“Don’t resist. Just comply with what the officer asks you to do.” Doing so seems like a simple and easy way to avoid violent confrontations between African Americans (especially males) and police officers (especially white ones). White Americans, well-meaning or otherwise, often argue that if Black people would just follow lawful orders, we could nearly eliminate such confrontations (especially deadly ones). But is it really that simple? Is it really that easy?
In a word, “No.” While all parties play a role in such confrontations, putting the onus on Black people to solve this problem does not jibe with reality. For example, people across the world have witnessed multiple instances in which we have complied with “lawful orders,” yet have been threatened, harassed, beaten or killed. The staggering weight of that knowledge, and of our personal experiences, stalks us like a voracious predator when most of us encounter police. We cannot “un-see” certain acts. We cannot “unlearn” that knowledge. Sometimes, we act (or react) accordingly.
Given the historical and contemporary nature of our interactions with police, most Black people view such encounters as highly-charged incidents with a would-be attacker. By contrast, most white people view tough interactions with the police as inconvenient relationships with would-be friends or family members. This is in part because white people tend to be socialized differently than Black people are. Black people tend to be reared with cautionary tales of police encounters gone bad. We are given “the talk” (i.e., detailed, life-saving instructions regarding how to behave with police officers). This is different from most white people, who are reared in an environment that emphasizes officers’ solemn duty “to protect and serve” and responsibility “to keep the peace.” Black folks’ interactions with police are transactional. Our focus is a very low bar; we simply want to survive the encounter. White people’s interactions with police are relational. They tend to see rude police officers as if they are a wayward family member. Or, in the reverse scenario, it is stunning to watch white civilians vigorously argue with and gesture at police officers — or even threaten them — while the officers remain as calm as an NFL referee who is berated by a coach.
Of course, white people will say, “I’ve seen police officers act like jerks with white people. Why don’t Black people just ignore them?” That statement is very true. It is also very irrelevant. While I have argued against people of color engaging in the “Oppression Olympics,” there is unquestionably a difference between being Black in America as compared to being a white person — even a white person who is on the bottom of the economic scale. In “Black Reconstruction,” W.E.B. DuBois writes about the “public and psychological wage” of being poor and white. DuBois refers to the sense of superiority that even the poorest whites feel over even the richest Blacks. He calls this sense of superiority “compensation” for their (whites’) poverty.
The bottom line is that Black people are generally under much more pressure than our white counterparts. (This is why high blood pressure is often referred to as a “social disease.”) Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) is real. Racial discrimination is real. Economic dislocation is real. The school-to-prison pipeline is real. Fighting white supremacy — figuratively and literally — is draining. Thus, by the time we encounter police officers in situations that are ripe with tension, we often react emotionally rather than think rationally. That is understandable when you view someone as an existential threat.
I am not suggesting that white people glide by unscathed by the jarring vicissitudes of life. All races of people are subject to being laid off during the pandemic. All races of people are affected by cancer. All races of people have crappy in-laws. But the toxic cocktail of experiences that African Americans endure is especially taxing.
Finally, allow me to suggest that anti-Black implicit bias is — and has always been — a major problem among police officers (even Black ones). This phenomenon is most obvious in the South, given that modern police forces arose from slave catching militias. But the North is also infected by the virus of implicit racial bias. Add to this the increasing aggressiveness and militarization of police departments, as chronicled in Radley Balko’s “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” and it’s easy to understand why “just following orders” is not the answer.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.