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Sunday, August 9, 2015
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The New Yorker recently published perhaps the first personal profile of former Ferguson, MO Police Officer Darren Wilson since he shot and killed 18 year old Michael Brown. Wilson obviously met with and cooperated extensively with writer Jake Halpern, who gave a detailed overview of Wilson’s life and career experience leading up to the Brown shooting, and since that time. At first, I found the article to be fair and quite informative, a well-needed focus on the perspective of Wilson, given that he unwittingly became involved in an incident where the media overwhelmingly focuses upon the victim and the many reactions from the public. In the end, however, I was disappointed by this article. Halpern had an agenda after all, a very familiar one for media such as the New Yorker; basically, to use Wilson as exhibit 1 in explicating the faults of whites in general, and white police officers in particular, in dealing with African Americans in an organizational context.

Halpern spoke in some detail about Wilson’s choice to work in North County outside St. Louis, as it was a more challenging environment for a police officer than a quieter, more affluent suburb. While working for a different but near-by police agency prior to his employment in Ferguson (in Jennings, MO), Wilson made the acquaintance of Mike McCarthy, another white officer (a field-training officer). McCarthy seemed to have a better understanding than Wilson did of the minority communities they were patrolling, and thus Wilson asked him for guidance in how to best deal with the people living in these areas. Wilson admitted to “culture shock” while addressing McCarthy, who agreed to help Wilson. Halpern seems to indicate that McCarthy’s efforts weren’t in vain, and that Wilson appeared better able to work in relatively high-crime minority communities because of it.

Halpern obviously asks McCarthy how he felt about the Brown killing. McCarthy’s reaction was that Wilson was basically doing his job, doing what any police officer in that situation would have to do, and that the tragic outcome did not have to do with Brown being black and Wilson being white. But of course, Halpern was not satisfied with this, so he pushed McCarthy further. Was it possible, Halpern wanted to know, that if McCarthy was on patrol that day and had stopped Brown, the outcome would have been different because McCarthy would have initially addressed Brown differently?

“It might not have escalated to that point,” McCarthy conceded, uneasily. Later, he added, “There is likelihood that it could’ve avoided that confrontation—the escalation of that confrontation.” But he felt that such speculation was pointless.

Nonetheless, Halpern had what he wanted; for Halpern, this speculation wasn’t pointless at all. Halpern implied that despite McCarthy’s help, Wilson’s underlying racial insensitivity came through when he initially confronting Brown for walking in the middle of a busy 2-way street. This was per Halpern the cause of all of the aggressive acts on Brown’s part from then on. Sorry, but I don’t buy that. About a half minute after the initial interaction over walking in the street, Wilson heard about the convenience store robbery on his radio, and Brown was clearly a suspect match. Wilson was under a duty at that point to stop Brown and question him about the robbery. I’m not an expert on “probable cause”, but it’s possible that the police radio information about the robbery and the time and place where Brown was seen amounted to legal justification in themselves for an arrest. Even had the initial contact between Wilson and Brown had gone well regarding walking in the street, it was going to become very upsetting, very quickly, for Michael Brown.

Admittedly, we can never know for sure. But really — had McCarthy been there, and had he respectfully told Brown to use the sidewalk, would Brown have thereafter stayed cool and not stopped McCarthy from getting out of his vehicle when he went back to stop Brown regarding the robbery? (That’s the point when Brown “crossed the Rubicon”, when Wilson justifiably got out his gun.) It would seem quite reasonable to believe that Michael Brown knew that the second interaction must have been about the robbery, and was not just some further unpleasantness about walking in the street. Cops in neighborhoods like that have much better uses of their time. It seems at least as likely as not that Brown would have kept McCarthy too from getting out of his vehicle after driving back to block Brown’s path. But as McCarthy says, such speculation is ultimately pointless — who can say for sure, one way or the other?

