Hector Soto, a professor of criminal justice at Hostos Community College in the Bronx and a member of our Steering Committee, reflects on race, policing and the state of our democracy.
In the wake of the tragic police killings of the two black men in Baton Rouge and the St. Paul-area, followed by the retaliatory killing of the five Dallas police officers, there has been much sincere conversation concerning U.S. race relations, police-black/brown community relations, police reform and even some probing discourse regarding the state of our democracy. These discussions may help to salve the immediate wounds, but will probably do little to change the destructive dynamic that exists in our society. We can and must “community” our way out of these problems. We need to develop and organize active black-brown communities, based on home-grown values with home-grown leadership.
Symptoms of Our Deeper, Problematic History
The problems plaguing U.S. policing, as tragic and harrowing as they are, are merely symptomatic of the underlying paradigm of institutionalized U.S. caste relations that require that there exist within our society, some group or groups of people, whether they are legally or socially recognized as such or not, who need to serve as the beast of burden sustaining our economic engine. Our economic engine in turn is prompted by an entrepreneurial spirit driven, whether it develops good or bad societal products, by a profit motive that requires a consumptive consumerism. As such, affluenza reigns, the climate deteriorates, bodies distort, crime beckons and some people grow distastefully richer as others get disgustedly poorer (framed as it’s the latter’s own fault because of their nature).
And while the founding fathers penned great concepts regarding liberty, equality, human dignity and the pursuit of happiness, their writings also reflect clearly that the new democracy would permit the uninterrupted continuation of their very handsome lifestyle and status, grounded directly or indirectly in slavery, and its necessary conceptual corollary: the racialization of people of color (albeit that for a while even the Irish were racialized). To make sure that nothing would be too disturbed by their concepts of democracy and equality, the founding fathers memorialized slavery in the US Constitution, and embedded racialization in the nation’s swagger and privilege.
So, Dred Scott v. Sanford, the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, Plessy v. Ferguson, de jure and de facto Jim Crow, the labor-union movement, the Civil Rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, affirmative action, the Kerner Commission Report of 1969, and the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 are all milestone markers of our nation’s epic journey to deal with the flaws in our foundation. Yet, with all of that and the current discussions, we are still only very much at the start of our trek.
We may improve how we do policing in the short term, but ”We are never going to police our way out of these problems.”
The events of recent days taking place against the backdrop of a presidential campaign most notable for its lack of luster may somehow help us collectively to at least publicly identify what really needs to be discussed as well as elect somebody who will facilitate rather than hinder the discussion. What should be unequivocal however is that we may, as a result of Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas, improve how we do policing in the short term, but as former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson used to say, “We are never going to police our way out of these problems.”
We can and must “community” our way out of these problems, which means the development of more civically aware and active black-brown communities that are organized and directed, based on home-grown values with home-grown leadership as well as a sharply focused and compelling sense of the neighborhood common-good.