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Team America’s Cognitive Dissonance

W.E.B. Du Bois described in The Souls of Black Folk the condition of being Black in America as both living behind a “veil” and as gifting the Black person with a “second sight.” It gave this “second sight” by endowing colored people with the perspective of “the other,” which came with an outsider’s privilege, casting a long shadow over things that might otherwise be taken for granted. “The other” also put a big, red asterisk next to the concept of “whiteness,” which was historically dubious and which under-rode many of the concepts sustaining the system which created the conditions for white supremacy.

This is a form of analysis which Du Bois elevated and which James Baldwin perfected, fitted with the rage and condemnation of an Old Testament prophet. In Baldwin’s analysis, the essential “point” of the uprisings of the 1960s was that it represented the point in American history at which Black people were no longer controlled by American’s image of them. The corrosive thing about the system was precisely that it poisoned that self-image. In both cases, these writers were trying to get at the subtle corrosiveness of a system which viewed skin color as a legitimate reason for subjugation, and, it may be slightly odd-sounding to point out, this corrosiveness harmed both the Blacks its treated so shabbily and the whites it elevated. Baldwin once commented, in a debate against conservative idol William F. Buckley, that this had a worse effect on poor whites than on Blacks.

Policing in the United States, it must be faced directly, is the result of the long history of repression in the country. The historical connection to post-Fugitive Slave Act “slave patrols” and to attempts to squelch the solidarity movements of the poor and working-class and of minorities in general has been widely commented upon in the past few years and is, in any case, undeniable. It was the police who unleashed the dogs and high-pressure violence on peaceful marchers in Selma. It was the police who rolled tanks down the streets of Ferguson. And it was the police who shot rubber bullets and tear-gassed protestors again and again over the last few weeks.

In the sequence of infamous police slayings of American Blacks in recent memory, George Floyd’s killing and the protests it sparked took the tone of a pleading. It was, in the words of one particularly conscientious friend of mine, a “last-ditch” cry, a begging. The tone of the protests made sense because the larger movement is framed around an empathetic appeal for the value of Black lives, and the heart-rending footage of Floyd is emotional dynamite. The weight of this on the consciousness of a thinking, feeling police officer in the United States, as Baldwin might put it, has an effect.

On July 11th, 2016, Dallas Police Chief David Brown, a Black officer, expressed feelings of frustration in a press interview. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Brown reflected. “Every societal failure,” he continued, “we put it off on the cops to solve.” Brown’s comments were centered around the use of police to deal with rising rates of mental illness, with educational failures, and with drug policing, but the point could be abstracted out to cover just about all the other developments around policing over the intervening four years. The thrust of Brown’s comments was to describe the emotional “burden” carried by police officers in America.

Brown’s comments revealed a sense of frustration that seems to have reached a fever-pitch for many law enforcement officers across the country, particularly as public sentiment begins to ask the hard historical and political questions around policing practices. One can easily consult articles in the country’s most visible news outlets detailing how police feel “torn” and how the taunts of protestors feel “personal.” Likewise, one can read moving accounts of how National Guard members feel “used,” like political props with which the Trump administration, an administration with numerous connections to white supremacy, can repress protestors. A conversation on the protests with a family friend, a retired police officer from Southern California, concluded with him calling for recognition of the “basic humanity of the police” after he had offered soft justification for the use of force to quell the protestors.

This comment, which was meant sincerely, reflects a very familiar national narrative: Not all cops. The “few bad apples” narrative, as it is frequently called, ignores the emerging literature on police brutality in the United States, which clearly links the likelihood of experiencing police violence to race. It also seems to reveal that police understand the point before the point, so to speak, that all these repressions and all this violence do indeed look rather bad. In New York City, police officers reportedly plastered pride logos on their cars before smashing the Queer Liberation March. These cops might not be consciously racist, or bigoted, but they are brought up in a system in which there are conscious racists and bigots. Tireless reporting has shown us over the last couple of years (and surprised even some of us cynics) the extent white nationalists have remained entrenched in law enforcement. The problem, as many observers have admirably and ferociously insisted, is systemic disparities.

I can’t help but notice that while protestors are often accused of acting emotionally, necessary police reforms in America have long been stunted by the emotionality of the police. In response to the very minor reform of body cams, a reform which would help the police as much as anyone else, policing forces largely responded by suggesting that forcing cops to wear body cams was to imply that all cops are inherently wicked. In response to protests over militarized policing and the desire to stop over-policing Black communities, “Blue Lives Matter” made the rounds. And the police response to public sympathy for this round of protests has entailed closing ranks, in acts of professional solidarity, and appeals to empathy of their own. As the writer Erin Corbett points out, there has been a consistent flow of propaganda, or “copaganda,” meant to muddy the issue which emphasizes the narrative of “not all cops.”

In the face of these immensely complex problems, the police are not able to handle the emotional impact that failure to solve these problems can bring. And cops themselves appear to be conflicted, struggling under the weight of a kind of cognitive dissonance about Floyd’s killing and their larger role in American life. On the one hand, they individually may sympathize with the protestors. On the other hand, they are cogs in a larger political game. There is a sense in which, for all its seeming messiness, the current uprisings may represent a shift in the public self-image of the police themselves. The weight of this split-consciousness can lead to moral change. Eric Blair (aka George Orwell), for instance, wrote affectingly about the ways in which his sympathies for the Burmese caused him pain when he worked as a British officer in occupied Burma. The taunts and insults of the Burmese he was subjugating hurt him because he had drifted away from the ideology of British superiority which made their imperialism possible. Privately, he supported the Burmese. This evidently hit a point of no return for him, and he quit enforcing the degrading laws of imperialism. How much easier would it have been for him if he had felt like the whole of Britain wanted to “defund” British imperialism?

In addition to some modest cultural changes such as getting Merriam Webster to promise to update its definition of “racism,” the protests have already managed to warm large pools of voters to their message, a message which has been building since the founding of Black Lives Matter. They have also, for whatever it is worth, received nominal support from numerous corporations. The most important and impressive gain of the “unrest” so far, of course, is that it has opened the question of police brutality and militarization in American life. Things may get worse before they get better, but perhaps they will get better.