I agree with James Comey, who put it this way:
I believe law enforcement overwhelmingly attracts people who want to do good for a living—people who risk their lives because they want to help other people. They don’t sign up to be cops in New York or Chicago or L.A. to help white people or black people or Hispanic people or Asian people. They sign up because they want to help all people. And they do some of the hardest, most dangerous policing to protect people of color.
(James Comey, Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race.)
Comey described the birth of the myth of racist policing as follows. Many police officers work in places where a huge proportion of street crime is committed by people of color. These officers learn from those experiences and begin to be more suspicious of people of color than similarly situated white people. Comey, and others, have defended this behavior as “maybe even rational.” For example, New York City is 25% black. Yet blacks were the victims of 55% of the city’s murders and 61% of the suspects, according to the NYPD. Others cite even more disturbing statistics.
I think this may be the birth of things like bias and racial profiling. And certainly, there are racist cops, just like there are racists in every profession, although the power police wield makes it much more important to root out individual racist cops. But calling all police racists, or calling police racist as an institution, is inaccurate. It does nothing to help crime victims and certainly nothing to improve policing.
Black Cops Agree
Comey is white, but his view is not limited to white people. Bernard Parks, the first black police chief of Los Angeles, said that racial disparities resulted from the choices of criminals, not police bias. “It’s not the fault of the police when they stop minority males or put them in jail. It’s the fault of the minority males for committing the crime. In my mind it is not a great revelation that if officers are looking for criminal activity, they’re going to look at the kind of people who are listed on crime reports.” Charles Ramsey became chief of police in Washington D.C. in 1998. He said, “not to say that [racial profiling] doesn’t happen, but it’s clearly not as serious or as widespread as the publicity suggests. I get so tired of hearing that ‘Driving While Black’ stuff. It’s just used to the point where it has no meaning. I drive while black – I’m black. I sleep while black too. It’s victimology.”
Paul Butler, writing in the Guardian, says, “The US criminal legal process is all about keeping people – especially African American men – in their place.” This ignores the fact that “the lifetime risk of incarceration skyrocketed for African American male high school dropouts with the advent of mass incarceration, it actually decreased slightly for black men with some college education” according to James Forman Jr.’s book, Locking Up Our Own. This suggests that policing is related to class, not race. Radley Balko, writing in the Washington Post, wrote an opinion with the headline, “There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal-justice system is racist.” He has a lot of links, and I’m looking forward to going through them. Only a few paragraphs in, however, he changes the definition of racism to fit his argument. To him, systemic racism means, “we have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of people who work within them.” That’s not what “racist” means to most people.
What is Systemic Racism
A dictionary is a repository of agreed-upon definitions of words. It reflects the concepts that people understand when words are used. You may use “up” to mean “down” and “hot” to mean “cold”. You can create your own private definitions of words. But when you use these words in public, especially in a newspaper article or other writing intended for public consumption, you cannot create your own private meaning. If you say the sky is down and snow is hot, you are not being accurate, regardless of your private definitions.
We see this problem with the phrase “systemic racism.” According to Wikipedia, the phrase was coined by activists in the 1960s, but it does not provide their definition. Wikipedia’s first “definition” of systemic racism is taken from a British judge, and differs from Balko’s definition above and the dictionary definition below. Then the article provides a second definition, “differential access to the goods, services, and opportunities of society.” Later, the article has a third definition by Professor James M. Jones. It is remarkable that an encyclopedia article on systemic racism can’t even agree with itself about what the terms mean.
When no one can agree on a definition, we must ask ourselves what a reasonable person hearing the words “systemic racism” will understand them to mean. Luckily, we have agreed-upon definitions of these words in the dictionary.
The Oxford Dictionary defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” A system is a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole. Systemic racism, therefore, is a set of things working together with prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism against someone of a different race based on the belief that one race is superior.
Merriam Webster’s definition of racism is similar. Until June 10, 2020, when they changed it to support those who argue that systemic racism exists. The definition was explicitly changed to support this position. The change was requested by a 22-year-old college student who “noticed in discussions about racism that white people sometimes defended their arguments by cutting and pasting the definition from the dictionary.”
Someone wondering if there is systemic racism in policing may not know which of the definitions to go with. They may not know that some have changed the definition to support their political positions. And how many people will hear the phrase “systemic racism” and even look it up in the first place? Most people will simply apply the common meaning of each of those words to the concept. When someone like Balko says there’s systemic racism in policing, most people will understand him to mean that police work with prejudice, discrimination or antagonism against someone of a different race based on the belief that their own race is superior. After all, that is the definition of the words. The problem is, that isn’t true. Balko and others call the system racist, and when it turns out that the definition of “racist” is not met, they respond that they weren’t using that definition. This bait and switch is dishonest. Don’t forget that calling someone (or some system) racist is an extremely serious accusation. Being a racist is one of the worst things a person can be in today’s society. Supporting a racist system is even worse. Yet some accuse people and the systems they work in of being racist all the time. It shouldn’t be done, especially when the accuser is using a made-up definition of racism in the first place.