Facing Reality, Speaking Out, and Building Trust after St. Paul, Baton Rouge, and Dallas

July 8, 2016 | 1:35 pm
People holding banner at a Black Lives Matter event in Brooklyn, NYPhoto: The All-Nite Images: CC BY-SA/Wikimedia
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

This morning, I awoke to news that eleven police officers were shot in Dallas at a protest that had been otherwise profoundly peaceful. President Obama called it a “vicious, calculated, despicable attack on law enforcement.” He’s right.

Last night, before shots rang out in Dallas, the president said that we need to address profound disparities in how African Americans and Latinos are treated—from violence to incarceration. “We are better than this,” he said. He called for communities and law enforcement to build trust.

That need is ever more urgent today. After Dallas.

I have friends who are cops, and black friends who have been victimized by cops. Most cops are good people. Most black men are good people. That doesn’t mean, though, that disparities in treatment don’t exist, and to eliminate these disparities, we must address them head on. Trust only comes in systems where flaws and weaknesses are acknowledged and justice is perceived.

So many lives are broken

The recent high-profile deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile should shake all of us. But for all of the attention these cases are now receiving, they are horrendously routine. At least 346 black people were killed by police in the United States in 2015. This isn’t the number killed by guns, or killed by violence—it’s the number killed by police. Nearly one a day. That’s commonplace.

The only new thing is that it’s easier and easier to capture these horrific acts on tape. Fewer than one in three black people killed by police in 2015 were suspected of a violent crime and allegedly armed. We can do better.

And if this isn’t tragic enough, there are so many who are shot and survive–or are at the receiving end of brutality that causes 45 stitches in the face. Countless more have faced down the barrel of a gun and escaped with just the mental trauma of the realization that “my body is not fully in my control.”

Then there’s the collateral damage on the families and loved ones.

My friend’s daughter attends the Montessori school where Philando Castile worked. He served the little girl breakfast and lunch every weekday. He knew every kid by name and pushed food into them like a grandma. My friend had to explain to her 6-year-old why she wouldn’t see Philando ever again.

Another student, a borderline autistic boy, hugged him every day. “This didn’t need to happen,” my friend wrote on Facebook. Last night, thousands in the school community gathered to mourn.

We can’t fully function in a state of fear

One of my African-American colleagues was shot two years ago in front of his seven-year-old sister. His sister still regularly has nightmares. All he can think about is what comes next for the four-year-old girl who was sitting in the back seat while her mother’s boyfriend was murdered.

My colleague’s friend is a black officer in Dallas. Now, when he’s in uniform, he feels like he’s a target. And when he’s out of uniform, he feels the same. What is he to do? Can he fully do his job? Can he live free of fear in society?

Nobody can function to the best of their ability when they find themselves under attack. We see this fear from LGBT people, often marginalized in their workplaces, and amplified by the recent Orlando massacre. But while some of us can hide our sexuality, few of us can hide our race. That’s why this tweet from Neil Lewis, a Ph.D. student in Michigan, rings so true:


And scientists are too often not sufficiently supportive of their colleagues of color. Blogger and research biologist Danielle Lee wrote this in a post she titled Too Traumatized to Science:

When I interact with other scientists, namely Black and Indigenous Scientists, the deep pain is shared, and the silence of our colleagues and institutions is deafening. It would be nice to know that we can safely grieve and feel and acknowledge how these tragedies touch us…and not be judged as being wasteful or distracted.”

We have to support those around us when they are marginalized, and we have to tell the stories of the people who are murdered to do them justice.

But we can’t fix these problems without looking at what is causing so many men of color to be gunned down, beaten, harassed, and stripped of their dignity. Epidemics demand systemic solutions.

Much of the time on this blog, we write about issues that have direct and obvious connections to how science is used in democracy. But sometimes there are pure failures of democracy that deserve our urgent attention, too. When we were discussing internally about whether and how to respond to the latest killings, several of my colleagues had this to say:

We are the Center for Science and Democracy. This means we deal, above all, with issues that affect the people (demos = “the people”). In a country where people are feeling increasingly emboldened to display their racism and prejudice, this issue is paramount for discussion. The Center for Science and Democracy brings the human element to the discussion. We can include the psychology, we can discuss the important role of technology, we can talk about public perceptions of police violence against black people, we can say this comes as a result of years of systemic racism—but ultimately, this goes beyond scientific analysis. We are still human, scientists are still human. We should speak out, regardless of whether or not it has a direct tie to tangible scientific evidence.  At UCS we try to make sure the world is safe from climate change, nuclear weapons/radiation, and unclean air and water, and we call out their consequences and corresponding inequities they produce. While this issue is harder to quantify and analyze, it is no less an issue that needs to be addressed by all Americans, scientific or not.

We must all speak up against institutionalized and individual racism when we see it. These practices erode civil discourse, breed mistrust, and make democracy more difficult.

Inflammatory, racist rhetoric around refugees, Muslims, and undocumented immigrants in our political discourse has led to verbal and physical violence in schools and on streets. And for hundreds of years, inaccurate information and rhetoric about black men has made it easier for them to be killed and otherwise marginalized or traumatized.

What comes next?

Our humanity is threatened by these conditions, and we must do all we can to confront and change them. We need to defuse the powder keg that is created by injustice and enlarged by mistrust, just like we need to do the same for the plague of gunmen who shoot up churches, schools, and gay bars.

Ultimately, this is not a situation where there are sides, or where anyone wins. And this problem won’t be solved in one election cycle. To build trust, we need more empathy in our conversation, more honesty regarding the strengths and weaknesses of law enforcement, and more transparency around how the public order is kept.

And regardless of whether and when more violence comes, each of us needs to loudly reject calls to demonize activists, police officers, people of color, white people, Republicans, Democrats, or any other group. We can’t fix this problem by fanning the flames of mistrust. We can’t improve our system of justice by creating more divisiveness. Don’t be silent and let such statements stand. Instead, figure out what responsibility you have to reduce violence, racial disparities, and distrust.