Late Tuesday, news broke that yet another unarmed American, a black man named Walter Scott, was killed by a white police officer. As with Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Rodney King nearly 25 years ago, the brutality was captured on video for the world to see. The New York Times put the damning evidence at the very top of its homepage and it quickly spread throughout social media networks provoking outrage, disgust, horror, grief. These reactions have come most vocally from black Americans. The silence from white activists, elected officials, public figures, and citizens has been deafening.
If you’re white and have made it to this paragraph you might be thinking, or headed to the comments to write, “not all white people…” To be sure, there are white Americans active in efforts toward police reform. That population is, however, nowhere near the critical mass needed for change. Take for example New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. He made some unprecedented comments expressing “pain and frustration” after a grand jury failed to indict the NYPD officer who choked Eric Garner to death on film. He was quickly pressured to walk back that sentiment and, without the support he needed, did exactly that.
The bottom line: The majority of white Americans believe the nation’s police are doing a good job despite that work often ending in the deaths of unarmed black people.
In every major speech on race that President Obama has delivered during his presidency, he has reassured Americans of our collective will to form a more perfect union. When his 2008 campaign was in danger of being derailed by his Chicago pastor, Obama remarked on the “vast majority” of Americans who want a more equitable country. After George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges for killing Trayvon Martin, Obama reminded us that, “Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.” And, when a grand jury failed to indict a white officer for choking a black Staten Island man to death, the President instructed: “...it is incumbent upon all of us, as Americans, regardless of race, region, faith, that we recognize this is an American problem.”
Black Americans are largely on board with making police brutality an issue of urgent national interest. We’ve always been desperate for change. White Americans, not so much.
According to Harris polls, white Americans have been slow to accept that racism plays a harmful role in policing. Between 1969 and 2014, white Americans understanding that blacks are generally discriminated against by the police has only increased from 19 percent in 1969 to a paltry 48 percent in 2014. Progress, but still short of a majority. Meanwhile, black endorsement of that statement has stayed relatively stable, increasing just 10 points from 76 percent to 86 percent during the same period.
When we can’t complete a news cycle without learning another unarmed black person has been killed by police, one wonders: Where are the reasonable white Americans? Where’s the religious right, those patriots and lovers of life and liberty? Even more, where are those good white cops, and what do they have to say about the one who executed Scott and then had the clarity of mind to possibly plant a weapon near him and falsify a police report?
There is a remarkable dearth of outrage from white Americans when their countrymen of color are denied the most fundamental right—life—by the police. City-level polling data from Los Angeles and New York reveals that white approval of the police is consistently high in those cities—despite the checkered history of their police departments. It drops on average somewhere around 10 points when there are high-profile cases of police brutality but, irrespective of what remedies follow, it recovers to pre-incident levels in no time.
And make no mistake about it, police reform in this country is dependent on white Americans taking incidents of abuse seriously. White people are the nation’s largest and most empowered racial voting block, and their perception of crime, fairness, and justice is perhaps one of the most influential factors in law enforcement. Public sentiment aside, white Americans make upthe vast majority—nearly 80 percent—of this nation’s police force.
So, what do they think? Well, it seems we have a system of policing—brutality included—that the vast majority of white Americans approve of, or, at the very least, tolerate.
Whites rate the nation’s police force among the three institutions in our country that inspire the most confidence, behind only the military and small business, according to a survey by Gallup. In fact, white Americans admire the police more than they do clergy. With that in mind, it should be no surprise then that 70 percent of white Americans say they can imagine a situation in which they would approve of a police officer striking a citizen. Nearly the same share approve of police hitting suspects trying to escape from custody.
Sixty percent of white Americans surveyed by ABC News in December said that the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Garner in New York City were isolated incidents. Robin DiAngelo is a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University and the author of What Does it Mean to be White? In a her work on white silence in racial discussions, DiAngelo explains that such reduction of systematic racism to a series of similar but isolated events aids white silence. She writes, “much of the rationale for white silence is based on a racial paradigm that posits racism as isolated to individual acts of meanness that only some people do. This dominant paradigm of racism as discrete, individual, intentional, and malicious acts makes it unlikely that whites will see our silence as a function of, and support to, racism and white privilege.” White silence around race, as a result, functions to maintain white supremacy and ultimately harms people of color, she argues.
That brings us back to an unarmed Scott, stopped for a busted tail light in a state where you’re only required to have one, struck five times from behind as he ran away from a man who’d later appeared to plant evidence on his dead body and lie about administering CPR to him. And, of course, Scott brings us back to Miriam Carey, Aiyana Stanley Jones, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, and so many others. How many more must die, how close together, and under what circumstances before the most empowered Americans feel compelled to advance, legislate and execute police reform? Or is this the system they want?
Donovan X. Ramsey is a multimedia journalist whose work puts an emphasis on race and class. Donovan has written for The Atlantic, The New Republic, MSNBC, and Ebony, among others. He’s currently a Demos Emerging Voices Fellow.
[Image by Sam Woolley; Photo via Shutterstock]