Nonetheless, Halpern goes on to hint that the whole unfortunate incident could have been avoided had Wilson been “nicer”, more racially sensitive. To me, that seems like bad logic, and is unfair. Nonetheless, other writers have piled on to this unfairness. A few days after the New Yorker article appeared, Charles Blow wrote a piece in the Times focusing on Wilson as something of a poster child for “pernicious structural racism” in America. Blow criticizes Wilson for saying critical things regarding the culture in the neighborhoods that he was policing (you can find black conservative commentators such as Thomas Sowell and maybe even Juan Williams who also talk about minority neighborhoods with high-crime, high-unemployment, high rates of single-parent households, and low educational achievement in the context of a need to “pull you own socks up, don’t just passively blame others, even if the blame is real” — not too far from what Wilson had said . . . oh, and hey, what about William Julius Wilson and his analysis of what happens “when work disappears“). For Blow, this is decisive evidence that Wilson is a typical functionary of a system “designed and built on devaluation and destruction”. Blow chooses in his piece to entirely ignore Wilson’s requested tutelage under McCarthy; and he obviously did not present this line from the Halpern article:

“When I left Jennings, I didn’t want to work in a white area,” Wilson told me. “I liked the black community,” he went on.

Blow says that Wilson’s interview with Halpern doesn’t make him appear more human. But it’s Blow, and also ultimately Halpern, who choose not to see Darrell Wilson’s humanity. They have devoted themselves to the “hidden structural racism” theory, and they need whatever evidence they can glean to support it. They need an inhuman Darren Wilson. Why? Aside from an on-going series of bad interactions between white police and black victims where the officer appears to over-react to some resistance or non-cooperation on the part of a black civilian, there isn’t all that much to go on regarding hidden structural racism.

(Oh, let me step back here — yes, sometimes it is clear in the recent spate of publicized police incidents that the police officer/s over-reacted, as in Cincinnati and Baltimore; but in other cases, first appearances are not always accurate, as the US Department of Justice concluded about the Ferguson incident). Yes, I’ve read some of TaNehisi Coate’s various pieces regarding the vehement sins of racism in America, but even then, most of his material starts getting thin after 1960, certainly by 1980. This is not to say that the historical momentum of centuries of slavery and generations of past racism can be eliminated in one generation or even one century. (I certainly wouldn’t want to be black and driving alone at night and be pulled over by a cop.) But as to the notion that there’s still a lot of structural racism in America that needs to be hunted and weeded out . . . obviously, I just don’t think that’s going to turn out well, neither for whites or blacks, even if our society remains racially imperfect.

A key underlying factor behind the current black political discontent is economic. Blacks were especially hard hit by the Great Recession of 2008. Seven years later, the unemployment rate for blacks is 9.1% vs 6.5% for Hispanics and 4.6% for whites. Unfortunately, black unemployment has always been relatively high; it reached its low-point in 2000 at 7.6%, while Hispanic unemployment was lowest in 2006 at 5.2%. White unemployment was at its nadir at 4.0% in 2000. Obviously whites are pretty close to their optimal unemployment level (within 0.6 percentage points) while blacks have a bigger gap to close (1.5 percentage points). The overall social goal should obviously be to bring minority rates down to the similar levels for whites, but during and after the Great Recession, things moved in the wrong direction. A recent article about this in The Atlantic brings out the same fashionable new suspect:

The stubbornness of the unemployment gap points to other issues—such as systemic discrimination and racial biases—that existed long before the recession and its sluggish, unequal recovery.

The writer does not dig much deeper than that. She fails to consider the problem of human capital. Unfortunately, not enough blacks have attained the educational and vocational training and experience levels that translate into higher incomes and higher employment rates. A key example regards college. The portion of adults age 25+ with 4 year college degrees is currently about 30% for whites, 17.3% for non-Hispanic blacks, and 11.4% for Hispanics. Of people that started college in 2007 with the intent to attain an undergraduate degree, 62.5% of whites successfully attained that degree by 2013, whereas 40.2% of blacks and 51.9% of Hispanics similarly attained their degrees.

