Police Brutality and 'The Role That Whiteness Plays'

A scholar’s analysis of American culture presumes too much.

Brian Nguyen / Reuters

Last week, Gawker interviewed Robin DiAngelo, a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University. She discussed aspects of her thinking on whiteness, which are set forth at length in her book, What Does it Mean to be White? I’ve ordered the book.

Meanwhile, her remarks on police brutality piqued my interest. Some of what Professor DiAngelo said is grounded in solid empirical evidence: blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately victimized by misbehaving police officers; there are neighborhoods where police help maintain racial and class boundaries. And if our culture, which she calls “the water we swim in,” contained fewer parts racism per million, I suspect that police brutality would be less common.

But a core part of her analysis is very much at odds with conclusions that I’ve drawn after years of  writing against police misconduct and pondering how to reduce it.

First, consider her remarks with an open mind.

Interviewer Donovan X. Ramsey asked, “What have been your thoughts on the national conversation happening around police brutality and the role that whiteness plays into it?”

She answered as follows:

We have to change the water officers swim in. We can bring in different tools, even officers of color, but if we don’t change the water that they swim in, that we all swim in. The water is the unexamined whiteness, the everyday whiteness. Unexamined whiteness is right now probably the most hostile for people of color. There are the extreme incidents of violent and explicit racism that we take note of, but the everyday racism is also so toxic.

I think our everyday coded language around “good neighborhoods” and “bad neighborhoods” is what allows for tremendous violence to happen... When you label a neighborhood “bad” and avoid it, then you don’t know and don’t see what goes on there. And there’s no human face to interrupt that narrative. So, we see outrage around figures like Michael Brown because suddenly there’s a face. But, for the most part, we don’t know and we don’t care as long as the police keep “them” from “us,” so our schools can be better and we can feel safe at the top of the hierarchy. I think we use the police to maintain those boundaries.

While Professor Di Angelo and I are both eager to pursue a course that would decrease police brutality and both agree that its intersection with racism is a significant part of the problem, the notion of would-be reformers focusing scarce energy on changing “the water that we all swim in” strikes me as a misguided approach.

Here’s my thinking:

  1. While it would be fantastic to reduce racism in America, and while policing might then improve along with other aspects of life, no one knows how to achieve that goal. But we do know how to mandate body cameras that have been shown to reduce use-of-force; how to put disciplinary decisions in the hands of civilian review boards rather than police unions and the municipal officials that they bankroll; that proper rules for Taser use can lead to less loss of life; that arrestees with medical problems can be taken to the hospital instead of being refused care; and that whistleblowers can be protected, not persecuted. The urgent need is for civic pressure to enact concrete, specific reforms. Best practices, however defined, are so far from being in place in the typical police department that focusing on amorphous cultural change is dubious triage at best.
  2. Even if racism disappeared tomorrow, police brutality and misbehavior would persist, because racism is just one of many factors that can contribute to it. There are lots of examples of white police officers brutalizing white people. There are cities, like Ferguson, Missouri, where police departments run by white people brutalize a city disproportionately populated by black people; but there are also cities like Baltimore where black officials oversee a racially diverse police department where brutality is regularly perpetrated by white and black officers. And while black police officers are not always immune to anti-black prejudice, one need only study a place like Tijuana, where Mexican cops routinely brutalize Mexican people, to see that police brutality is often driven by something other than America’s racial atmosphere.
  3. Policies like Stop and Frisk or the War on Drugs are going to victimize people in the neighborhoods where they are focused even if policymakers have no racist intent and police officers on the ground are angels. And repealing those policies is a far more realistic project than “changing the water we all swim in” in the hopes that the attendant enlightenment would lead to… repealing those policies.
  4. Even if broad cultural change was a manageable project, is the water that “we all swim in” the relevant ecosystem? I inhabit a bunch of different subcultures. But nothing I do in any of them seems to have much influence on the subculture of police officers in cities that have a police brutality problem. Policing reforms are needed precisely because we don’t know how to change that subculture. That is partly because most would-be reformers don’t swim in it.

I wonder if there is an even deeper flaw in the “change the water” approach: to attempt it would seem to require a large coalition that agrees on hotly contested questions about the nature of race in America and how it intersects with policing. I do not think as diverse a country as ours will ever come to agreement on those subjects. Even the small subset of people eager to reform policing don’t agree on them.

