Non-equivalences in relation to racially charged killings

The morning news presents an equivalence – police feel worried after five police were killed by a sniper in Texas; African-Americans are scared and outraged at yet more instances of police killing of black people. In one sense, it should be straightforward to see that the equivalence is false. If we look at what to do, it should seem straightforward that every police-person needs to take responsibility to ensure that the police as a group work to select and train people in the police force better so they can de-escalate and they undo assumptions they may carry that are racially biased. It is their job to protect people from harm.  Protesters about police shootings need to do no more than condemn the sniper’s actions; there is no equivalent training or consciousness raising about not killing police that the protesters need to do.

In another sense, the equivalence is very understandable because we live in a society that treats people in minority racial groups as if they are representative of the group, and, by extension, responsible for the actions of everyone in the group. So all protesters can be blamed for the actions of a sniper who was a black man and angry with the police force for the way some of them have treated black men.

Ironically, society does not treat people in many other groups as if they are representative of the group and, by extension responsible for everyone in that group. That is why it is so hard for people to state the most obvious and most constructive response to the police killing of black people, namely, as I stated above, all police need to take responsibility to improve selection and training people in the police.

Indeed, something not stated is that, if there is one social group or organization responsible for the sniper’s actions, it would be the military. The sniper can be seen as a product of the training and psychological damage of people serving in the armed forces and seeing active conflict. We have learned that, in this particular case, the person who shot the five policemen had been a very decent young man but became embittered and proficient with weapons through his military experience and continuing after.

Why, you might ask, should the sniper be seen as representative of the military but not of African Americans? The answer is first a statistical one: the low frequency of protesters who trained themselves to become snipers versus the higher frequency of people with military experience who maintain their weapons training and proficiency. But the deeper answer is one of dynamics: there is a clear path that could be intervened in in the military route to sniperdom, but not a clear path that can be mapped and intervened in from protester or membership of the racial group to sniperdom. (Examining dynamics would never show that every person in the military is on the path to sniperdom; such simple causality is not needed for intervening in social dynamics.)

Perhaps it is possible that when the emphasis shifts to the dynamics of some people’s development towards antisocial or violent positions, some contributing points of intervention would emerge that did include discussions among protesters and discussions among people of color. But first, social discussion has to challenge and undo the non-equivalent stereotypings that prevail in discussion following last week’s events.

As a parallel project, we can examine the dynamics that perpetuate a society that treats people in minority racial groups as if they are representative of the group, and, by extension, responsible for the actions of everyone in the group.  Delving into such dynamics would likely extend and complicate my seat-of-the-pants critical thinking conveyed in this post.

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

One Response to Non-equivalences in relation to racially charged killings

  1. 18th July. Now that there’s been a second killing of police, does the analysis need to change?
    I had said it was straightforward for all police to take responsibility for improving training and bias reduction. That is not blaming the group based on actions of some members, but identifying a problem that police, given that their job is to protect and their wish is to be respected for that work, should be motivated to undertake. Can we shift the ball to the court of the protesters, to identify and pacify protesters who turn deadly? One could say there is no collective organization of protesters or that the shooters belong to it. But one could invite protesters to find a process that impedes the path to deadly action. And they’d take it up not because they are especially responsible for the shooters, but because they want to minimize the negative response to their efforts that come from those with power who are upset with the shootings of police. More to think about here.

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