Lack of Understanding Leads to Confusion and Hostility toward Protestors of Police Violence

By: Paul Filippelli

A 2013 study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) estimated that White Americans’ social networks are 91% White while Black Americans’ are 83% Black and Hispanic Americans’ are 64% Hispanic.  Alarmingly, only 1% of people with whom White Americans said they “discussed important matters” in the last six months were Black.

Perhaps this explains why so many White Americans have been perplexed by why the reactions to the recent high-profile instances of non-indictments for police violence have been so strong and so focused on race relations.  “Why do you have to make this about race?”  “These are isolated incidents.”  These have been the refrains of many White people viewing television coverage of the recent protests, and I think that these reactions are so common because these people honestly have not heard from a Black person close to them what it is like to interact with police while Black.  In a Pew poll last week, 60% of White respondents said race was not a factor at all in the death of Mike Brown, and 48% said so in the death of Eric Garner.  Contrast these numbers to the 9% and 11% of Black respondents who said the same about the deaths of Ferguson and New York deaths, respectively.  Such an enormous difference in the perception of these cases seems to indicate that White Americans do not hear the everyday stories of their Black friends being stopped by police officers for no reason or followed around stores to make sure that they are not shoplifting.  This lack of understanding has led to undue skepticism hostility toward the people protesting across the country against racist police tactics.

On the night of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision and the following day, media reports focused disproportionately on incidents of violence and looting instead of the vast numbers of peaceful protests.  Defenders of the police officers suggested that Mike Brown deserved to die because a released surveillance tape suggested that he stole cigarillos from a convenience store and that protestors of his death were therefore unreasonably injecting race into a simple case of a police officer attempting to apprehend a dangerous criminal.  People suggested that Eric Garner’s weight was as much to blame for his death as the police officer’s chokeholding him and the piling of five officers on top of him.  When Columbia Law School decided to grant exam extensions to students demonstrating that they were traumatized by the non-indictments of the police officers who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner, Fox News’s Megyn Kelly held a sneering segment about it on her show on December 11, in which she said that the students should just get over it because “In America, we have grit.”  These dismissals of the legitimate concerns of people upset by the non-indictments of police officers for these deaths shows a remarkable ignorance that these deaths are part of a larger pattern of racist policing and a sense that Black Americans are more culpable for their actions and inherently more suspicious than their White counterparts.  The only way to fix these momentous problems is to educate White friends, neighbors, and family members about the nature and scope of the problem, but the PRRI study suggests that it will be very difficult to accomplish that task.


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