The ‘Systemic Racism’ Stereotype
Monolithic accusations are bad for cops and communities
There are 8 million stories in the naked city. Each crime is the story of individual guilt and individual suffering. Each action by the police — for good or for ill — can be an individual story of heroism or wrongdoing. There is nothing more deeply personal than crime and punishment. And as we know, whether from Sherlock Holmes or Harry Bosch, each character is a mix of imperfections, to be judged not by his purity but by his actions and intentions and where these fall on the scales of justice.
The charge of “systemic police racism” relies on a stereotype that obscures these individual stories by insisting that racism runs through all police behavior and thinking. Yet rather than condemn this overgeneralization, many have treated it as a moral imperative: We must view all cops as racist, and we must view all blacks as their victims. Stereotyping now is virtuous — and it is crippling our ability to consider the individual and put him at the forefront of policing.
Do cops deserve to be treated as a racist monolith? Since Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin mercilessly killed a black suspect, must we now believe that all officers wish to do the same? In reality, cops vary in their morals and behavior. Virtually none are like Chauvin, who was duly convicted of murder for ignoring his training and protocol and committing an unthinkable abuse of power.
Yet data show that the public wildly overestimates how often police use physical force and how often they use force against blacks. Monolithic thinking makes it perversely difficult for the public to accept how rarely the police use force, and how rarely they use it against blacks relative to racially varying rates of violent crime.
A report published as part of the Civil Unrest and Presidential Election Study in February 2021 found that 13 to 27 unarmed black men were recorded as killed by police in 2019, but the public almost universally believed that number to be far higher. More than half of those reporting “very liberal” views believed that 1,000 or more unarmed black men were killed by cops in 2019; their estimate was off by a factor of about 50. Further, while 24.9 percent of all people killed by police in 2019 were reportedly black, survey participants across the political spectrum assumed a much higher percentage. Those who self-identified as “liberal” or “very liberal” were particularly blinkered, estimating the proportion to be 56 percent and 60 percent, respectively.
Similarly, a 2019 paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that black men ages 25 to 29 were killed by police at a rate between 2.8 and 4.1 per 100,000 — a small fraction of their death rates from murder (22) and accidents (76.6). Studies show that blacks consistently fear that they are more likely to be hurt in a police encounter than in incidents such as car accidents. But the data indicate that this is far from reality. These distorted fears have negative consequences for blacks; they may hesitate to call for police assistance when it’s needed, for instance.
If we could look beyond the monolithic image of the bad cop, we would see individual cops who should be trusted to use their own judgment and rely on their training but who are being incapacitated by a crippling regime of new regulations. Overreaction to the negative stereotype of cops has led to thousands of new policy proposals widely limiting police actions and initiative. Laws now overcorrect for the dangers of chokeholds such that New York City’s 2020 ban, recently overturned by a state judge, prohibited cops from applying any pressure at all to a suspect’s chest or back — effectively making even appropriate grappling impossible without risking physical harm or legal consequences to officers. The nationwide 45 percent increase in officer retirements and 18 percent rise in officer resignations last year give a sense of cops’ individual responses.
But cops aren’t the chief victim of this monolithic thinking. The police-racism narrative also treats black people as a monolith. Just as there is pressure to think of all cops as Chauvin, there is pressure to think of all blacks as George Floyd. But, of course, very few blacks are like Floyd, a man who spent his 20s and 30s in and out of prison for, among other things, storming into the apartment of a pregnant black woman and violently robbing her at gunpoint. Security-camera footage just before he was heartlessly killed shows Floyd passing counterfeit cash while apparently flipped out on drugs — fentanyl and methamphetamine, as the toxicology report later revealed. Like so many human stories, his is complex: He was a tragic victim and also a criminal.
Blacks tend to have complex feelings about policing. But the insistent message that blacks, as a mass, oppose law enforcement — or even that they want fewer police in their communities — is not borne out by the data. In fact, most blacks in the U.S. still want robust police protection for themselves and their communities, even if they want police reform more generally. A nationwide Gallup survey last summer found that 81 percent of black Americans want the same amount of policing in their neighborhoods or more, and a USA Today/Ipsos poll this spring found that 72 percent of blacks do not support the “defund the police” movement. In fact, this year, a Civis Analytics poll found that 60 percent of black Americans support hiring more police officers in high-crime areas.