Obviously, there is still a black human capital problem, and it certainly does have something to do with past and probably on-going racial biases. But it also has a lot to do with on-going economic problems; you generally have to be relatively well off to get thru college, especially in this era of steeply rising tuition. Black economic disadvantages from the past thus make it all the more difficult to catch-up, and instead cause blacks to fall further behind in an economic world where education is more and more critical to well-being.

An on-going hunt for “structural racism” is ultimately not going to significantly change this. Actually, the one thing that might make sense in this context is TaNehisi Coate’s call for white-to-black reparations. Our American economy started blacks off on the wrong foot (i.e., a foot shackled by slavery), and for many decades kept them behind. The doors of opportunity were gradually opened in the 1960s, and have not since then been closed. But the deficits of the past have not been erased, and the modern economy is making the continuing human capital and income / wealth gap wider and wider. So perhaps reparations might make sense — IF structured on an incentive basis. Let the federal government greatly increase funds available to economically disadvantaged blacks today to go to college or vocational school. But structure the actual reparation payments based on achievement; so much for graduating, so much more for gaining employment, more still for staying employed for so many years. The black income/wealth gap would then hopefully close, and the overall economy would grow faster — everyone would win in the long run.

But back to Darrell Wilson . . . lets be honest, because of the income / wealth gap, blacks are disproportionately involved with crime, and thus with police actions and incarceration (and all of that is another component of the interactive cycle that makes the black-white economic gap get even worse). Police are far from perfect, and because a lot of their interactions are necessarily (and sometimes unnecessarily) with blacks, a lot of their mistakes and mess-ups are going to involve blacks, both guilty and innocent. That’s because in many police actions, it’s not yet known who is guilty and who is innocent. There could well be “deep-seated institutional racism” in the criminal justice system, but the better approach is to demand improved policing everywhere. Body cameras are part of that, but only one part. The question of when and whether and how to use deadly force (i.e. guns) in police action is another huge question.

IMHO, this is the KEY question that could legitimately be posed to Darren Wilson. Officer Wilson had mace on him at Ferguson, but felt that his gun was the appropriate tool for dealing with Michael Brown. That may well be a function of Wilson’s training, and may reflect the standard operating procedure for police. So perhaps it’s a question of developing more technical options and tactical options for police, especially when unarmed subjects are involved. Sure, Tasers are becoming more prevalent, but even a simple thing like mace . . . you can go on Amazon and buy a bear-spray container that will propel pepper spray around 30 feet, and is said to be effective in stopping a charging grizzly (can’t buy it in all states however, not in New Jersey or New York). Would that have been a better and non-fatal way to have stopped Brown’s final charge at Wilson?

I certainly would NOT want to rob police of their means to maintain control of public situations at all times. Darren Wilson could NOT just sit there in his vehicle after Brown pushed him back and closed the door. Perhaps a gun was needed at that point . . . but did it remain the best option for the balance of the incident? Maybe not. But it’s real nuts-and-bolts questions like these, and not fuzzy theories about “ongoing institutional racism”, that can help save lives.

So long as human beings aren’t angels, these is going to be some quotient of racism in people. You can socially discourage it, you can outlaw and remove the worst examples of it, and maybe you can make up for many of the bad on-going effects afterward. BUT you can’t stamp it out entirely, except by methods much worse than the disease. Sure, TaNehesi Coates’ new book (Between the World and Me) on racism is a fashionable read at present, but if the NY Times, The Atlantic, and the New Yorker really want to make things better, then they need to get back down to nuts and bolts questions regarding education opportunity, modern economic trends, and policing issues; and not beat their largely white breasts trying to purge themselves and the world of an imagined Post Great Recession Hidden Structural Racism.

