It's not about individuals--it's about a system

I was inspired to write my next blog while watching the most recent episode of one of my favorite shows, Scandal, that aired on March 5th, titled “The Lawn Chair.” For those who do not watch the show, Shonda Rhimes decided to take on the recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island and dedicate an entire episode to the topic of racism within the police force throughout the United States. This particular episode featured a young black male who was shot by a white police officer who suspected him of stealing a cell phone—the description given of the “thief” was a young black male, and this officer saw someone who fit this very general description walking down the street carrying a brand new cell phone. While questioning him, things got heated and the young man reached into his pocket—we later find out he was reaching for the receipt to prove to the officer that he purchased the phone. The officer claims that the young man was reaching for a knife, which he says that he saw, and he, under threat of his own life, opened fire on the young man. Turns out that the officer planted a knife that he took off another suspect under the young man’s dead body to bolster his falsified story. Sounds familiar, right? The episode culminated with a fantastic scene in the middle of the police station where Olivia Pope confronts the officer with evidence that he planted the knife and the officer then proceeds to deliver a very well-acted monologue (in my humble opinion) that, to me, epitomizes the complexity of systemic racism and white privilege. For those who did not see the episode: Here is the monologue:

 “God, what the hell is it with you people? Yeah, you people... I didn't misspeak. You people have no idea what loyalty is, what respect is. You're here because you were supposed to help us, and you spent every second of it trying to tear us down, tear me down, push your own damn agenda! The truth is, those people in Rosemead have no respect for anything or anyone. No, they're like you. They just take whenever they want, and they have no problem turning their backs on the people who gave it to them... people like me, who strap on their boots every day, kiss their wife and kids goodbye, and trek 40 miles into a city where everyone, including little babies, are taught to look at us like the enemy! They are taught to question me, to disobey me, and still I risk my life for these people. Every day for seven years, I have allowed myself to be disrespected and hated by these people, all to protect them from themselves. I mean, all I hear about on the news are dirty cops, cops who shoot innocent black kids. It's crap! There were 84 murders in this city last year. Were all of those cops shooting innocent black boys? Hell no. Those were blacks turning guns on each other, and yet somehow I'm the animal! Brandon Parker is dead because he didn't have respect, because those people out there who are chanting and crying over his body, they didn't teach him the right values. They didn't teach him respect. He didn't respect me. He didn't respect my badge. Questioning my authority was not his right! His blood is not on my hands!”

This particular “rant” by a white police officer who had just shot and killed a young, innocent black male represents many arguments that I have heard white people make before—even some that were made by the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner—I read them on their social media pages and heard them paraphrased by their lawyers/representatives. And, if I’m being honest, some of the arguments resonate with me—specifically, the ones about respecting the badge of a police officer. I was taught that very same thing as a child and was also taught that police officers are there to serve and protect the people, namely, me. What I wasn’t taught, and what I learned much later in life, is that all people aren’t “served” and “protected” in the same way and with the same level of tenacity and respect. Respect should be earned, should it not? Therefore, respect is not automatically given simply because one is wearing a badge. Why not?

Well… imagine for a moment that you grew up hearing those same messages about police officers, but your interactions with police officers seemed to contradict those messages. What if you grew up and constantly saw police officers who did not live in your neighborhood, did not look like you in any way, and who came into your neighborhood to question, harass, frisk, yell at, and arrest your neighbors and family members? What if you grew up learning to fear police, rather than seeing them as people who were there to protect and serve? What if every day that you left your house, your mother feared for your safe return—not because you looked for trouble or had ever gotten into trouble, but because she knew that you matched the description so often given of someone who had robbed, hit, car-jacked, raped, killed someone, and she worried that you might speak out of turn or argue with the officer, and then, well, who knows what could happen? What if that had been your upbringing, and not the one that you actually had? Perhaps you could see how one might not be so inclined to automatically give respect to someone simply because they wear a badge.

The words that this officer said during that rant serve as a clear reminder that the problems we have with our judicial system and with our militarized police force are not about a few racist individuals who need to be relieved of their service. The problems detailed in the recent civil rights investigation into the Ferguson police force are not the result of a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. It really isn’t that simple—we can’t just point the finger at a collection of individuals and say, “well, they are bad people” or “they are clearly racist, but there are plenty of other police officers who aren’t racist.” It is not about individuals… it’s about a system.

People—racism is a systemic problem and is steeped in our institutions, our laws, our policies, our practices, and our discourse. One of those institutions is our judicial system. These findings in Ferguson are not unique, they are not because of a few bad cops, and they will not be fixed by simply “cleaning house” and hiring a new police force in Ferguson. While that would certainly be a great start—it does not get at the systemic issues at hand. This is about much bigger things—it’s about the standards and practices for hiring police officers, it’s about the way officers are trained, it’s about the real reasons why no one, including any superiors, stopped the racist jokes from being circulated around that station, it’s about the norms and expectations that allow and encourage officers to racially profile, it’s about the lack of attention on the mental health of officers who put their lives on the line every day for all of us… it’s about so many things, and all of them are part of a much larger system.

This does not mean that the situation is hopeless, however. So often, I hear my students say “But if it’s this big system, then how will it ever change?” and “How can one person have any effect on this system that is so much bigger than just one person?” These are totally valid questions and I understand how things can seem insurmountable and, even, hopeless. When I’m feeling that way, I remind myself that people built the system and, therefore, people can eventually tear it down. Systemic racism was not built in a day, people… so… it won’t be torn down in a day, either. It’s going to take persistent, little chips at the system to one day make it crumble. Our own individual actions, the actions of social justice groups, the actions of families, the actions of community outreach organizations—these are the little chips that we’re going to make at the system to force it to crumble. And one day… I believe that it will. 

To read the report from the civil rights investigation of the Ferguson police force, click here