despite making up 69% of the population, blacks make up 90% of the stops and searches in Ferguson.
Now, based on per capita statistics it is entirely plausible that 90%+ of the people charged with crimes in Ferguson are black, i.e. that whenever a white cop in Ferguson encounters a criminal, there may be a 90%+ chance that the criminal is black. But since these criminals compose well under 10% of Ferguson’s population, it is also true that 90%+ of the blacks in Ferguson are not criminals.
What is most interesting about the statistics on police stops in Ferguson is that blacks are about twice as likely (12.1%) to be searched as whites (6.9%). Based on per capita statistics we might expect these blacks to have contraband at much higher rates than whites. Yet contraband was found on blacks less often (34% vs. 22%). In other words, while Ferguson police are more likely to encounter black criminals than white criminals, black non-criminals in Ferguson are also more likely than white non-criminals to be treated as potential criminals. So at least with regards to traffic stops and searches – unless I’m missing something mathematically here – it is a statistically verifiable fact that non-criminal blacks in Ferguson are more likely to have negative experiences with police officers than non-criminal whites!
(Now you may want to interject here that this doesn’t mean those officers are racist! And that’s certainly true. Keeping in mind that officers often cannot tell the difference between criminals and non-criminals, one could even develop arguments that some such experiences are inevitable for protecting the population at large. It would be interesting to compare these statistics with regions that have more proportionate demographics between officers and citizens. However, one of the things I’m learning is that something doesn’t have to have a racist INTENT for it to still have an OUTCOME that negatively affects people based solely or primarily on their race.)
Searches may cause frustration, but you may wonder, especially if you have never been searched, how that alone could cause blacks to lose trust in their police force. Well, that may be just the tip of the iceberg. At the other end of the spectrum is a bizarre and frightening story about a black man who apparently took a wrong exit in Ferguson in 2009 and was mistaken for another man, arrested, beaten, and then charged with getting blood on officers’ uniforms.
It’s easy for us to pass off individual stories like these as rare outliers, although I can understand that just as one story about someone getting mugged on the MetroLink can make suburban whites afraid to use it, it only takes one story (and here are several) about an African American expecting help from police and ending up arrested or dead to make blacks afraid to call the police when they have trouble (and as someone with a generally high view of police officers, I find that devastating!)
But I wondered, with the nameless statistics about Ferguson traffic stops and the bizarre story about the wrong exit, how many other negative experiences are there in between that don’t make the news? A friend shared a post the other day that suggests there may be quite a bit:
Three years ago I believed whites and blacks were equal in the United States. I believed that slavery was abolished and racism went both ways… Living in North County for two years and becoming a social worker completely changed my life…
After just a few months in an all black neighborhood, an all black town…we started to see it. Really see it. White cop. White cop. Another white cop. In a community with a vast majority of black residents…where are the black cops? Then we started to notice how many black people we saw sitting on curbs while white cops pilfered through their possessions. Doug was pulled over because the only reason a white person could ever possibly want to come into our neighborhood would be to buy drugs, right? Running at night, cops would pull up beside us to fill us in on what neighborhood we were in…as if we had happened upon North County on accident and needed a police escort out of our all-black apartment complex. Doug got a speeding ticket in one of the many speed traps near our home and went to court. There was a black line down the block. Doug asked the woman behind him what she was there for. She had gotten a $200 fine because her garbage can was not in the correct spot on the curb. She was an older woman and said her landlord put out the garbage…but the cop who cited her didn’t care. Doug got pulled over going to UPS one night at 3a.m. It was cold and he was wearing a hoodie. The police officer stopped him on some bogus charge, but when he saw him he said he could go. Would he have been so lucky if his skin had more pigment? Another time a cop stopped Doug outside our house and said, “What are you doing here?” Doug told him that this is where we live. The cop said, “Why??”
This is only a sampling of what we’ve witnessed. If you were black, you could probably recount stories like this for hours…
I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to process things like this. Yes, I know the positive experiences are out there! But that doesn’t make the negative experiences any less real. Some time ago I would have wanted to use my positive experiences to deny that regular negative experiences like this could possibly exist. I wanted to write them all off as the product of a victimized mindset with selective memory at best, or unverified exaggerations or lies at worst (of course, the best thing any of us could do to learn the truth, myself included, would be to actually talk to some black folks about it).
But that was before I started learning. Now I want to use my positive connections to try to help me understand both any reasonable and unreasonable explanations for experiences like these, and what can be done about it. (Like any conflict, there are likely dynamic feedback loops that feed on each other and give legitimate grievances to both sides.) I am sure much has already been written and discussed from many angles, and I intend to learn more and write future posts about what I am learning.
At this moment, though, what matters is this: if you are a white resident of St. Louis who feels like you generally understand the responses of law enforcement in Ferguson but you don’t generally understand the responses of some members of the black community in Ferguson, your confusion may be greatly explained by this single revelation: You may have a very high view of police officers, while a lot of them have a very low view – and this view has been influenced by a long history of personal negative experiences.
This simple insight helps me begin to understand a lot of things.
I am beginning to understand that when I read that “the St. Louis County Police Department fired a white lieutenant last year for ordering officers to target blacks in shopping areas,” this might not just be a random outlier, but rather a small part of a long history of tensions that just happened to bubble over into something newsworthy.
I am beginning to understand how we arrived at a place where protesters yell “Fuck the police!” and officers yell “bring it, all you fucking animals!” I am beginning to understand that this level of mutual animosity probably affected both Darren Wilson’s and Michael Brown’s perceptions of each other before their encounter even began, and that this level of animosity is likely to continue in similar future encounters, whatever the facts reveal about the outcome of this encounter.
I am beginning to understand why it’s so unconvincing to tell protesters to “just wait for the facts to come in,” when the entity gathering the facts is the very entity that they do not trust to put the pursuit of justice above the conflict of interest in defending their own officer. I am beginning to understand the frustrations of the protesters when numerous actions and reactions of the Ferguson Police Department since the tragedy have done little to recognize and mollify this lack of trust, and done much to exacerbate it.
I am beginning to understand that you can’t ask “what if the roles were reversed?” at the climax of a tragedy without also reversing the roles of everything that led up to it.
I am beginning to understand that I have a lot to understand.