Police Authority and Racism

Police Racist AbuseAs an ex-police officer, I have a unique perspective about the subject of police authority and racism, especially after having distanced myself from the profession with an aggressive thirty-year history of studying the antics of human behavior. One of the things that psychology has made clear about primates and humans is that males in positions of power experience a rise in testosterone.

Put a low-level male in charge of a group, and in time he will blossom into an alpha male with the appropriate level of hormones for the job. This also applies to females, perhaps to a lesser degree. Put a badge and gun on a man or a woman, and in time a bold persona becomes part of a law officer’s personality. It begins to feel right, and it defaults to overt assertiveness when one’s official authority reaches into gray areas.

I know from experience that taking on the persona of a law-enforcement officer results in a surge of internalized boldness; it’s just part of the job. At times this is a necessity because police officers often find themselves in situations where a high degree of assertiveness is all that stands between them and losing control of a situation. I also know from personal experience that if police officers are not constantly reminded of the dangers of crossing the line through their use of their authority, then abuse of their power is a virtual certainty. Further, as with any minority (and police are a minority), associates tend to stick together. That police will back up one another, even when their fellow officers are wrong, is as dependable as sunrise.

For a teachable moment to have occured out of the incident with a Cambridge police sergeant and a distinguished university professor it would be necessary to reenact the incident, to do a play-by-play enactment of everything said, of every gesture made, and of the voice inflection and tone of everyone involved, and then to read the laws covering this situation very carefully. It would be an extraordinary learning experience for everyone who participated. From what I’ve learned of the incident, and based on my own experience, I don’t believe Professor Henry Gates broke the law. What occurred, in my view, was that a learned scholar embarrassed a police sergeant in front of his subordinates, and the sergeant overplayed his hand and authority in the same manner that occurs all over the United States day in and day out. The default position in this case is aggravated by the sergeant’s need to maintain the respect of his subordinates. Moreover, the reason I am quite certain that Professor Gates broke no law is that the police department dropped the case immediately. There was no case, and you can rest assured they wouldn’t have dropped it if there had been one.

In the 1960s I was guilty of this same kind of behavior as a police officer in Dallas, Texas. I am not now in any manner antipolice simply because I am no longer in law enforcement, but I am very much aware of how easy it is for officers with honorable intentions to cross the line and abuse their power. It is an occupational hazard that needs to be acknowledged as such and guarded against by police department managers to keep it from bringing harm to both the police and the public.

Race was an underlying issue in the Cambridge incident, as the African-American professor was very likely oversensitive (but not without some justification) and perhaps overly defensive, but I believe a reenactment would prove beyond doubt that he broke no law. He was guilty of disrespect for a person who performs a dangerous and often thankless job.

For anyone of any race or nationality to declare themselves not a racist is a gross oversimplification. Just as we are all capable of both good and evil, we all have built-in bias—a primeval, our kind bias—that exists as a matter of degree and can be made to surface, given the right context. Through psychology we have known this about ourselves for many years, and the fact that we have achieved so little public understanding, especially on the part of peace officers, is deeply disappointing. I discuss the topic of us and them in great detail in my book, September University: Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life. There I show how we are bedeviled by this issue all of our lives, especially if we remain unaware.

President Obama was right the first time when he said the police acted stupidly, because they should know better. It’s unfortunate that the president found it necessary to step back and retract the remark because until we can see this kind of action with some objectivity, we will never learn enough to actually be objective in such matters. I don’t doubt the police sergeant is a good man, but I very much doubt his objectivity. His authority went to his head to save face, and he overrode the law he was supposed to uphold.

Charles HayesYes, I’ve been there, done that. And since then, it’s taken an extraordinary amount of study and reflection on my part to realize that in many cases I used to act inappropriately, sincerely believing at the time it was my job to do so.

Charles D. Hayes

Charles D. Hayes is a lifelong learning advocate, a self-taught philosopher, and an author and publisher. At age 17, he dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Marines. After four years of duty he became a police officer in Dallas, Texas, and later he moved to Alaska, where he has worked for more than 20 years in the oil industry. In 1987 Hayes founded Autodidactic Press, committed to lifelong learning as the lifeblood of democracy and the key to living life to its fullest.  Mr. Hayes is also the founder of September University, a website for aging baby boomers.

