The Black Lives Matter Movement amounts to an anguished plea to call attention to a long-standing double standard in policing. In a nutshell: The history of policing in America with respect to racial relations is horrific. I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas in the 1940s and 50s, I joined the Marines in 1960, and after four years’ service, I joined the Dallas Police Department in 1966.
The study of race relations in the police academy in those days didn’t amount to much other than a couple of lectures. We didn’t learn about the lethal backlash to Reconstruction that led to the Jim Crow South, sanctioned red-lining, or the unmentionable double standard in the way that African American men and women were treated by police officers all over the country for nearly 200 years.
We didn’t focus on the fact that during post-Reconstruction, in the Deep South, police officers made a new brand of prison-slavery possible by using trumped-up charges against black men for the sole reason of putting them to work on private farms. A black man walking down the road was subject to be arrested and charged with vagrancy with made-up theft charges to warrant a lengthy prison sentence. This went on for decades.
In the 1960s, police officers in Dallas used the N-word without reservation, often in the presence of black men. But the worst lesson of history is not what was written, but what was implied by the war stories of older officers who were about ready to retire. They told us how, before the Miranda v. Arizona decision in 1966, they used to obtain confessions by beating the living hell of people. These stories were often told as if they were supposed to be humorous, and no doubt at the time, my fellow officers and I thought they were funny. But such is the price of growing up in a racist society while respecting and believing in the veracity of what we were taught.
They told us how, before the Miranda v. Arizona decision in 1966, they used to obtain confessions by beating the living hell of people. These stories were often told as if they were supposed to be humorous
It took years for me to unravel the racist indoctrination my generation in the South grew up with, and it takes a constant effort today to deal with the racist residue of implicit bias that is still embedded in the bedrock of our society. Police officers today who decry the Black Lives Matter Movement as being without justification do little but demonstrate their ignorance of race relations and the history of policing in America. It is worth repeating that this history is horrific with a record of atrocities so long that it takes endurance and resolve not to stop reading from the fatigue of moral disgust.
I have been reflecting on my service as a police officer for a half century, and I have been studying the behavioral sciences and writing about how to overcome racial bias for more than thirty years. Policing, like the military, should by nature of their duties be apolitical, but today the politicization of policing is worse than at any time in my life experience. And police officers currently on the job, whether they be Republicans, Democrats, or Independents, who cannot tell that Donald J. Trump is channeling white supremacy, do not in my view, have the judgment necessary to take the oath to protect and serve seriously.
Although there has clearly been progress in race relations in policing, there is still a long way to go. In Blue Bias, I explain why racial bias is so hard to eliminate and why it takes centuries to change perception, and thus the reality that persists as implicit bias may be gone today, but as sure as the sunrise, it will be here again tomorrow.
Unfortunately, many of the social conditions necessary to achieve a just society depend more on political action than on the merit of police departments. America’s inner cities need something akin to a Marshall Plan to redress the decades of forced oppression resulting from geographical ostracization, with the additional recognition that we are on the cusp of a digital economy in which there will be fewer traditional jobs that pay a living wage. It takes generations of economically successful families to lay the foundation for the success of future generations, and the racial inequality measured in wealth among black and white citizens is a national disgrace. Reparations in some manner are long overdue.
Revisit the video of the police officer in Minneapolis with his knee on George Floyd’s neck and focus on the look of entitlement on his face and it should be all you need to support the idea that Black Lives Matter.
Charles D. Hayes
Charles D. Hayes is the author of Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing.