This post is a follow up to my previous post, Knowledge Matters, Too: Tell the Twin Stories of Violence and Race, which introduced the dispositive role that power plays, specifically the overlapping institutions of the police state and militarism. I suggest you read that post before this post, which supplements it with additional parts.
In the main body which I subtitled “Twin Stories to Tell: Power and Racism in America,” I broadly connected the development of an authoritarian bully mentality with racist institutions of law and law enforcement. I must always be dissatisfied by an incomplete case made for an argument that I know can be rendered more sophisticated, and better supported. In this case I necessarily omitted a book’s worth of points supplemental to the argument, and specific correlations between the threads of state violence and racism. Life and death won’t wait for spelling things out as an intellectual might want. That is why I moved on quickly to nominate some tactics, not for protesting itself, but demands that stay on target—before the news cycle forgets and the opportunity is lost.
Ineffective strategy will fail, but even inefficient strategy will cost lives.
But because of those stakes and not in spite of them, in this post I’m going to expand on a few key supportive points I left underdeveloped. I am convinced that to reckon with these factors would make a profound difference to both efficiency and effectiveness.
Intro. In this post I pick up from questions of strategy to prevent police brutality and murder in the United States, with the discussion already framed and its purpose clear: results that save lives, and no other mission; not virtue-signaling, fund-raising, organizational prominence, community involvement, self-expression, listening and being heard, or any other cause in itself whether it seems noble or not.
I urge people to keep in mind that clever strategy often doesn’t feel right, or personally fulfilling. It doesn’t often provide an outlet to vent pent-up emotions. (I remind myself, too, because I can get as angry or disgusted as anyone can.) Effective strategy may not follow preconceptions. Pursuing it might not be popular. For example: it was counterintuitive and offensive to many that the realities of legal precedent required that ACLU lawyers should volunteer to defend the First Amendment rights of white supremacists, lest those rights be eroded for valuable protests of—among others—black civil rights activists. Historically, difficult cases on the fringe establish precedent, and the state goes after unsympathetic targets.
The strategic mind must be willing to let go of attachments and inhibitions that get in the way, and strive to be flexible. It aims above all to solve a problem, say, to cure a disease, like a doctor, who must do their job and give their medical opinion even if it isn’t liked. If sociopolitical strategy can be compared to a fight, as activists following the “revolutionary” metaphor often do, it ought to resemble the fight brought by a martial artist with calm bearing, who won’t allow emotions like anger to disrupt focus, and efficient movements.
In fact, perfect clarity about relative priorities would render devising strategy an amoral process to identify just what’s necessary to serve those goals. This was the precept for Sun Tzu‘s teaching, and to some extent Machiavelli’s. It’s possible to appreciate the lesson and apply it to serve quite different values and intentions.
What is necessary to solve a long-term problem is usually not what is already being done. Typical thinking ostensibly either produced the problem, mishandled it, misunderstood it, or distracted from it. That is why, at the risk of offense when I take some decades-old thinking to task for incessant errors, I propose checking it against other angles. Along the way, analysis from other perspectives will make it easier to identify productive tactics, that some protestors are already using (filming police thuggery). And, to see that some campaigners are on the right track with the concept of defunding police (contingent on security-role replacement adopting decentralized non-state services employed by local people, so as not to merely reboot the system).
Part I. Most well-intentioned responses fail to make adequate distinction between the dispositions of people in the general (national or regional) population, and the dispositions of:
- the more powerful members of the police state behind them (prosecutors, politicians)
- psychopathic cops
So, many of those responses talk collectively about “America” and talk to “America.” This isn’t at all realistic. If it’s collective shorthand, it’s shorthand that has led the discourse astray, as political talk does.
Police throughout the US have, to some degree that probably varies from city to city, become more than a special-interest group, but a separately-associating group, a sub-population, with a lot of overlap between military veteran and cop families. Others grossly underestimate how far this goes. The enforcers keep their own culture, which is insular. Even the old practice of “walking the beat” (and getting to know the neighborhood and people in it) gave way to patrol cars, and nothing in common.
Cops likely hold fast to dramatically different attitudes and preconceptions about authority, themselves, obedience, soldiering, familiarity with violence, racial stereotypes, homeless people, gallows humor, and more, mutually reinforced by their unions and associations, partners, families, and drinking buddies.
