Systemic Racism: It’s Not About Black and White As Much As Black and Blue
By Lance Simmens
The 1973 movie “Serpico,” starring Al Pacino, traced the true story of an undercover police officer in New York City who refused to engage in illegal and unethical activities commonly in practice in the NYPD. In real life, Frank Serpico testified before the Knapp Commission on Police Corruption with the following admonishment: “The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which honest police officers can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers.” The same policing culture that existed in the early 1970s has changed very little over the past half-century.
With the help of technological advances, we are capable of seeing with our own eyes acts of unthinkable savagery perpetrated by those who wear a badge and a gun under the pretense of protecting and serving the public. The most recent videos document the brutal and horrific treatment of a 29-year-old African American in Memphis, Tennessee, under the questionable pretext of a traffic stop, which has left a family devastated with grief and a 4-year-old fatherless.
In the past several years, we have had to witness similar police atrocities, leaving some to question the need to defund and others the need to seriously reform policing policies and their implementation. Calls to reform qualifications for duty, address systemic racism, institute community policing, and eliminate qualified immunity, among others, have failed to see legislative redress, and the sad reality is that we should expect police violence to continue.
The so-called “blue wall of silence,” where police officers refuse to speak out against their own, regardless of the seriousness of the crime, error, or misconduct, is all too similar to the Italian code of Omertà employed by criminal organizations like the Cosa Nostra. We must execute changes that encourage respect, trust, and confidence in law enforcement.
In the most recent travesty, which resulted in the death of Tyre Nichols, both the perpetrators and the victim were black, sparking conservative outcry that racism was not a factor. Ironically, some on the liberal spectrum are questioning whether racism played a role in the swift firing and serious charges, including second-degree murder, of the five officers involved to date in the vicious treatment of Mr. Nichols.
There is an underlying current that suggests that because both the officers and the victim were black there has been a muted degree of protest across the country, such as was witnessed in the George Floyd case. To suggest that this is not a case of institutional racism is unwarranted.
The swift actions taken by the Memphis Police Department and the ongoing efforts to relieve others who stood by and took no actions whatsoever, such as the first responders who inexplicably did not render attention to the victim for nearly a half-hour, and the family’s very public grieving and calls for non-violence, eerily echoing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mantra in the city where he was killed nearly 55 years ago, most likely have had a calming effect to thwart violent protests.
Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator, civil rights attorney and CNN contributor, captured the lack of outrage as follows: “For many Black folks, the race of a cop is cop.”
Shaun Harper writes in Forbes: “In 1897, W.E.B. DuBois noted that among the most corrosive effects of racism was its tendency to make its victims see themselves through the eyes of people who hold them in contempt.” Harper asserts that institutional racism is a culture to which those in policing adhere, explaining how “five Black men could engage in police brutality, leading to the death of another Black man. They participated in the same trainings as white cops. They entered a profession that was born of anti-Blackness (slave catchers were America’s original law enforcement officers). They worked in a place where decades of anti-black policies and tactics were created. How a police department behaves, thinks about Black communities, and mistreated Black people informs how its employees engage with the Black citizens they were hired to protect and serve — even when they’re Black.”
As in most public policy issues, it is often somewhat more complicated than it at first appears. While diversifying police departments has made some improvement in police culture, it is only a beginning. Professor Jody Armour, a USC law professor offers “We have a very simplistic way of approaching the problem of policing and believing that representation is some kind of silver bullet … it’s not just a Black and white issue, but a Black and blue one. And when you put on that blue uniform, it often becomes the primary identity that drowns out any other identities that might compete with it.”
Shifting the focus on certain actions of individuals as bad apples is, excuse the expression, a cop-out. We must focus on racism as a systemic problem.