In recent weeks, the White House has reaffirmed its commitment to strengthening "community policing" around the country. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has coalesced around the same theme, releasing a report days ago with recommendations for community policing measures to be adopted nationally. The suggestions for building better "relationships" and boosting "trust" are comprehensive but, for a national crisis brought on by the killing of unarmed black people, there's one thing conspicuously absent from the public policy solutions: the acknowledgement of racism.
The New Testament says that faith is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Well, in the absence of data to support excessive policing and police brutality in communities of color, it appears that America has just stepped out on faith.
Rates of violent crime are down and have been falling sharply for more than 20 years. In fact, since the early 90s, the national homicide rate has fallen by 51 percent, forcible rapes have declined by 35 percent, robberies have decreased by 56 percent and the rate of aggravated assault has been cut by 45 percent. And black Americans have contributed to the decline. For blacks, rates of robbery and serious property offenses are the lowest they've been in more than 40 years. Murder, rape, assault, domestic violence — all down.
America is safer than it was 20 years ago. Really. Still, white Americans (and many black Americans, for that matter) believe there's more violent crime than there actually is, and that blacks are largely responsible for it.
In fact, nearly half of white Americans polled believe that violent crime has increased in the last 20 years. Another 13 percent believe that it's stayed the same. Less than a quarter of whites realize there are less violent crimes today than there were in the 90s when the crack epidemic and gang violence were at their height. Even more, whites overestimate just how much blacks are involved in "serious street crime" and, on average, believe that black people commit a larger proportion of crime than whites do. According to a 2012 study by researchers at the University at Albany, whites significantly overestimate the share of armed robberies, break-ins and drug crimes committed by black people.
So, this is how we get to Rudy Giuliani, a man once in charge of the nation's largest police force,insisting that, "White police officers wouldn't be [in black neighborhoods] if [blacks] weren't killing each other" as a justification for the killings of unarmed black people. This is how we get Stop and Frisk policies, Tamir Rice shot dead in a park, John Crawford shot dead in Wal-Mart,Akai Gurley shot dead in a dark stairwell, Miriam Carey shot dead outside the White House (the list goes on and on.) And this is also how we get a grand jury reviewing video of Eric Garner choked to death and seeing no evidence of a crime. Each is an example of racist policing based on the assumption of threat.
In a country that has identified black people as its criminal element, public safety (and perceived security) is more tied to the suppression of blacks than it is to the suppression of crime. And as long as the public insists on its myth of black criminality—almost as an article of faith—police practices will be impossible to reform.
In the summer of 1963, Boston public television aired "The Negro and the American Promise," an hour-long examination of racial tension in America featuring interviews with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin conducted by renowned psychologist Kenneth Clark. During his segment, Baldwin delivered a blistering indictment of the white American psyche that is essential to untangle the myth of black criminality and its serviceability to American identity and feelings of security.
"What white people have to do," Baldwin offers, "is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a Nigger in the first place...If I'm not a Nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you've got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that."
"Nigger" as used by Baldwin is, of course, more than an epithet. It is arguably the very articulation of racism in this country. Its utterance summons a phantom that is as essential to American identity as the American Dream and the Pursuit of Happiness. So, when Baldwin talks about the creation of the Nigger, he's speaking to more than the word. He is assigning responsibility for a construct that has permeated every single American institution, one essential to the nation's founding and development.
Willie Horton, for example, was not the Nigger but it was conjured out of his cold stare, from OJ's courtroom smirk and even seen by some in the form of our "contemptuous" attorney general. Darren Wilson invoked the Nigger quite adeptly in his testimony before a grand jury to convince them it was necessary to shoot an unarmed Michael Brown at least six times.
"He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that's how angry he looked," said Wilson about the moments before he fired the first bullet into Brown.
"At this point," Wilson said, "it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I'm shooting at him. And the face he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn't even there, I wasn't even anything in his way."
More bullets. Then the final shot into Brown's head from 148 feet away.
"And then when it went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean, I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped," said Wilson.
A grand jury believed it. A great many Americans find the story believable—most without ever even having to hear it from Wilson's lips or read the transcript.
So, why does America need such a narrative? The question is something of a psychoanalytic approach to our country's policing problem but one that's been gaining traction in the media as of late. Ta-Nehisi Coates gestured toward it in his column for The Atlantic weeks ago. He wrote:
"...And knowing that identity is not simply defined by what we are, but what we are not, can it be that our police help give us identity, by branding one class of people as miscreants, outsiders, and thugs, and thus establishing some other class as upstanding, as citizens, as Americans? Does the feeling of being besieged serve some actual purpose?"
I am not white. The Nigger has never been of any use to me so, unfortunately, I don't think the question is mine to answer. I do have my theories, though. I imagine, like Coates seems to, that identifying blacks as this country's criminals helps white Americans dismiss their own criminal activity as incidental (teenage drug use, insider trading, mass shootings, etc). But I think it also must help to organize their fear in an uncertain world. Like "Goldstein" in Orwell's 1984, perhaps the Nigger gives white Americans something specific to fear so they don't fear everything—including themselves and each other.
Ultimately, the contrast between the reality of black crime and this nation's perception of it reveals just how invested in the myth of the Nigger America actually is. And, as protesters push forward and leaders federal and local circle around "community policing" as reform, Baldwin's question will only become more urgent. White Americans of good conscious will have to confront their boogeyman head on. Because the truth is that there can be no "community policing" in black communities without engaging the community, without engaging black people and our distortion in the American imagination.