PS — in the July/Aug 2015 Atlantic, TaNehisi Coates has a short piece entitled “Post Racial Society Is Still A Distant Dream“. Yes, more fashionable verbiage about wide-spread hidden racism that is a function of everyone’s “programming”, with no need for any “critical mass of evil racists”. But his short-list of victims includes Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray. The late Michael Brown is conspicuous by his absence (along with Trayvon Martin). Give Coates credit for at least sticking to the clear examples of what is really wrong. It’s a start.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:40 pm      

  1. Jim, You certainly are right: Any reporter writing a story for a newspaper, almost certainly will get a quote to fit his/her bias. I often think it’s a shame that reporters almost always these days have a bias. Years ago reporters were most careful to be 100% unbiased, show *no* favoritism for one aspect or another of any story. Them days are gone forever, it seems.

    It seems to me that these days everybody has a position; and they also have the idea that because they have the right of free speech, their opinion *must* be expressed. A mistake, as I see it. As a result of this idea, I often think that, everybody feels that his/her opinion *must* be known by as many people as possible.

    So (put these in whatever order seems best): Everybody has an opinion about any major topic. Everybody has an obligation to express that opinion. And unexpressed in all this is the fact that no one takes any time to consider “the other guy’s” opinion. In addition few, if any people (well you likely are one of the few who *will*) are willing to consider the various aspects of any situation that do not agree with their opinion. (I might also say that “opinion” used to take for granted the idea of an “informed” opinion; nowadays it simply means, “what I think”. I actually heard a woman say one time: “I know nothing about this topic, but”. . . and she proceeded to speak for about 5 minutes. If you know nothing about a topic, that’s the end of any talk about it, as I see it.)

    Most situations I’ve encountered in my life are often situations where everybody is somewhat right and everybody is somewhat wrong. But today no one wants to hear what part of something they may be wrong about.

    Thus, with the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri: A while after this tragedy for all involved, another somewhat different one occurred in (it’s a shame to say) a city I can no longer remember; it may even have been Chicago? maybe Detroit? I’ve begun to lose track; as I say, it’s a shame to say. A young man was seen by his mother on TV rioting and looting – admittedly the young man was not killed. She promptly left the house, went to where he was, slapped him around a bit (like his mother could do any damage to anything but his pride), and said to him (and this time TV got it): “I haven’t raised you to be like this; get your *** home right now.”

    I couldn’t help but think, even if Michael Brown was 18, could his mother have had her say with him should she have wanted. And here is another complex aspect of life: Some children will obey and listen to their parents; some children simply will *not*, no matter what the parent does. One of the mysteries of life I see is that good parents can have children who are not good; bad parents can have children who are good, put simply. How and why this occurs is something I have not figured out.

    So many times in these sad situations a young black (sometimes white) man is killed or shot. A recent weekend night showed 26 young people were shot in Chicago; I’m sure that’s no big news in other cities. I find myself wondering how it is that the young teenagers are out at 1, 2, 3 a.m. Why aren’t the parents raising a ruckus with their kids? Or do the children simply refuse to “behave”?

    I tend to think that few, if any, situations are black and white (pun not intended). One needs to take the time to see the complexity of any situation before it’s possible to make any decision about anything. And this holds for the Black people as well as the white people. I have found and experienced a good amount of prejudice in my life; black people are only too prejudiced themselves. I am a white woman who has lived with a black man for about 15 years. So I think I’ve got some experience, and maybe a right to say that.

    I am only too willing to agree with all the prejudice black people have had to/still endure. Yet I also can see, and I also know that black people themselves, are very aware that when things go wrong, they are able themselves to be honest with themselves and admit the part of something they did right or wrong; they can also see the part white people do right or wrong.

    I doubt there’s a simple solution to any of this. Simple solutions will only make things worse. A person (white or black) must be able to see the complexity of every situation and be willing to admit honestly what aspect of something they did wrong and what aspect was right. That’s the only way to get justice as I see it. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 10, 2015 @ 6:33 pm

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