The accused are not presumed innocent by cops, for example. That mindset goes even further, and presumes a “duty of the jury to convict” the accused, as though it were a jury’s job, which sounds fascist to non-authoritarians of any skin color. It’s a brotherhood that prioritizes each other, and covers for each other against citizens, by lying in court if necessary, so the state prosecutor can make cases. That’s “part of the job” for many. But it’s certainly far more than a job.
It’s debatable how much talking to the general population about racism will be ignored by this entrenched population. But that—to put it mildly—does not seem as productive or timely as undercutting their means of support and indulgence, which has so far been lavished on them by the state.
We have also to examine and account for the extent to which that separate, tribal culture and population are tolerant and protective of partial psychopaths. We cannot be certain exactly how many of the police officers who behave like thugs are psychopaths attracted to the power of the badge, or have instead been hardened to display a psychopathoid indifference toward lesser people, the ruled subjects of a thugocracy. This is only because the government doesn’t test candidates to exclude psychopathy, though it has objective and testable psychological and physiological criteria. (Known, in part, from studies in prison populations, so hardly new to the criminal justice system.)
Although not as permissive as a combat unit in a war zone, a police career must seem like a pretty good one to a psychopath—comparable to the way that a narcissist fits right into a political career, and is able to earn rewards from a lack of empathy instead of social penalties. Psychopaths are unafraid of the physical danger which might make a job on the streets unappealing. They get civic status and special legal protection, as well as opportunities to bully people in unequal power dynamics—threaten and frighten them, assault them, brutalize (and sodomize) them, if not choke them to death or shoot them and be acquitted, or never even charged.
Psychopaths are the category that best accounts for the infamous repeat offenders of police brutality complaints, because they are motivated by the adrenaline thrill of violence or abuse, and not averse to hurting others by virtue of common empathy.
Psychopaths in uniform don’t necessarily have any particular fixation (like racist ideology) on any one type of victim, just a fixation on bullying victims of opportunity. The thing is that inner-city minorities, immigrants, and the plentiful suspects of minor crimes supply those victims of opportunity with few career repercussions.
NB: Even with repercussions in place, psychopaths are dangerously impulsive, not long-term thinkers, by definition. They can never be trusted with license to use violence (if anyone could). They simply need to be excluded from power.
Further, psychopaths are not averse to transgression of well-understood social norms. They are even attracted to committing moral transgressions, such as sexual violence, because these are exciting. They should not be confused with mere contrarians attracted to devil’s advocacy, or to espousing shock opinions that cause outrage. We should consider that to propound and insist that Racism = Bad does nothing more for the psychopath than flag a transgressive thrill they may actually find inviting—and certainly won’t process as immoral, in the sense that others feel morals keenly. This is a different problem from commitment to racism as an ideological matter. It cannot be solved by confrontation or shaming, which they simply don’t respond to in the same way others do.
Based on an educated guess, I would say the danger posed by the presence of psychopaths in uniform probably exceeds the more-often discussed danger posed by white-nationalist infiltrators, although I do suspect many of those are, more-importantly, psychopaths. Psychopaths need no particular organization or belief to brutalize people; they can be, rather, enabled by these things. It might seem like splitting hairs, but it is consequential to discern these causes and origins, because police could continue to harbor psychopaths even if they shun racists—and perpetuate the problem.
And, psychopaths cannot be convinced not to be racists with moral arguments, or with punishments. They cannot be induced to stop committing violent crimes in uniform, any more than their recidivist counterparts in prison stop after they go through rehabilitation. Their neurology has permanent and recurring effects on behavior, which do not respond to psychological intervention.
Part II. Most well-intentioned responses are guided by lack of nuance about prejudice, bigotry, and racism. Most well-intentioned campaigns about racism are therefore diffuse and ineffectual, not on a timescale geared to emergency prevention.
The causation or enabling of violence by prejudice, bigotry, or (specifically) racism, which itself comes in numerous forms, and a range of severities of bias or hatred, is certainly a subject in itself. Evidence lends itself to endless debate over “contributing factors” by subjective viewpoints. The most salient point though, which can be made clear, concerns contrasts that are not being made between what’s universal (prejudice), or debatably-general (bigotry), and a very particular kind of racism indeed.
