Should Law-Abiding Black People Trust the Police?

How trust can be hazardous to Black people’s health.

Posted Sep 03, 2020

When I watched the video of Jacob Blake being shot seven times in the back by a White police officer, feelings of fear, dread, and mistrust overcame me. I imagined being in the presence of police and being completely paralyzed with fear. As much as I want to trust the police, I still find myself being extremely nervous in their presence, and always glancing at their guns, wondering if they might feel the need to use them on me.

As I am writing this blog post, it has just been brought to my attention that yet another unarmed Black man, Daniel Prude, was left brain dead and later died after, as a body cam video showed, police knelt on his back and pushed his face to the ground for so long that he stopped breathing.

I’m sure there is someone out there reading this who thinks that I, along with many Black people in this country, are simply being irrational. Law-abiding people have nothing to worry about, they say. These people cannot imagine an existence where they fear for their lives when in the presence of police who are just trying to “protect and serve.”

Tell that to the family of Philando Castile, killed in front of his fiancé and her 4-year-old daughter by a police officer after informing him that he (legally) had a weapon and was producing his license and registration at the officer’s request. Tell that to the family of Botham Jean, who was killed by a police officer who mistakenly entered Jean’s apartment, thinking it was her apartment. Tell that to the family of Breonna Taylor, killed by police officers who broke into her apartment looking for drugs (they found none); there has still been no arrest made. These are just a small sample of the many incidents that occur, and not accounting for those incidents that are not recorded or never get publicized.

This raises the often-asked question, “Is there institutional racism among police officers?” According to Attorney General William Barr in a recent interview, there is no systemic racism in law enforcement. The answer to this question is likely influenced by your political affiliation. In 2016 (the year that Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald were killed by police and Sandra Bland died in police custody), the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis (IUPRA) conducted a poll in Texas on voters' attitudes about police and criminal justice. IUPRA found that a majority of Democrats (75%) and a slight majority of Independents (51%) believed that the deaths of unarmed Black people reflect institutional racism, compared to only 20% of Republicans.

Not surprisingly, there were also significant racial differences in the responses. Eighty-two percent of African Americans believed that the deaths of unarmed Black people reflect institutional racism, compared to 55% of Latinx individuals and only 33% of White Americans.

Why are there such stark racial differences about the existence of institutional racism in law enforcement? One likely explanation is what Black psychologists have called cultural mistrust. A common psychological characteristic among many Black people, cultural mistrust is the tendency to be suspicious of White people and White institutions.

It was in the classic 1968 book Black Rage that Black psychiatrists William Grier and Price Cobbs first proposed the idea of Black people having a healthy cultural paranoia based on their historical and contemporary experiences with racism.

This idea was continued in Joseph White’s classic article "Toward a Black Psychology," in which he argued that a paranoid condition is part of the objective condition of Black people in this country. Consider the following excerpt from White’s article:

“There is and has been, unwarranted, systematic persecution and exploitation of Black people as a group. A Black person who is not suspicious of the White culture is pathologically denying certain objective and basic realities of the Black experience." 

White’s basic argument was that Black people who did not harbor some level of mistrust of White culture were psychologically ill-equipped to deal with racism and oppression.

I’m going to let you in on the worst-kept secret: Many Black people do not trust the police. It is not that we don’t want to trust the police. We absolutely want to trust them. However, the objective reality of police brutality, and the numerous incidents of police brutality that never make the news or, more often than not, result in the acquittal of police officers, makes building trust difficult, if not impossible.  

Each day that I turn on the news I consider it to be a “good” day when there is not a report of another killing or shooting of an unarmed Black person. The constant media exposure to these incidents of brutality against Black people has been incredibly traumatizing. Have you ever felt like you were in a reoccurring dream, where something keeps happening over and over again? For Black people, these repeated instances of police brutality have been a dystopic nightmare.      

Indeed, it is a sad commentary about the state of our country when my 11-year-old son, with whom I have had more conversations about race in the past three months than I probably had during my entire childhood, commented about the shooting of Jacob Blake: “At least he didn’t die.” Let those words sink in. “At… least… he… didn’t… die.” This is how low the bar has been set.

The reality is that my son was not alone. I found myself having the exact same reaction, and likely many more people did as well. What does it say about where we are as a country when we are grateful that an unarmed Black person survives a shooting?

Cultural mistrust is a psychological adaptation to help Black people navigate racist environments and deal with racist people and racist institutions. It prepares Black people for the harsh reality of racism. It is not, as some conservative pundits argue, an attitude of racial grievance. Black people who believe that racism is on the decline or does not impede the progress of Black people may find themselves ill-equipped to handle the denial of tenure, the failure to get promoted, not getting a job, or being overlooked for a raise when they are deserving. More ominously, the lack of cultural mistrust may result in thinking that nothing can go wrong when calling the police for help, when history has shown that many things can and do go wrong, including unnecessary deaths.

If you don’t have to live your life worrying about whether you or someone you love (or maybe just someone who is Black) will be brutalized or killed by the police, you will never understand what it is like to be a Black person in this country.