We’re in a remarkable moment in American history. The ruthless murder of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer has sparked the biggest protest movement since the Civil Rights Era. And judging by the sheer number of white faces we’re seeing at anti-police brutality protests, it feels different this time.
But why now? For the last decade we’ve seen one killing after the next of Black men, women, and even children at the hands of police. Are white people in America finally waking up to the realities of systemic racism and police brutality against Black people?
Polls show attitudes among white people about police brutality are changing. But it’s more likely that a confluence of events has led to the wave of white participation in the protests. The Trump administration’s negligent mishandling of the pandemic (and its disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx folks) has exposed the rot inside America’s systems, and skyrocketing unemployment has left many people feeling desperate and angry.
People have taken to the streets to demand change, and two messages have taken center stage: Black lives matter and defund the police.
Black lives matter because a Black man can be taken out by white vigilantes while out for a jog in the neighborhood. Black lives matter because a Black EMT who spends her days saving lives can be asleep in her bed and be shot dead by the police. Black lives matter because a white officer can squeeze the life out of a Black man in broad daylight and smugly look into the camera knowing he won’t face consequences. This is America.
What Defunding the Police Means
We’ve tried reforming the police in the past. Despite measures to tackle police brutality—like diversifying police forces and requiring officers to wear body cameras (which have been shown to be ineffective at changing officer behavior)—very little has changed. A recent study found that not a single police department in the country’s largest cities are compliant with international human rights laws.
A toxic brew of implicit and explicit bias and the dehumanizing culture of the police—an entity born out of slave patrols—means policing is broken. More technology and training, including implicit bias training, aren’t going to solve this problem.
Calls to “defund the police” are ultimately calls to reinvest in social systems. In other words, in people. We’ve spent the last 40 years gutting social programs, militarizing the police, locking people up, waging a “war on drugs,” bloating the U.S. military, and more recently, eliminating protections for clean air and water.
Black people are disproportionately affected by all these things because of systemic racism that’s as old as America. The numbers don’t lie.
Structural racism puts Black people—and especially Black men—at an economic disadvantage. The myth of the American dream says if you work hard enough you can do and be anything, no matter who you are or where you come from.
Research shows this is false. Downward mobility is much higher among Black Americans than white Americans, even when they start out on equal footing. White children born into wealthy families are much more likely to stay wealthy as adults than Black children with the same economic advantages—this is especially true for Black men. And poor white children are more likely to be upwardly mobile than poor Black children. These things are true because of structural racism.
Keeping Up the Momentum
The brutal response of the militarized police against protestors has exposed just how broken policing is in America. So it’s a hopeful sign that calls to defund and dismantle police departments are having an effect.
The city of Minneapolis has already agreed to disband the police department and work with the community on reimagining public safety. Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, St. Louis, and several other cities have also proposed or pledged to divest at least some resources from the police.
The idea of defunding the police is not new. But today there’s a groundswell of support to fix an obviously broken system whose roots go back to slavery.
As historian Lonnie Bunch put it recently, “Slavery is embedded in everything.” Marches and rallies won’t fix systemic racism and inequality or undo the harms of the past. That will take the commitment of good people everywhere—especially white folks—to do the work required to create deep, lasting change.
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