In Attempting to Deny Police Racism, Conservatives Inadvertently Highlight Need for Reform

Police violence against unarmed suspects ought to be bipartisan issue. Americans should have the right to go about their business unafraid that if they have an impairment, mental illness, or an inability to hear officer commands, they won’t be killed for it. Americans should feel confident that reaching for their wallet during a traffic stop won’t potentially be a death sentence. This ought to be a no-brainer for both the liberal left and the libertarian right.

But because of pervasive institutional racism in which police forces have all-too-often been the vanguard of systemic oppression against minority communities, the bigoted Right immediately comes to the defense of police even when they kill unarmed civilians who posed little threat. The NRA was very slow to condemn the killing of concealed carry permit holder Philando Castile and even then did so only tepidly, and we all know why: most white NRA members are less interested in gun rights for their own sake or for abstract notions of liberty and resistance against government tyranny, than in the possibility of using their guns legally in a potential race riot. Defending black gun-carrying victims of police violence doesn’t interest them at all.

Thus it was that an interesting rivulet in the culture wars arose over the killing of an unarmed young white man in Fresno last week. Much as with the police shooting of white teen Zachary Hammond last year, conservative media began blaring with offense, demanding to know where the outrage from liberals was.

The answer, of course, is that 1) there was significant attention devoted to both of these incidents by the left, and 2) the racial disparities in police violence are so massive that they demand attention above and beyond the issue of police propensity to use guns on far too many occasions. Police violence and institutional racism are related but separate issues.

That said, conservatives are unwittingly making the liberals’ case for them by attempting to claim that police don’t apply a racial double standard and gun down unarmed white kids, too. That’s not statistically true, of course, but it’s not clear how it helps the conservative cause to suggest it is. Unarmed white kids shouldn’t be getting killed by cops, either–so all the more reason to focus on retraining and cultural shifting to move police from a “warrior” mindset to a “guardian” mindset.

Shooting at suspects should always be a last resort no matter what race they are. That should be a policy that conservatives and liberals alike should be be able to support.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.