This is not about the police. At least, not solely. Granted, the police are the reason we are heartbroken today, the reason cable news networks are assembling panels to talk about black and blue, the fraught intersection between African Americans and the law. Last week, after all, saw two more African-American men shot by police under questionable circumstances and then, five Dallas police officers assassinated by a sniper at a Black Lives Matter rally.
But ultimately another tragedy overarches both of those: America’s ongoing struggle to reconcile itself along lines of race. We are still fighting over what being black means — and should mean — in a nation that ostensibly holds equality as a foundational belief. We say that’s what we stand for, yet in virtually every field of endeavor, our behavior proves us liars.
In education, for instance, the federal government issued data in 2014 documenting that even as early as preschool, African-American kids are suspended far more frequently than others. In medicine, a 2016 study by researchers from the University of Virginia found that white med students were sometimes less aggressive in assessing and managing the pain of African-American patients. In labor, a 2003 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that job seekers with perceived “black” names were significantly less likely to get callbacks from prospective employers. And in justice, oh, dear God. Multiple studies have documented a system that, from arrest to incarceration, is heavily stacked against African-American people.
This is not abstract. This is blood and bone reality, life as experienced by more than 40 million Americans. And can any thinking or compassionate person blame them if they are sick and tired of it? Yet rather than respond to expressions of that frustration and anger in constructive and compassionate ways, too many of us seek every cowardly avenue of avoidance they can find.
Some take refuge in defensiveness, answering complaints about subconscious and systemic biases as if you’d just accused them, personally, of membership in the KKK. As if their feelings were what this is all about. Others try to shout down the messenger, often using the absurd formulation that to talk about race is racist. Go online if you’re not there already and read the message board beneath this column; chances are good you'll see examples of both.
Then, there are those who try to change the subject. As in Bill O'Reilly, the TV pundit, who recently proclaimed that Martin Luther King would never march with Black Lives Matter, a movement O'Reilly accuses of fomenting violence. King would probably find that laughable, given how often he was accused of the selfsame thing.
But again, to make this all about Black Lives Matter — or policing — is to make it too small. Granted, inequality becomes more visceral, visible and urgent when police are concerned, when we are called upon to tease out the role color played in some split-second decision to pull the trigger. But the point is, color also plays a role in the decision to punish a toddler, call back a job applicant, prescribe a drug, approve a loan, rent an apartment, or just extend the benefit of the doubt.
The police do not stand apart from society — they reflect it. And our society is riven by race, defensive about race, terrified of race. We say we seek understanding and light, yet too often generate only noise and heat. If America is ever to reconcile itself, that has to change.
It’s fine to demand better training, more body cams, more community liaisons. But to lay the onus entirely on the men and women in blue is to delude ourselves. Ultimately, the police are not the problem. We are.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.