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  1. Thomas White says

    To the readers; Neil Armstrong didn’t have the world wide web at his disposal back then, when the Eagle landed.

    What news channel provided almost real-time updates of Mahatma’s philosophy and leadership?

    Are you unable to make one giant leap for humankind, and defend the rights of every single human, and be tolerant and cooperative with the decent & honorable organizations and institutions created by humans, while maintaining what measure of independence an individual may justly require?

    Are you threatened daily by lions, bears, and other beasts of the wild, or by roaming bandits? Are you exposed to the elements and natural climate during your sleep due to there being no ready option?
    If not, will you consider yourself unfortunate?

    We have a worthy heritage and no excuse to not improve upon it. The well off have duties to all. The United States is well off. Seeking to be prepared for our mutual defense, if ever needed, might be considered one. Delegating it to your neighbors, which has at times resulted in their families being conscripted and members of that family being injured, including some of my own, is not the option I’d advise. Particularly, when it is to pursue foreign wars, in lands populated by citizens and government(s) that had not attacked the United States!

    Being an American and free citizen of the Earth is a challenge. Do the tough things and you may find many of the tasks you already know, less taxing and life more thrilling. Confidence stemming from experience and the conquest of your own weaknesses and fears may strengthen your incentive, and further your proficiency at being peaceful, insightful, learned, sympathetic, and perhaps above all humble. If you don’t like the way others are doing things, smile, then get up and help them do it better. Whistle while you work.


  2. Thomas White says

    I know several at one time or another on the Capitol, Metropolitan D.C., and other police forces. Known quite a few soldiers. Mr. Hayes speaks of human nature, and we know power tends to corrupt. We also see, that a human like Mr. Hayes may self-correct, and share his experience for the enlightenment of others.

    Shall the reader so often despair, when you have and see these wonders, offering encouragement to you, and preparing you for hard decisions? Do not be so tied to one road.

    Be happy. There are so many good examples for you to follow, and you can best them all, and lead, starting right now if you so wish. Make your searches unlimited. Good leaders and good citizens make friends, not enemies.


  3. says

    As a professor, I am able to offer some perspective on the other side of the Gates arrest. Academicians who specialize in particular social issues (such as Prof. Gates and Black Studies) tend to see their particular cause as central in every facet of society. They all but fantasize about having some historic altercation that will visibly punctuate the relevance and urgency of their cause. We at Claremont had a professor who specialized in Judaic Studies who had her car severely vandalized with anti-Jewish statements panted on it; it had been beaten with a baseball bat. The entire school used this event as a “teachable moment”. The faculty and student body walked around in proverbial sackcloth, observing an entire day of campus reflection on the remaining bigotry of our campus culture. We all felt horrible and completely deflated. How could some of our own students have done such a horrendous deed? Upon further investigation, the police found that the professor herself had vandalized her own car, that nobody else had participated. She had done so as a stunt to help amplify the importance of her career. This is all documented as a sad and disgraceful part of our campus history. Of course, the administration made no apologies for the situation and made no effort to atone for the false accusation which had deflated campus morale to an all time low.

    The charge of “racism” needs to be used with great care and precision. Neither Cambridge MA nor Claremont CA would tend to be the likely locations of such problems in our nation; these are two of the most progressive communities in North America. If time permitted, I have some other stories to tell you about another Black Studies professor here and similarly false accusations of racism. We also host the nation’s largest Women’s Studies program here at Claremont. Unfortunately, this also has resulted in a myriad of false accusations of sexism. The doctoral students in that program become black-belt activists and come to see a spectre of patriarchy lurking behind every rock and bush. The truth be told, sexism still exists as a horrible force of injustice in U. S. culture(s), but the Claremont campus is probably the lowest on the list of places that need improvement. Again, we are arguably the most progressive campus (along with Berkeley perhaps) this side of the Mississippi R.

    What an amazing coincidence~! The leading professor of Black Studies at Harvard had what has become the most visible “teachable moment” in racial discrimination history since Rodney King. The reverse caution needs to be heeded to that of Charles Hayes (given in the link you provide). By my experience, it is indeed likely (I am about 95% certain of it myself) that Prof. Gates produced this situation, characterizing it as fundamentally “racial” in substance, thus empowering himself, having found himself in a less than powerful situation (namely being questioned by the Cambridge police). Being a “friend” of the president no doubt emboldened him to assert himself and his ready-made accusation, thus conjuring and delineating a battle that revisits his own importance as a scholar.

