Feeling Our Way

Turn in the direction of the skid.

On Shooting the Marginalized and Marginalizing the Shot

Let’s bring a less idealized vision of America and the police to the discussion

I don’t know what happened to 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, but I do have some thoughts on the context in which, yet again, an armed white man killed an unarmed black man. According to the FBI, black people are more than seven times more likely than whites or other races to be killed by firearms. During one recent 5-year period, the FBI reported that half of all firearm victims were black males, even though they constitute only 6% of the population.

To me, what is striking about that statistic is not the liberal notion that blacks are treated worse than whites or the conservative notion that some blacks might not behave as well as most whites. To me what’s striking is that it’s true (say what you want about the FBI, but gathering crime statistics is something they are good at). The fact of it has certain implications to a psychologist.

One implication that might be taken for granted is that race is still a meaningful category when it comes to violence. To get such a large difference in shooting rates by dividing people into “black” and “not black” means that race still matters; it might be explained away with other variables, but a difference that large makes it likely that the perception of race is a meaningful variable. And that means that people with guns are likely to categorize other people as black or white before acting.

A large segment of our society is living in fear of violence. Apparently, one of the main ways in which life is better in an industrial society compared to hunter-gatherers is that we don’t live in constant fear of violence. Overseas, it is now difficult to say when and whether our country is at war or at peace; at home, though, we expect to live in peace. It’s kind of amazing that so many Americans get through each day without reasonably fearing violence. Women, of course, have to take precautions to avoid such fear; young black men really can’t.

When a segment of society is living in a way that shames us, we stop treating its members as if they are a segment of our society. (When an aspect of our personality shames us, we stop treating it as if it is part of us.) It’s hard to say you love your country, home of the KKK and black slavery. It’s easier to say you love your country and the KKK and black slavery were aberrations, not really part of who we are. That’s what Obama means when he says, “That isn’t who we are.” I realize he’s trying to summon our better angels, and he’s also playing to an electorate that doesn’t want to hear who we are, but he’s also making it worse. We disown people we are not proud of, regardless of why we are not proud of them, whether it is because of how they have acted or because of how they have been treated.

In psychology, this is called “splitting,” a way to keep a very positive image positive by splitting off from that image everything that is disappointing or frustrating and attributing it to something else. It’s the way small children keep positive images of parents; it’s the way people keep a positive image of God. It’s what John Kerry meant in that debate against George W. Bush when he said that he loves America as much as Bush does, but he loves America the way an adult man loves his mother, not the way a little boy loves his mother. Interestingly, Kerry came into the public eye by talking about America’s capacity to be the villain in Vietnam, which later raised questions about his patriotism. True patriotism, as the Supreme Court said in the flag-burning cases (I’m paraphrasing), involves honoring the liberties the flag stands for, not the flag itself.

It started with slavery and Jim Crow of course. Either our country was a villain for its first 200 years, or black people or Southern whites aren’t really a part of our country. I know a lot of Northerners who think the South is an embarrassing growth on the body politic. I’m sure there are a lot of Americans who think of … well, when you just read “Americans,” did you picture white people?

Our system of government was built on the unshakeable conviction that power corrupts. We’re fine talking about the elitism of the Supreme Court and Congress (why don’t they give everyone the privileges they give themselves?). But the conversation about police corruption has turned into a version of the patriotism conversation, where anything other than complete submission means that you are on the side of evil. Instead, let’s face it: some substantial percentage of police officers abuse their power. They are more likely to abuse their power when they can get away with it. They can get away with it among marginalized social groups and among other cops. Even the otherwise good cops say nothing, possibly because they are in physical fear, possibly because police administrators communicate that they condone silence (because incidents become a stain on their record).

These are all vicious circles. A society that treats people according to their race breeds suspiciousness and anger, which justifies the belief that racial minorities are suspicious and angry. Marginalizing a group keeps them from the benefits of full-fledged membership in society, making full-fledged members justify their status by blaming and further marginalizing the stigmatized. Poverty makes people impulsive; impulsivity breeds poverty. Police silence fosters police abuse which stimulates police silence.

Here are three things we can do to start, without even leaving home. When we talk about our country, let’s make sure we are thinking of it as it is, including racism, warmongering, assassination, rape, torture, and arrogance. When we talk about the police, let’s keep in mind that there are a lot of people in this country who do not feel physically safe, and this is a failure of policing. A certain number of failures are unavoidable. I’m not expecting every single American to feel safe; I’m expecting us to feel about as safe as people do in other capitalist democracies. If you think of the police department’s job as rescuing hostages, it’s easy to idealize them; if you think of their job as making people feel safe, they may have to broaden their approach, because they are not succeeding. When we talk about the police, let’s make sure that we discuss them in tones that recognize that, despite the overall good they achieve and despite the honor and valor of many individual cops, their code of silence makes them in many ways just another gang.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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