Sadly, monolithic thinking, which certainly existed before Floyd’s killing but is worse now, makes productive civil discourse rare. The simple cops-versus-blacks paradigm is a safe way of avoiding the possible “triggers” of more personal, nuanced discussions about people’s actual experiences, values, and desires. And the obsession with “systemic racism” — which has affected discussion of issues far beyond law and order — makes it all the harder to discuss policing with nuance and complexity.
A prime example of our national hunger for easy stereotypes that obscure individual agency is the popularity of the “slave patrol” narrative. This account — trumpeted loudly by politicians such as Representative Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.) and promoted by Time, USA Today, The New Yorker, and the American Bar Association — asserts that there is a direct link between today’s police and the posses that hunted runaway slaves hundreds of years ago. Those who make this claim observe that official bands of white enforcers existed — primarily in the rural South — to prevent and catch escaping slaves prior to Emancipation, and they hold modern police responsible for the sins of those gangs. But this ignores the fact that today’s roughly 18,000 U.S. police departments developed as a response to urban crime in the North, associated more with Irish immigrants than with blacks. This development began in 1845 when New York City codified a modern force modeled after London’s, which was then copied by other American jurisdictions. So even as we acknowledge that slavery and prejudice tainted law enforcement, as they did so many other American institutions, we should be able to see that nothing in today’s police codes is a holdover from that terrible injustice.
Civil discourse brings all dialogue back to the individual. And in an era where our laws aim to be color-blind, making policing less racist and reducing crime requires an individual approach. It requires us to step away from the bottomless rhetorical pits of “black lives matter” and “blue lives matter” and engage civilly. It requires respect exchanged on a one-to-one level. Community policing, proactive policing, neighborhood policing — and, yes, “broken windows” policing — have gained popularity precisely because they encourage officers to walk around, interacting with community members as individuals and creating relationships ahead of tense emergency situations. These types of policing require that cops and civilians recognize each other’s individual personhood. They’re not about administering purity tests to cops’ psyches for traces of bias, but about demanding that respect be shown on all sides.
The concept of respect runs through the often-cited nine principles of Sir Robert Peel, the 19th-century visionary who is considered the father of modern policing. Peel insisted that, to be effective and correct, police must earn the respect of the public, which is also key to minimizing the need to use force. As with other aspects of criminal justice, respect is deeply personal; it’s forged between individuals.
The realities of crime commission in the U.S. make these one-on-one respectful interactions that much more crucial. The racially skewed statistics of crime in the United States increase the tension in the population at large and between police and blacks in particular. The tension then impedes people’s ability to see one another clearly. That blacks commit crimes at a higher rate than other demographic groups means that blacks as a group will, on average, come in contact with police more frequently. This is in part because crimes tend to be intra-racial. Homicide and robbery rates among black Americans are more than four times higher than the rates for whites; the rates are even more skewed in some major cities. The natural consequence is that blacks call on the police for help much more often than members of other racial groups do. Suspects will disproportionately be described by victims and witnesses as black — and therefore detained and questioned by police in response.
Monolithic thinking about policing has had a crippling effect on the ability of policy-makers and the media to acknowledge and discuss the tragic rise in crime since last year. In 2020, the homicide rate nationwide rose faster than at any time in recorded American history. And because blacks are overrepresented among the victims of murder and other violent crime, it was black communities that suffered the most. Yet it took months of shootings for public figures to accept that the crime wave was happening. Even then, most observers blamed the rising violence on the spike in legal gun sales during the pandemic and the prevalence of firearms. This narrative persists, even though a new study in Injury Prevention fails to find a geographic link between the increase in levels of legal firearm purchasing and the rise in gun-violence rates. And it’s well documented that criminals rarely acquire firearms through licensed dealers. Only slowly and grudgingly are pundits discussing the possibility that restrictions on policing may have contributed to the violence.
With something as consequential as criminal justice, it can be scary to allow for complexity and to accept that we each — whether criminal, victim, or officer of the law — have our own unique, messy story. But stereotypes are getting in the way of building the respectful, trusting relationships necessary to keep us all safe and to hold racist and vile wrongdoers to account. Allowing the simplistic narrative of systemic police racism to silence individual voices has cut short the stories of thousands of black Americans who died in street violence last year while pundits argued about slave patrols.
There are 330 million stories in our nation: Let’s make sure that each gets a chance to be heard.
Hannah Meyers is director of the policing and public safety initiative at the Manhattan Institute.
This piece originally appeared in National Review