In my blog last week, I asked that we not look away from the constant barrage of stories about racial violence by some law enforcement officers. I urged us not to succumb to complacency and for us as a community to address our sadness, anger, guilt, shame and, most of all “tragedy fatigue,” lest we become numb to the serious challenges we are facing.
Yet, there is another dimension to this rain of tragic events that emerges as a window into our national psyche and profoundly impacts everything from the way we look at these events to our political system, and even to our workplaces: our seeming addiction to “us vs. them” approaches to life.
What is it about being on one side of an issue that keeps us from seeing the other side’s point of view? It is a trait that we seem to adopt at a very young age. At the Yale Baby Lab, psychologist Karen Wynn, along with Temple University’s Neha Mahajan found that babies under a year old already made determinations about who was “on their side.” Other studies have shown that as young as three months we show signs of preferring people of our own race to that of another, regardless of what racial group we identify with. There is something about identifying with a group that has us feel more secure, and yet “our” group seemingly cannot exist strongly unless there is a “their” group to compare ourselves to or even fight against. In fact, where issues of morality are concerned, researchers have found that our antipathy towards the “other” point of view and the people who express it may in fact bind us even more than our own beliefs.
So as we look at the incidents of racial violence we slip easily, yet again, into the same kind of dualistic thinking. “Do you support Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, the victims of these incidents, or the police?” as if we have to choose one or the other. People are justifiably outraged by incident after incident of unarmed people of color being abused or killed can easily begin to fear and demonize all police officers. And those who see themselves as supportive of the police easily try to justify away acts of inexcusable abuse by finding any reason, no matter how absurd, to create a sense of justifiable threat. We all try to justify our already determined points of view, despite facts to the contrary. As the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “most human beings, given a strongly held point of view and evidence to the contrary will quickly go about refuting the evidence.”
Yet very little in life is that black and white. The tragedy of unarmed people being harmed or killed is profound. There is no reasonable denial to the fact that African Americans are suspected, stopped, arrested, incarcerated, and killed more frequently than any other ethnicity. In addition, African Americans who complete their sentencing are less likely to be paroled as quickly and less likely to find employment as Whites who have committed the same crimes.
But there is also no denying that all police officers are not abusive and that, in fact, the job of a police officer is extraordinarily difficult and fraught with potential danger. I recently gave a talk in Evansville, Indiana and had a conversation with a retired police officer who talked about how terrified he was at times approaching a car filled with four or five men, knowing that they could potentially overpower him and that he might have to make a split second, life or death decision, that if he made wrong could make him the next national pariah or dead on the ground. During a training of policemen in North Carolina, recently, they spent over an hour discussing their frustration of the stereotypes they face daily.
Racial stress in our society has been playing out in the relationship between the predominantly white police and the African American community for as long as we have documented it. More than 50 years ago James Baldwin wrote:
“The white policeman finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring in the world. He is not prepared for it—naturally, nobody is—and what is possibly much more to the point, he is exposed, as few white people are to the anguish of the black people around him…One day, to everybody’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust is settled and the blood congealed, editorials, speeches and civil rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes (sic) want to be treated like (humans).”
We seemingly pay attention only to the explosion, choosing sides as to who to blame, yet ignore the complexity of the system that causes it.
But why do we have to choose sides, and what is the cost when we do? Can we cultivate the objectivity to sit in a proverbial “third chair?” Isn’t it possible to have both empathy and outrage for the mistreatment of African Americans in the social justice system, and also have empathy for police officers that often are making life-changing decisions in seconds, and also are at high risk? History teaches all too well the cost of “us vs. them” strategies that lead to greater and greater escalation, unending antipathy, and inevitably increased animosity and more incidents. Currently, Baltimore is having difficulty in the six weeks since the Freddie Gray incident. Baltimore arrests drop as crime spikes – Baltimore Sun. Are police officers being told not to handcuff suspects and is crime rising because police offers are afraid to be engaged for fear of prosecution? Is the community safer or more at risk?
True solutions rarely live in the world of right and wrong. They most often live in the gray area in between. The only way to find a true solution to the racial challenges playing themselves out before our eyes will happen when the community and police find new ways to come together for the peace and harmony of the community itself. Similarly in our own daily lives, our families, and our workplaces. Can we practice sitting in the “third chair?” Can we practice listening and work to understand each other, to find solutions across our differences?
When we look at our political structure right now, there is not much hope of that kind of leadership. Perhaps it is time for us to lead the way even if it is only in small ways.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead
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