    Thank you for the provocative news letter.

    [Anonymous member of LA Progressives]
    Claremont, Ca.
    .-= admin´s last blog ..Warfare Over Health Care =-.

  4. leslie robinson says

    This article is an example of the perpetuation of an extremely damaging perspective of victimization… not uncommon to the LA Progressive website. The subversive style is obvious to those who take a different approach of responsibility and accept life for what it is. Change can only happen or take place when things are allowed to be what they are…hence ‘it is what it is’ I’m sorry you victims, but not accepting this law of the universe is only going to create trouble and chaos. If you want something to change then make it an intention and meditate on that for yourself (the only thing that is really connected to your brain…for all intentional purposes)…then your movement may influence anothers movement without any direct intent of yours. THIS is how the universe works. Carbon Molecules (which evrything is made up of) are constantly moving (not changing). Change is really non-existant as we really confuse change with ‘movement’

    To justify movement (or a false idea of change) based on ‘Rights’ (things we have devised to allow us to attempt to live more in harmony together) rather than simple OBLIGATION to the laws of the universe….the same laws that all ‘beings’ must concede to…is simply unwise. I am saying…that we take our ‘rights’ way too serious. we need to look instead at what our obligation to the laws of cause and effect are before we get into ‘rights’ Many people are terrorized, hurt badly or die as a result of standing for ‘rights’ Preservation is the result of yielding to what is. Making alot of noise is making alot of noise…it is annoying at best. True movement comes (and goes) in all forms (and non-forms)

    It is best to not provoke cops. This is my experience. On a particular occasion I did…and got arrested. On another occasion I did not… and did not get arrested. It is clear in my mind…same potential situation …different outcomes. We have trained them to be reasonably straight forward in their duties to protect and to serve us. We do not want cops that are psychologists or intellectuals do we? How would that work in split decisions when someone is robbing our home and willing to say or do anything to not get caught. furthermore, thankful appreciative attitude or tone breeds happiness and well being. Blame, resentment and paranoia breeds unhappiness and depression.

    People treat me differently because I am white… depending on what country, city, state, neighborhood or home I am in. So what? Am I supposed to change the world from the outside in or can I change my perspective of the world from the inside out?

    I just think adults should be adults or else be called babies. At some point a baby should cease being a baby and become an adult. An adult is is someone who puts the interest of another human being before themselves. A responsible adult. If we all did this we wouldn’t have to be paranoid. If you are doing this…great! Keep doing it…because that is the MOST you could possibly ever do to influence others to do the same. Teaching point? The people most needing a teaching point in this situation were the three main characters invovled…they all have different things they can learn from this and ‘different’ indeed.

    .-= leslie robinson´s last blog ..16 months old Jaxie =-.

  5. says

    Mr. Hayes,
    Thank you for sharing your unique perspective, however I would object to assertions that domination and racism are “biological” or “natural”. These assumptions are often made by academics in fields such as Evolutionary Psychology, however they remain highly debatable. To suggest that one is born “primevil” and with a will to dominate seems to suggest that the only way out of human relationships based on power is to restructure our biology. This is problematic and unscientific. I’ve worked with evolutionary psychologists as a graduate student, as well as studying animal behavior for years in the wild. I can testify to the fact that much of the academic literature (in fields such as psychology, evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology) in regards to questions of race, gender, mating and power in animals is as sexist and racist as the biology used to claim that sexism and racism are natural and biological.

  6. Frank Tate says

    Thanks for your thoughtful opinion on this matter. I think if more people could simply be rational and admit reality (as you do), this world and this country would be a better place. Peace.

  7. Richard Packard says

    The statement that stood out the most in this entire commentary was, “Preservation is the result of yielding to what is.” Without getting into a long drawn out argument I have to take serious issue with that statement. If “evil” is “what is” do you “yield” to evil for self preservation? I certainly hope not! And yes, I take my “right seriously” when it comes to avoiding and defeating evil. I’m certain that many people take a look at their “obligation” to the “laws of cause and effect”. Especially the “cause and effect” of evil, and we all have an OBLIGATION to “make noise” when we identify evil for what it is. Many men and women “have” been hurt and died to defeat evil and its influence in a civilized society. Maybe you need to reassess your philosophical point-of-view about preservation.

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