For Charles Blow, the recent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice meant that black parents should talk to their children, especially sons, about the realities of police power. That lesson was affirmed last weekend when the New York Times columnist’s own son, an undergraduate at Yale, was mistaken for a burglary suspect.
With sidearm drawn, a university police officer forced Tahj Blow to the ground. He complied and did not panic under duress, as he was taught to do by his father, who wrote in a Monday column in the Times: “I was exceedingly happy I had talked to him.”
And yet: “I am reminded of what I have always known, but what some would choose to deny: that there is no way to work your way out—earn your way out—of this sort of crisis. In these moments, what you’ve done matters less than how you look.”
Tahj Blow is fortunately okay and the real suspect has been apprehended. Unfortunately, those who insist there is nothing wrong with modern policing may end up looking to his experience for evidence that nothing is wrong. In a campus-wide email on Monday, Yale President Peter Salovey, along with Yale’s dean and chief of police, made public for the first time the race of the officer who trained his gun on Tahj Blow. He was black.
Blow has since argued on Twitter that a cop’s race is irrelevant to a critique of endemic racism in police departments. He said he hadn’t mentioned the cop’s race either in columns about Brown, Garner or Rice. “This isn’t about individuals on the trigger end of the guns but the culture and how that culture interacts with communities of color.”
I think Blow is right, and wrong.
He’s wrong in that the contours of the national movement against the social, economic and political forces that permit white police officers to shoot black Americans without fear of indictment are sketched in black and white. That is obvious and beyond doubt.
Why didn’t he note the officer’s race? Perhaps having a firearm pointed at your son is too much for any father. Perhaps his son was too shaken to recount that detail. What I do know is Blow isn’t just any dad. He’s among a handful of liberal voices bringing wide attention to shameful inequities of law enforcement. Blow understands more than most that a cop’s race would be instrumental in the maintenance of white denial.
A day later, a writer for Breitbart, a popular reactionary opinion site, attacked Blow for that very omission. John Nolte suggested Blow was guilty of racial profiling, of all things, and placed him among “prominent Leftists caught red-handed hurling false accusations of racism.” He said “injecting race into this story by either covering up the facts or before knowing all the facts is irresponsible and unconscionable.”
Yale also hinted, with none of Nolte’s bombast, that the cop’s race meant this wasn’t “a replay of what happened in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, or so many other places in our time and over time in the United States.” Yale’s president, dean and police chief said: “The officer, who himself is African American, was responding to a specific description relayed by individuals who had reported a crime in progress.”
Does this mean Blow was wrong to put the episode in a political context?
No, but for reasons he might quibble with.
The problem, I suspect, isn’t so much police culture, because police culture may be symptomatic. The forces that constitute a context in which even a privileged black student at an elite university can be mistaken for a petty criminal probably stem from the very notion of what law enforcement is supposed to be. The present is a product of the past, and historically law enforcement has by and large not served human rights. It has instead served the rights of property.
In a recent article, constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled in favor of money and power. Over 227 years, Chemerinsky writes, it has enforced slavery and Jim Crow; invalidated hundreds of statutes protecting workers and consumers; struck down voting rights laws; and looked aside while lives were ruined in the name of patriotism. In sum, Chemerinsky writes, it “is far more likely to rule in favor of corporations than workers or consumers; it is far more likely to uphold abuses of government power than to stop them.”
If, as Chemerinsky argues, the Supreme Court has time and again failed to protect minority rights, why would we expect more from cops, white or black? Put another way, the privileging of money and power over human rights is not a bug. It is a feature of our entire legal system. To be black or poor or female—these are inherent disadvantages that may never be overcome in a society in thrall to money and power.
To many of us, this is beyond obvious. The question is what to do. To that end, I suggest that change, when it comes, often does so incrementally and it springs from necessity. Charles Blow’s advice to African-American parents—that they talk to their children, especially their sons, about the realities of police power—is a clear-cut necessity. It has the potential, as was the case with his son, to be life-preserving.
But it’s also subversive. Along with a national protest movement, it says established forms of political power are not to be entirely trusted, that they need reform and that individuals can take action. If politics is the power to shape reality, this is power.