Following the death of George Floyd, killed by cop Derek Chauvin, which provoked days of protests and nights of rioting and looting, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has launched an inquiry into whether the Minneapolis police force has “systemic racism that is generations deep.”
Of course it does.
Stop. Before you fire off flaming letters telling me that I’ve maligned the good people who maintain law and order in our communities, before you tell me that the police officers you know are the fine upstanding people, before you accuse me of wanting to abolish an essential service, read on.
This is not about individuals.
Individuals may disavow racism. Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen joined with the protesters and marched with them. So did police chiefs in Norfolk, Virginia, and Green Bay, Wisconsin. The mayor of Newark supported the protesters. Members of the National Guard called in to quell riots “took the knee” in Hollywood.
But the system they belong to can’t help being racist, because it defends the rights and privileges of a class that is fundamentally racist.
Regardless of individual sympathies towards justice and fairness, enforcement agencies still mass behind shields and batons, and use tear gas, rubber bullets, and explosive devices called “flash-bangs” to control protesters. Even peaceful protesters. Most notably, to clear the streets so their Commander-in-Chief could cross the road to brandish a Bible in front of a church that opposes his policies.
Walz and I are talking about “systemic racism” that’s built into the genes of all law enforcement agencies — police, National Guard, and the armed forces.
They can’t avoid being racist because their job, perhaps their only job, is to defend the property and power of the privileged classes, who are – at least in the United States – mainly white males.
Look at the U.S. Congress, to take just one example. With a few notable exceptions, old white males.
The same might be said of corporate boardrooms, whose buildings and businesses the police and National Guard are sent out to protect.
If you doubt that, show me any instance where a poor black neighbourhood could call up a police force to protect their interests.
There is systemic racism even though a high proportion of members of both the police and the military forces called on to quell violence are themselves black.
They have themselves grown up being victimized by racist organizations. Being pulled over for driving while black. Insulted for asking a difficult question in a press conference while Asian. Arrested for birdwatching while black. Exploited by employers for being Latino.
Basically, penalized for not being white.
If the upper echelons of U.S. commerce and politics are racist, then their police cannot help being racist. Because that’s on whose behalf the police act.
That doesn’t justify Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. But another factor explains why the three other cops with Chauvin didn’t attempt to stop him.
Jonathan Haidt has spent 25 years studying the values that distinguish liberals and conservatives. (Those are his terms, not mine; argue with him, not me, if you dispute his definitions.)
Liberals, Haidt says, value care and fairness most highly. Other words might be compassion and equality. They downplay authority, blind loyalty, and private morality, which Haidt calls “sanctity.”
Conservatives are the direct opposite. They value most highly authority, loyalty and personal purity.
In practical terms, liberals can vigorously work for environmental causes while having the sexual morality of an alley cat. And conservatives can be extreme patriots and pillars of their church while being viciously racist.
Haidt pictures liberals on the left, and conservatives on the right.
The social structure of police and military automatically puts them in the far right. Of all organizations, they place the highest reliance on loyalty and authority. Discipline is crucial. You cannot have a foot soldier making personal decisions about whether or not to go to war. You cannot have a cop refusing to clear the streets because “they’re m’ brothers.”
In the military context, failing to protect your comrade’s back is betrayal, near treason. So the three officers who did not intervene as Chauvin killed George Floyd, rather then abdicating their responsibilities, probably saw themselves as living up to expectations of them.
In summary, as long as the dominant elements of any society benefit from racist policies, police forces will continue to act in racist ways, regardless of their members’ personal convictions.
To change “systemic racism” in his police forces, Gov. Walz has to change Minnesota.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com.