Last week, I posted some thoughts on the Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson Police Department.
Reading the document made me feel sick, disgusted, and generally led me to a state of disbelief. It needed some time to sink into my bones for me to really understand, deep down, the level of horror that those many pages contained. The biggest question that cycled through my brain was, “How is this happening in America in 2015?”
Last week was also the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Thousands of people, including President Obama, came out to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama to remember the violence that state troopers inflicted on peaceful protestors fifty years ago.
Again: “How is this happening in America in 2015?”
So what now? How can we work towards change, both as a nation and individually?
As a start, the changes outlined in the Dept. of Justice report need to be made, not only in Ferguson where they have already begun to reform the city, but nationwide. I won’t pretend to be an expert on police departments or training, but it is increasingly obvious that the tension between minority populations and police officers are not unique to Ferguson. In his speech last month, F. B. I. Director Comey spoke about the inherent biases we all have but stated that police departments specifically need “to design systems and processes” to keep stereotyping out of law enforcement.
Racial bias has been shown to exist across the country–it reveals itself in the job market, housing opportunities, and even in the doctor’s office. However, as people in positions of authority, it should be a requirement for police officers to actively fight against stereotyping and biases to ensure that they treat all people equally as they enforce the law.
So what would these “systems and processes” look like? As the Justice Dept. suggests–explicit officer training focused on the negative effects of stereotypes and bias, more oversight from trained supervisors who are equipped to recognize and respond to discriminatory practices, increased community partnership, hiring a more diverse force, etc. Essentially, common sense practices that will make a difference and shift the focus of policing from producing a profit back to protecting and serving. I hope that these suggestions are taken to improve policing across the nation. But we, as a people, need to use our freedom of speech to hold departments accountable when acts of injustice occur.
But what about the widespread racial bias? Is there anything we can do?
Eradicating racial bias starts on an individual level, which is why it is so hard to root it out of society as a whole. But that personal journey is where we must all begin. I can’t write anyone else’s journey, but here are five things I know that I want to change about my own approach to racial bias after reading the investigation report.
- I need to do better to understand systems of privilege. After spending years studying my white privilege, it is clear that I am still on the journey to understanding all of its ramifications. I need to continue to read about it, challenge my assumptions, and examine the systems of privilege at work in everyday life.
- I need to diversify my media. I need to seek out alternate perspectives from people who have different experiences, (like this insightful article) so that I can change that instinct in us all to otherize and instead seek to relate.
- I need to know more. Sure, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on history. I took AP classes in high school. I’ll read the occasional biography. I enjoy historical movies. I know how to lose a couple hours perusing wikipedia. But is that “pretty good grasp” good enough? Hell no. This is in part because the aspects of history that address racial discrimination are not the most prevalent special on the History channel. War dramas where we are the heroes? You can probably find that on some channel 24/7. But documentaries about the slave trade? The brutal road toward civil rights? The violence that erupted when schools were desegregated? You have to dig deeper to learn about the things that many people would like to pretend never happened. I need to dig deeper.
- I need to reserve my judgment for when I know the facts. Supported by a media that is more concerned in getting news out fast and less concerned about true reporting, I can jump to conclusions before the full story is clear. Just this past week, a shooting occurred in Ferguson. Initial reports identified the shooter as a protestor who was targeting police officers, but as more and more information has become available, conflicting accounts have risen. The man claims that he was never involved in the protests and that he was not aiming for the officers. In cases like this, I need to be patient and wait and hear all sides of the story.
- I need to keep parading. This means lots of things to me–pointing out discriminatory remarks and sharing my discomfort with them when I hear them from friends or family, sharing resources about privilege that I find helpful with others, analyzing and working against racial biases that come up in my job, supporting community service efforts by volunteering more, and feeling empowered enough to write letters to both media sources and government officials when I see bias occurring.
Look forward fifty years. What do you want to see? Now what can you do to make it happen?