Take the assertion that “the water we all swim in” is “unexamined whiteness.” There are many Americans who’ve spent very little time thinking about whiteness. On the other hand, nearly everyone in my age and educational cohort attended colleges where whiteness was explicitly interrogated by multiple professors and administrators; read all sorts of journalism that examines whiteness (for starters, you’re presently reading a magazine that chose The End of White America as a cover story); grew up listening to Jay-Z, Eminem and Prairie Home Companion; helped make stars of Chris Rock and Louis C.K.; and watch popular TV shows including The Wire, The Sopranos, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Our concepts of whiteness are so varied that some of us must be wrong about parts of it. Even so, whiteness is far from unexamined in our subculture.

Now let’s imagine someone in a different age and educational cohort. He’s a decade younger than me. At 25, he recently started patrolling Harlem as an NYPD officer. Before that, he was in the NYPD academy; before that he was in the U.S. army sitting in meetings with Pashtun elders and patrolling Afghan towns; he attended a Los Angeles high school that was 30 percent white, 33 percent Asian, 25 percent Hispanic, and ten percent black. He played football and tennis there. So the water through which he has swum isn’t accurately described by “the unexamined whiteness, the everyday whiteness.” His world has never been predominantly white, and while his views on race might be enlightened, bigoted or neither, his whiteness is very likely to have been examined regularly.

He surely understands many things better than Professor DiAngelo, or me, or anyone older than 30, or people who’ve never seen identity operate outside the United States.

Perhaps he doesn’t understand some nuance of race in America that reflection in an academic setting would reveal. Maybe his parents were able to co-sign on the mortgage for his first condo with home-equity they earned from a house that appreciated during the boom years in a neighborhood where their black peers weren’t able to move in the 1970s. Like Professor DiAngelo, I think there is value in knowledge like that. It isn’t clear to me how or why that knowledge would make him a better policeman or why it would make a different person reconsider their views on policing.

For what does the degree to which one has examined whiteness really tell us anyway? Calls to interrogate or examine race often seem to presume that this will produce views on race more closely aligned with those of the person advocating the reflection. But some of the most virulent racism in America comes from people who are deeply obsessed with their whiteness. It’s their favorite thing to examine. They spend their days trying to prove the genetic superiority of the white race or persuading themselves that whites are better than whatever immigrant group they’re intent on excluding. They examined themselves and found others wanting.

In comparison to them, we would surely prefer white Americans who’ve spent little if any time reflecting on their racial identity, but who nevertheless abhor police misconduct, speak up against racism when they encounter it, raise their children to abhor racial prejudice, and vote for candidates in part based on the policing reforms that they promise. Those people are improving society, not adding to its problems. If a person like that asked me whether they should spend a spare 5 hours in their weekly routine volunteering at a community center for disadvantaged youth, canvassing their neighborhood for a ballot measure to reform drug sentencing, or examining their whiteness with as much intellectual rigor as possible, I would advise them that the last option would do the least to improve the world.

Again, I don’t mean to say that such reflection has no value. Another example: a moment of racial self-reflection might inspire the white owner of a small company to recognize that implicit bias may be unfairly disadvantaging job applicants with traditionally black names, spurring him to implement name-blind resume reviews.

Yet an individual who is totally averse to reflecting on her own whiteness might come to that same insight about the need for name-blind resume reviews in a different way. Reflecting on what it really means to treat people as individuals might do the trick.

Zooming out, it seems to me that there is no one correct theory of race in the United States, at least not one that even the most brilliant individual could comprehend. And if someone wants to be the best human being that they can be, there is no one answer about how much time and intensity they should dedicate to reflecting on their racial identity. That might depend on the racial makeup of their community and their vocation and how much empathy for others they get intuitively and whether racial prejudice was socialized into them during their upbringing and whether they learn better via facts or experiences and a million other factors.

Decreasing police brutality is an urgent issue. It may be the one I write about more than any other. I do not imagine the particular reform priorities I’ve put forth in some articles and implied in others are infallible. But the right approach cannot be tantamount to, First, a majority should accept my ur-theory of race in America, and only once they’re thus enlightened will the conditions be right for reforms. No one is saying exactly that, but it’s part of the subtext of more writing on the subject than I’d like, sometimes from people whose ur-theory of race in America I largely share.

Many of Professor DiAngelo’s thoughts are engaging and valuable, whether or not one agrees with them. But let’s not pretend that any highly contested humanities theory on race in America is a plausible foundation for policing reform, no matter how insightful it seems to a slice of the ideological spectrum, which is free to pursue it in parallel but should not attempt to put it at the center of this issue. A successful reform coalition must encompass people with wildly different views on race in America, joining to stop behavior that they agree is bad by urging specific reforms.