Combating prejudices presents an eternal challenge for vigilance and self-examination, as well as scientific doubt and questioning. I don’t mean to suggest that any one prejudice in particular (such as prejudice against black people) is natural or inherent rather than a construct of culture. That sort of claim always rests on tendentious pseudoscience and scientism, aping objective methods to justify values and beliefs, and pretend to derive them objectively. It used to be white segregationists, and now it is more likely radical black nationalists who cite pseudoscientific studies claiming that “the races”—left over from debunked eugenic and racialist theories—cannot get along. Actual science found that genetics and inherent behavior don’t break along lines of skin color.
But *forming prejudices* is natural. Human primates are rife with prejudices acquired about appearances and man-made categories, as an evolutionary product of fumbling through managing risk, and problem-solving our personal world with imperfect operational knowledge. Much of that tentative ‘knowledge’ was simply received from some source, not even personally experienced, and not actively questioned. We rely too much on group, primate-level influencer (family, friend, figurehead) cues for approval or disapproval as a means of sorting people and things, and navigating life’s many shoals. Neurotic people undergoing insecure phases might fall back on old prejudices the most, but we all use them.
As a result: We dislike or mistrust many things, hate few, and want exceedingly few if any people dead with our own hands—and few of us want the opportunity to decide, as a career choice.
No, that, we have to say, is different. When it keeps happening, that phenomenon really requires a different explanation and causal chain from vague nationwide “racism,” which includes lesser prejudices and/or bigotry, without distinction from the likes of the Klan. Particularly, when so much of the population reacts negatively to the specter of violent racism, it’s conspicuous that the prejudice, the moralism of the country takes cues against it, far more than for it. (Even sympathies and defenses from the separate population for “one of their own” seem fewer than before.)
But even if all that weren’t so—or, let’s say we discount moral outrage as insincere—it would still be a remarkable abdication of intellectual responsibility not to admit that it’s an extraordinary claim to make, and not a self-evident one at all, to draw an arrow from prejudice, or even bigotry, toward incidents of hands-on murder (by probable psychopaths)—in the ways that abstruse racial academics and college-educated activists habitually do. The formula and its logic are no less fallacious for having caught on.
It’s absurd on the face of it to convince people that re-examining whether they unconsciously hold their purse tighter when a black man walks by, or don’t hire enough qualified black employees, has something to do with kneeling on a black man’s throat for nine minutes. We’re reminded that both types of phenomena stem from a common history—but everything in human society does. This in itself doesn’t mean two things are closely connected, or cause each other. It doesn’t establish an interaction, or causative relationship.
Worse, it squanders precious time and energy to confuse the response this hopelessly during a genuine societal emergency slow-burning for decades, punctuated by avoidable deaths of real people. It no doubt appeals to us to think that the worst events already fall under our personal control, or personal development. It has thousands of well-meaning and influential people urging each other to “do the work.” Meanwhile the power of the police state ratchets event by event, not on some glacial timescale on which eroding all prejudice could be a realistic goal.
The explanatory laziness about accounting for what is happening at the hands of cops suggests to me other agendas from certain campaigners and activists besides focusing on that outstanding problem—whether they really care more for other social-justice issues and want to redirect effort there, have some axe to grind about “capitalism” or “society” in general—or else harbor guilt (so-called “white guilt”?) in search of a reason for taking blame, and therefore prefer a diffuse accusation that includes everyone. A need for mutual confession would fit with certain activists’ (and slackivists‘) preference to talk to each other, and demonstrate to sympathetic quarters, more than confront those who disagree, or do their worst, as activists in the 1960s civil rights movement did.
I can speculate, but the point is that only a precise diagnosis of the systemic problem leads to a timely solution and productive strategy. A great many activists and campaigners unfortunately do not pursue this, stopped by a premature answer: a fundamentally flawed and racist society they envision, that requires mass-penitence and soul-searching, and in effect, must protest itself. That kind of collectivism formed of vague self-image and grand abstraction is useless to real human beings on the ground—to individuals. In this case it will let more individuals get killed, when the killers could be stopped.
“America” needs to be sorted out conceptually instead of blurred, if we want to get serious about solving the problems that occur across that enormous, disparate, and populous land. As I’ve written before, a general population and its power structure are blurred as a matter of institutional interest, hiding how little they have in common behind a “common interest,” and hiding how little control most people really have behind “participation.” Dealing with that ugly secret could be every bit as messy and uncomfortable as cleaning up after a racist past, but unfortunately the work has only earnestly begun on the latter. This isn’t just work ahead of “America,” by the way; it looms over everybody.