The Problem with the National Response to Police Racism

Chicago protesters call for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez to resign on December 9, 2015.

I don’t know what exactly to make of a report issued last week that described the Chicago Police Department as rife with racism. Is this news? Who didn’t know that cops in the Windy City and elsewhere have long declared open season on black residents?

If you ask a black American about police racism, I’m guessing you’ll find responses similar to those in the 190-page document released last week titled, “Recommendations for Reform: Restoring Trust between the Chicago Police and the Communities they Serve.” The document contains more than 100 recommendations for reform, and any black Chicagoan might be able to offer an additional 100 suggestions from their own personal experiences.

If so many people in Chicago have experienced police racism, why did this report make headlines? I have a theory, but first, let’s examine the details surrounding the emergence of the Chicago study.

A dashcam video of a controversial police shooting in Chicago shows 17-year-old Laquan McDonald walking down South Pulaski Road with a knife in his hand at approximately 10 p.m. CST on October 20, 2014. Jason Van Dyke, a veteran police officer, rolls up next to McDonald in his cruiser, jumps out, and—within six seconds—fires 16 rounds at the teenager. The shooting took 15 seconds, and all 16 shots hit McDonald—most of them while he lay limp on the ground.

That shooting—or more precisely, the Chicago police and city officials’ efforts to hide the accurate details of it—led to calls for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s resignation and provoked howls of protests from community activists who were outraged by McDonald’s shooting. Seeking to calm tensions, the mayor appointed a task force to conduct community forums and to offer suggestions for improving community interactions with the police.

Most alarmingly, the report noted that the police cover-up of the McDonald shooting was the latest “tipping point” in Chicago’s history of black community concerns regarding racist police behavior. The report said:

The linkage between racism and CPD did not just bubble up in the aftermath of the release of the McDonald video. Racism and maltreatment at the hands of the police have been consistent complaints from communities of color for decades. And there have been many significant flashpoints over the years—the killing of Fred Hampton (1960s), the Metcalfe hearings (1970s), federal court findings of a pattern and practice of discriminatory hiring (1970s), Jon Burge and his midnight crew (1970s to 1990s), widespread disorderly conduct arrests (1980s), the unconstitutional gang loitering ordinance (1990s), widespread use of investigatory stops and frisks (2000s) and other points. False arrests, coerced confessions and wrongful convictions are also a part of this history. Lives lost and countless more damaged. These events and others mark a long, sad history of death, false imprisonment, physical and verbal abuse and general discontent about police actions in neighborhoods of color.

These findings are nothing new. A look at the Twitter hashtags #Chicagoracism or #ChicagoPolice could have provided the task force with plenty of examples with very little effort and at no taxpayer expense.

To be sure, the sordid history of police abuses is not confined solely to Chicago. Following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report with unsurprisingly similar findings to the Chicago report that revealed racism within Ferguson’s criminal justice system. “Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes,” the department’s report said. “Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans.”

What’s more, this racist behavior has been amply documented—not just contemporarily but throughout history. Nearly 50 years ago, in the wake of race riots in several major U.S. cities, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a commission similar to the one charged by Mayor Emanuel. Johnson’s panel—chaired by then-Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner (D)—found similar conclusions to the recent Chicago report. Released in 1968, the president’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, or “The Kerner Report,” blamed white racism in the police force for triggering the rioting. “The police are not merely a ‘spark’ factor,” the report stated. “To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes.”

Such consistent findings throughout history bring me back to my original question: Is the Chicago report news?

I do not think so. Neither does Michael Harriot, who frankly described in a post for The Root the facts of life: “Blood is red. The sky is up. Police are racist.” Harriot presented a long list of more contemporary racist police abuses that led him to conclude unequivocally that police uniformly treat black people disproportionately more harshly than white people.

“The government, media and even police departments know it,” Harriot wrote. “Every time any agency or organization conducts a study or survey that intersects race and law enforcement, the result is always the same: The police are racist.”

In light of all of this evidence of police misconduct, why does the nation keep responding with shock when a black person is wronged, harmed, or killed at the hands of the police? Here is my theory: Most black Americans are not surprised and, I’ll bet, nor are many white Americans truly alarmed by the heavy-handed policing in black communities. Too few citizens are willing to do what is necessary to rein in abusive police officers and the institutions that support them, so most folks ignore the abundant evidence and hope the problem mystically disappears.

But the reports of police terrorism keep coming.

To be sure, not every cop is a racist and the vast majority of all Americans, of all races and ethnicities, do not have negative—let alone deadly—encounters with the police. But too many black Americans, especially those in heavily policed urban areas, suffer the preponderance of negative police interactions. Those daily abuses loom large in their lives and should concern everyone—even those of us for whom the police are a friendly and protective presence.

The periodic reports of police abuses fail to move the nation into action because far too many Americans refuse to act against the racism that still exists in this country. We are, as a nation, numbed by racism to the point of shoulder-shrugging inaction. Hence, only the most outraged or radical Americans risk stepping out of the comfort zones of their relatively privileged experiences to help someone whose reality is very different from their own. This numbness is the escape hatch that allows political leaders, policymakers, and voting citizens to turn away from the invisible—yet institutional—racism that is a way of life for those who live in distressed communities.

The endless cycle of racist police behavior and official reports examining that behavior will only end when average citizens respond with alarm rather than apathy and demand accountability from the police. Then, and only then, can Americans stop feigning surprise at official findings on police racism.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.