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Scapegoating the police for racial divide and racism

Written By | Feb 17, 2015

WASHINGTON, January 17, 2015 – The attacks upon police for “racism” have been mounting as a result of the killings of black men in Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island and elsewhere.

Many with a history of demagoguery when it comes to questions of race relations, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton among them, have done their best to keep this issue alive. Sadly, they have cast more heat than light on a question which is far more complex than their self-serving analysis would lead Americans to believe.

Recently, FBI director James Comey addressed this question. At the outset, he declared certain “hard truths,” including the fact that the history of law enforcement has been tied to enforcing slavery, segregation and other forms of discrimination.

“One reason we cannot forget our law enforcement legacy,” he said, “is that the people we serve and protect cannot forget it, either.”

Mr. Comey also acknowledged the existence of unconscious racial bias “in our white-majority culture,” and how that influences policing. He conceded that people in law enforcement can develop “different flavors of cynicism” that can be “lazy mental shortcuts,” resulting in more pronounced racial profiling.

But he then warned against using police as scapegoats to avoid coming to grips with much more complex problems affecting minority communities, including a lack of “role models, adequate education and decent employment,” as well as “all sorts of opportunities that most of us take for granted.”

In his address at Georgetown University, Comey declared: “I worry that this incredibly important and difficult conversation about policing has become focused entirely on the nature and character of law enforcement officers when it should also be about something much harder to discuss.”

Citing the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the Broadway show “Avenue Q,” Comey said that police officers of all races viewed black and white men differently using a mental shortcut that “becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights” because black men commit crime at a much higher rate than white men.

Comey said that nearly all police officers had joined the force because they wanted to help others. Speaking in personal terms, he described how most Americans had initially viewed Irish immigrants like his ancestors “as drunks, ruffians and criminals.” He noted that, “Law enforcement’s biased view of the Irish lives on in the nickname we still use for the vehicle that transports groups of prisoners. It is, after all, the ‘Paddy Wagon.'”

If black men are committing crime out of proportion to their numbers, it is important to consider the reason. According to a report just released by the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI), by age 17, only 17 per cent of black teenagers live with two married parents. Professor Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociologist who is black, published an article in December in the Chronicle of Higher Education, lamenting that “fearful” sociologists had abandoned “studies of the cultural dimensions of poverty, particularly black poverty, and declared that the discipline had become “largely irrelevant.”

Now, Patterson and Ethan Fosse, a Harvard doctoral student, are publishing a new anthology called “The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth.” In Patterson’s view, fifty years after Daniel Moynihan issued his report about the decline of the black family, “History has been kind to Moynihan.” Moynihan was concerned about an out-of-wedlock birth rate in the black community of 25 per cent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the equivalent rate for 2013 was 71.5 per cent. (The rate for non-Hispanic whites was 29.3 per cent.)

The inner-city culture which promotes the social dissolution that results in crime has been written about for many years by respected black observers. In 1899, the scholar W.E.B. Du Bois drew on interviews and census data to produce “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study.” He spent a year living in the neighborhood he wrote about, in the midst of what he described as “an atmosphere of dirt, drunkenness, poverty and crime.” He observed in language much harsher than Moynihan’s, the large number of unmarried mothers, many of whom he referred to as “ignorant and loose.” He called upon whites to stop employment discrimination, which he called “morally wrong, politically dangerous, industrially wasteful, and socially silly.” He told black readers they had a duty to work harder, to behave better, and to stem the tide of “Negro crime,” which he called “a menace to civilized people.”

In 1999, on the hundredth anniversary of Du Boise’s study, Elijah Anderson published a new sociological study of poor black neighborhoods in Philadelphia, “Code of the Street,” and recorded its informants’ characterization of themselves and their neighbors as either “decent” or “street” or, in some cases, a bit of both. In “The Cultural Matrix,” Orlando Patterson lists “three main social groups”—the middle class, the working class, and “disconnected street people” that are common in “disadvantaged” African-American neighborhoods. He also lists “four focal cultural configurations” (adapted mainstream, proletarian, street and hip-hop).

Patterson views the “hip-hop” culture of the inner city as a destructive phenomenon, and compares MC Hammer to Nietzsche, contends that hip-hop routinely celebrates “forced abortions” and calls Lil Wayne “irredeemably vulgar” and “all too typical” of the genre. Thomas Shelby, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard, writes in “The Cultural Matrix” that “suboptimal cultural traits” are the major impediment for many African-Americans seeking to escape poverty. “Some in ghetto communities,” he writes, “are believed to devalue traditional co-parenting and to eschew mainstream styles of childbearing.”

In his speech on race in 2008, President Obama said that African-Americans needed to take more responsibility for their own communities by “demanding more from our fathers.” Fifty years ago, Daniel Moynihan worried that “the Negro community” was in a state of decline with an increasingly matriarchal family structure which led to increasing crime. In the fifteen years after he published his report, the homicide rate doubled, with blacks overrepresented among both perpetrators and victims.

Orlando Patterson, in a recent interview with Slate, said, “I am not in favor of a national conversation on race,” and noted that most white people in America had come to accept racial equality. But whether of not such a “national conversation” is useful, we are now in the midst of such an enterprise. FBI director Comey is contributing to that exchange.

He asks: “Why are so many black men in jail? Is it because cops, prosecutors, judges and juries are racist because they are turning a blind eye to white robbers and drug dealers?…I don’t think so. If it were so, that would be easier to address…The percentage of young men not working or not enrolled in school is nearly twice as high for blacks as it is for whites…Young people in those neighborhoods too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison, and with that inheritance they become part of the police officer’s life and shape the way that officer, whether white or black, sees the world.

Changing that legacy is a challenge so enormous and so complicated that it is, unfortunately, easier to talk only about the cops. And that’s not fair.”

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.