Most politicians and church leaders are employing dismissive rhetoric when addressing the extreme calls to defund or disband the police. They say, “Defund the Police” (in its extreme forms) simply is ridiculous. It has been described as “crazy,” “unhelpful” and “disrespectful.”
I’m not going to try to convince you we should shut down our police departments. Instead, I’m going to try to show you why some people are calling for their defunding or disbanding. Consider an analogy.
Tanner and his twin brother, Wyatt, are 4 years old, white and have been bounced around from foster home to foster home their entire lives. Trauma is the most constant presence in their lives. They know trauma like other children know their mothers’ smiles or their fathers’ laughs.
This trauma has impacted the brothers in very different ways, however. While Wyatt has become increasingly violent and defiant, Tanner is withdrawn. He rarely speaks, and when he does, it is with the vocabulary of a 2-year-old. You would never guess they were brothers—let alone, twins.
This past Sunday, Tanner and Wyatt were returned to CPS custody after a volunteer in the church nursery reported Wyatt’s bruises. She also had observed both boys looked fearful when they heard their foster father’s voice in the hallway as he returned from big church. Both boys winced at their father’s touch as he picked them up.
The case manager assigned to Tanner and Wyatt is faced with a decision. Tanner has no bruises and claims the foster father never hurt him. Does the case manager send Tanner back to the foster family?
I’m guessing you think the answer is clear: No!
Even if the foster father never abused Tanner physically, it is evident the home no longer is suited to be a safe and comforting space for Tanner. Tanner’s responses in the church nursery reveal the foster father no longer can serve as a loving, nurturing or secure presence in Tanner’s life. To send him back now only would exacerbate the trauma and could prove dangerous.
Learning from others
Why is Tanner’s story important?
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Because the relationship between many Black Americans and the police is just like Tanner’s relationship with his foster father.
I’ll say that again. Many Black Americans view the police just like Tanner views his foster father.
This is difficult for many white Americans to understand. We may feel some fear when we pass a police car on the road. We may be slightly uncomfortable when an officer walks into our favorite lunch spot.
This is very different from the experience of many Black Americans. When many Black Americans see a police officer, they feel the kind of fear a woman feels when she thinks there is a dangerous intruder in her home. They feel the kind of fear a man feels when he answers his wife’s phone call and hears her crying hysterically.
If you, my reader, are a white American, you may question Black Americans’ fear. You may think they are wrong to experience this kind of fear when they see the police. Furthermore, you probably think it is appropriate to fear and respect the police.
Learning from our own fear
Let me ask you two questions.
First, does the fear go away when someone explains—or you tell yourself—it is very unlikely there is a dangerous intruder in your house?
Ninety-nine times out of 100, they say—or you think—the dangerous intruder turns out to be the cat or the wind or the creaky old house. Most likely, you have nothing to fear.
If you’re like me, the fear remains. It chills my body and keeps my heart racing until I’ve checked every room in the house.
This is why it doesn’t help much for white Americans to tell Black Americans they shouldn’t be that afraid of police. It may be true, but it isn’t helpful. The statement doesn’t make the fear go away.
This is not because Black Americans are irrational human beings. This is not because Black Americans are childish human beings. It is because they are human beings.
Such racist ideas—that Black Americans are irrational or childish—are deeply flawed and deeply corrosive. The fear of Black Americans is just like the fear of white Americans. Unfortunately, human fear—no matter the color of the skin it chills—is not very responsive to reason.
Seeing the roots of fear
The second question is this: Is the statement I’ve been discussing—that Black Americans shouldn’t be that afraid of the police—true?
According to a study done in 2016, police are nearly four times more likely to use force on Black Americans than on white Americans.
However, the average number of black Americans who receive this treatment is 273 per 100,000. That is 0.273 percent. This suggests it is highly unlikely for police to use force on Black Americans.
Should we conclude our statement was true—that Black Americans should not be that afraid of police? I don’t think so.
Black Americans are not just afraid the police will be violent. They also are afraid the police will detain them without just cause.
As one study shows, Black Americans accounted for 47 percent of the exonerations—wrongful convictions later overturned—in 2016, despite making up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Combine this with an understanding of the connections between early American policing and the runaway slave patrols as described by Khalil Gibran Muhammad in The Condemnation of Blackness, and you will start to see why Black Americans are justified in being that afraid.
Now we may be in a position to understand why some Black Americans want to defund or disband the police and replace them with a new and different institution. It is not because they are crazy. It is not because they are disrespectful. It is not because they want more opportunities for crime.
It is because they are afraid.
Our nation faces some very difficult conversations concerning the future of policing. Let’s not dismiss one of the views simply because we think it is crazy or disrespectful.
In so doing, we might continue to silence the voices our nation has been ignoring for far too long.
Jared Brandt is a philosophy professor and amateur coffee roaster. He and his wife Courtney are members of Fielder Church in Arlington, have two children and will be licensed as foster parents this summer. The views expressed are those solely of the author.