COPS DON'T TALK AS NICELY TO BLACK PEOPLE. WHAT NOW?
Make them less "racist"? That's going to be a while. How about keeping them away from black people as much as possible?
A fascinating, and depressing, new study will be celebrated as revealing the subtle but powerful operations of racism. It also reveals, however, the pitfalls in the way we are taught to address that racism these days.
The study shows that police officers tend to talk in a less friendly way to black people they stop than white ones. People were played slivers of body-cam audio of the officers talking to citizens, with the content of the exchange disguised. People could tell with dismaying regularity what color person the officer was speaking to simply by the tone of voice. It wasn’t that officers outright sneer at black people. Rather, their tone with whites tends to be more pleasant, to have a hint of cheer, whereas with black people it is more impersonal, flat, unwarm.
The study also shows how these things fashion a vicious cycle. People tested who had negative experiences with cops and/or less trust in them processed even the exchanges the cops had with white citizens as less positive than other people tested did. That is, their life experience has implanted in them a distrust of the cops, that can anticipate actual interactions with them – and certainly, of course, unintentionally pollute them.
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This study reminds me of something else that goes in the other direction. To whites, subtle things about black communication, including vocal tone, can come off as threatening when no threat is intended.
I once happened to hear two 30-something black men talking about a misunderstanding one of them had had at work. They were just unwinding, but there was what many might process as a tinge of impending battle in their voices, inflections and gestures. "Man, I wanted to ‘Mmmph!’ [jab of the arm, click of the tongue] Gimme a break! An' I was like … [putting on a challenging glare] don’t even start.”
No black listener would assume these guys actually meant the hints at violence literally. However, outside listeners can hear this way of talking as edgy. Kelefa Sanneh’s term for this twenty years ago, writing about rap and its lyrics, was perfect: a certain “confrontational cadence.”
Yes, all people trash-talk. But this particular way of talking has a special place in black American culture. No, that’s not stereotyping: sympathetic black academics have documented it. CUNY’s Arthur Spears, today one of the deans of the academic study of black American speech, has written about what he calls "directness.” Speech “that may appear to outsiders to be abusive or insulting is not necessarily intended to be nor is it taken that way by audiences and addressees,” Spears noted. He then quoted a father-child exchange: Father: "Go to bed!" Little boy: "Aw, Daddy, we’re playing dominoes." Father: "I’m gonna domino your ass if you don’t go to bed now." Notice how awkwardly this, or Eddie Murphy’s routine about the mother throwing the shoe in Delirious, would translate into the world of Modern Family.
This “confrontational cadence” can inflect even casual exchanges between black and white people. Aspects of black intonation, steeped in a lifetime’s experience in a language culture that values performative aggression as a kind of communal élan, can sound cranky, disrepectful, and even aggressive to a white person. It is all but impossible that this does not color encounters between black people and white cops; I highly suspect a study like the first one I mentioned would reveal it.
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Now, the 101 take on this is “Racism!”
The reason officers don’t speak as warmly to black people can be traced to discomfort or wariness, as well as outright bias. All fall under the rubric of racism – or at least, they will to many and probably most. Then, the reason for the confrontational cadence in black speech may be that it manifests a wariness of the larger (white) world, a kind of defensive, pre-emptive crouch. Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote an editorial taking this kind of position on black male edginess.
However, what we are trained to think next is that we must get rid of this racism. The cops have to shed their subtle bias against black people and master a subtle change in the pitch and melody of their voices when talking to them. They must also cease to hear a certain challenging edge in the way especially younger black men often talk as threatening or disrespectful.
Note how much of a stretch that is. Sure, it’d be nice – but really? Who among us actually thinks this could ever actually happen? Casual speech is spontaneous and subconscious; much of it is all but beyond control. And meanwhile, say that the black cadence will only change when black people encounter no, or even less, “racism” in general? Good rhetoric, and probably true – but exactly what is the proposal on the ground? If the best we can do on this part is to say “No more racism!” then we have no more of a solution than we do to the officers’ biases.
In short, the problem here cannot be fixed by “getting rid of the racism.” And yet, it is a problem.
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Yes, it is a problem.
Here is where people often lose the thread on us “contrarian” and “heterodox” thinkers on race. It’s because of the blinkers we settle for, where the only meaningful response to black problems is to yell “Racism!” and suppose that the racism in question can be “fixed.”
But there are other ways to go about things. Here, quite simply, there is no way to change the manifestations of racism in question. However, the negative feelings between police officers and black men, in particular, are the fulcrum of The Race Thing. As I have often written, eliminate this and our race discussion will turn a corner within a single generation. As such, we must ask: is there anything to be done about what the study I wrote about reveals, other than hoping vainly to transform officers’ inner psychology?
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I think there is. The idea is to make it so that black people have many, many fewer interactions with police officers at all. Here is where my call to end the War on Drugs is rooted. Officers are too often directed to black neighborhoods, or to stopping black drivers for no reason, on searches for drugs. Too often, selling drugs on the black market leads to violence that attracts the attention of the police. Too often, drug addiction leads to thefts (and violence) that bring in cops’ attention.
With even hard drugs available legally, and the resources wasted for almost 50 years on this “War” redirected to helping addicts and preventing further addictions, black people nationwide would simply encounter the cops less. The cops’ biases would likely continue at least for a while. Subtle aspects of the way they speak that are beyond their control would, big surprise, not change. But at least they’d be in black people’s faces much less.
And that’s just one of many reasons the War on Drugs should end, and yet to many, my take on this will seem somehow incomplete. That’s because it isn’t about yelling “Racism!” I seem like I’m letting the cops get away with “Racism!”
And you know what? I am. But not because I like racism, and not because I don’t understand its effects – but because I don’t see how this particular kind of “Racism!” can be changed, and I meanwhile want to see real people’s lives change in the here and now.
This is what Thomas Sowell memorably terms the conflict of visions in his invaluable book. The unconstrained vision supposes that the world can be transformed, that the possibilities for change are endless. The constrained vision assumes that human nature will always have a seamy side and that no societal arrangement will be perfect.
Needless to say, we can see these orientations as shorthand for “liberal” and “conservative,” but those labels are less useful by the year these days. The main thing is that thinking our main task is to spray for “Racism!” is highly unconstrained. Supposing that we can rein racism in, render it socially reprehensible, keep people alert to its subtler forms, but in the meantime fashion policies and solutions with the assumption that bias will nevertheless always be with us – this is constrained. As in, frankly, realistic. Not “right wing,” not “conservative.” Just real.
There will never be a world without germs. That does not mean that I condone germs.
There will never be a world without racism. That does not mean that I condone racism.
Studies like this one about cop speech resonantly demonstrate how necessary it is for us to be, in our approach to bias and its effects, realistic.