Racism, Up Close and Personal
When it comes to making real change, reflexive, punitive measures are rarely the answer.
By Andrew Mikula, Bates College
Walking down the hallway in high school, you could hear an endless stream of melodrama.
For a while, I methodically wrote down arbitrary, out-of-context one-liners I found amusing. From junior year: “Just show me how strong and tight your legs are.” One of the first ones on the list: “I’m just saying…milk is a valid substitute for alcohol.”
But not every piece of melodrama was quite so innocent. Some of the lines needed only one word. “Bitch.” “Faggot.” “Dickhead.” You get the picture.
But despite this storm of vulgarity, there was still one remaining derogatory term I didn’t hear a lot. It starts with the letter “N.”
Admittedly, there was a period of my life during which I essentially thought racism was over. Sure, I heard jokes—I even laughed at some of them—but I didn’t think the people telling them actually believed the negative sentiments they implied. For most of those adolescent jokesters, I still don’t.
Instead, what’s changed about racism since the Civil Rights Era is that it’s now taboo. It’s demonstrated more by subtle psychological cues rather than glaring actions and speech. It’s not gone, just hiding. Or, at least, it was until about 3 or 4 years ago, when it was first reported that over 50 percent of American adults own a smartphone. It was around that time that a Florida teen named Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, a volunteer watchman.
Amidst the resulting national outrage over the police’s poor relations with minorities, body cameras and smartphones alike began capturing more and more of the dozens of killings of unarmed minorities by police each year.
All the same, Zimmerman was then cleared of all charges concerning Martin’s 2012 death, sparking further disillusionment with the state of race relations in the United States. Zimmerman claims that he “had to use lethal force to defend my life.” Self-defense laws are often legitimate justifications for bodily harm done to a person. However, the case gets ambiguous when, ultimately, a police officer only feels the need to “defend” him or herself because of racism. And unfortunately for anyone who wanted to see Zimmerman behind bars, racism is not a crime. Zimmerman’s intentions very well may have been to defend himself on a certain fateful day in 2012. But in the eyes of the justice system, whether or not those intentions were ill-founded is not relevant.
But there’s been a new sense of urgency towards improving police-minority relations as more and more innocent lives are taken. Earlier this summer, a Minnesota cop shot and killed Philando Castile, a black man who allegedly was reaching for his wallet while admitting he had a gun in the car. This information was all relayed through Castile’s fiancé, who filmed the aftermath of the shooting on her cellphone. For many, this graphic footage brought a whole other level of shock and solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement.
And speaking of BLM, some people claim the movement as a whole is steeped in racism. Yet the contrasting “All Lives Matter” chant has come to perpetuate a system of “gilded equality” that refuses to reflect the every-day experiences of minorities. Instead, “Black Lives Matter” attempts to enact real change by creating a voice for those who have been oppressed, putting an outlet for their agency onto the table (and into the law books). However, a willingness to help racial minorities does not imply the superiority of minorities over whites. Indeed, other civil rights movements also attempt to facilitate equality by lifting up the oppressed, perhaps most notably feminism.
However, there still may be some extremists who do in fact believe that whites are inherently evil and deserve to be killed. This guy comes to mind. But violent individuals do not represent the BLM movement as a whole, and throwing a bunch of white people behind bars (or worse) doesn’t get at the root of the problem anyway.
People are still racist. Some might even say that racism is human nature.
In fighting against discrimination, education and diversity are perhaps the only constant allies of tolerance.
An important step policymakers can take towards eradicating racial bias in policing is to mandate education on racism as a part of police training. Local and county chiefs can also help limit racial tension by making sure police officers reflect the demographics of the communities they are patrolling.
While these measures may be contested by lawmakers, one of the main obstacles towards implementing such policies is that, until recently, most people thought race relations in the United States were fine to begin with.
As social policy in the United States has recently begun to focus more on gay rights, abortion and other issues, many Americans have lost sight of the fact that race relations need constant attention to ensure equality. Until recently, discouraging homophobia and islamophobia seemed more important to me than encouraging tolerance along racial lines, probably because of outspoken figures communicating opinions I didn’t agree with. The reality is that even if racism has been forcibly rendered more subtle and “hidden” by the law, discrimination isn’t going away anytime soon. What’s still left to be determined is whether or not anyone will actively fight against this discrimination.
Collegians have a unique role in the future of race relations in the United States. The brave men and women enrolled in police academies are currently between 18 and 21 years old, and no one has more power to influence the decisions of others than their peers. Collegians are also the next generation of legislators and judges to enforce laws about policing and to decide what role “good intentions” and self-defense play in the criminal justice system.
The Black Lives Matter movement, together with a seemingly endless stream of smartphone footage and grim news reports, has brought racial tension into the minds of Americans everywhere. The only decision left to make will determine what kind of reform the country needs—one that continues the false promise of a superficial equality, or one that is meant to help those who have been wronged.