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It’s structural racism, people . . . . less about judgment and parenting.

(note, always true and especially for this column: I speak for myself, and not for Next Rockford or anyone else). 

When I was in my senior year of college in a very small town, my housemates and I would throw large parties.  Sometimes the neighbors would call the cops, and they’d come to tell us to turn it down.  Inevitably, when the cops pulled up, some of the younger attendees would flee – run off, for fear of an underage drinking citation.  The police would laugh.  Not once did they chase them down, or draw their weapon.  Indeed, one officer told me to tell them not to panic, because he didn’t want them to get hurt climbing the backyard fence.

Of course not, you might say.  These were college kids.  But if a group of young adults of color had a party in Rockford- or most other cities – and the cops rolled up on a noise complaint, no one would run, no one would laugh, and you can bet that guns would be drawn.

I admire and respect my friend Kris Kieper, but her column, “It’s poor judgment and parenting, people . . . less about racism” is surprisingly naive about the context of structural racism.

Kris is right that we do seem to suffer from a responsibility deficit and a blame surplus.  I too have seen and heard stories of folks wanting others to do for them what they won’t do themselves.  We do need stronger systems of accountability.  (But let me say this.  How is it fair that we insist on stronger accountability for the poor and vulnerable, but we refuse to hold accountable the derivative traders who brought down the economy, the politicians who lied us into war and spent money we didn’t have, or the rich who fight taxes but complain about an under-educated workforce? Let’s have accountability for everyone.)

History matters.  Too often, white folks forget about history (as the winners from history’s violence, such forgetting is convenient).  Kris says these young black men need to “respect authority.”  But for the last 500 years, the authority in this country has been used for racial oppression and violence.  Police power was used to enforce residential segregation, cheap (and slave) labor, and prevent race-mixing.  To this day, many police departments approach poor communities of color as an occupation force.  Instead of bringing peace, officers are seen as the agents of a racially-biased drug war that has put millions of black men in prison.  Need evidence?  The Rockford Police Union wants “hazard pay” for working on the west side of the river.  Given this history and present, why should people in communities of color have any confidence in the anti-racist credentials of police power?

We white folks often think that racism is isolated, while the overall system is fine.  This is reflected in Kris’s argument that more people need to respect authority, even though “racism is alive and well in this community” and “law enforcement often deal in stereotypes.”   But if you’re a poor person of color, you don’t know which officer is racist and which isn’t.  What you do know is that the police union thinks you are “a hazard.”  If you are under 20, what you do know that every police-involved shooting in your lifetime in this city has been ruled “justified.”  If you are angry, if you are scared, if you are bipolar, if you are confused — or, given the evidence you know, if you are perfectly rational — you might believe that the police will kill you.  If you hold up your pellet gun or knife, maybe they’ll back off, you think.  That’s not a good thought, and it’s not accurate, but I hope people can understand how this happens.

My point is that “lack of respect for authorities” is caused, in large part, by racism of the authority figures.  When the authority doesn’t respect you, or when the authority is part of an organization or profession that tolerates such disrespect even if they themselves are “not guilty”, then authority hasn’t earned your respect or your trust.

Teenagers and young men sometimes do stupid things.  They always have and always will.  But if you’re white and middle-class, these stupid things are usually forgiven.  If you’re black and poor, however, your stupid decision might cost you your life.

Kris and I agree that drugs, lack of economic opportunity, and poor mental health care are a large part of the crime in our community.  We should tackle these problems head on.  And Kris and I agree that racism is alive in this community.  Kris and I agree on a lot – my argument with her here is partly a matter of emphasis, but emphasis can be very important.

If we want to reduce crime, increase trust between poor communities of color and police officers, and reduce police shootings, then we must acknowledge the role of racism in perpetuating the current system.  When police come as an occupying force, the community turns away from the kinds of partnerships which are needed to reduce crime.

I call on the police union to drop and repudiate their demand for hazard pay, and to make a clear statement against racial prejudice.  I call on the city council to increase the number of officers, and direct these officers to neighborhood and community relations and trust building.  And I join the call of other leaders for more restraint in the use of deadly force.  I hope that the long-stalled mediation process will be restarted, or some other, more fruitful community conversation, will begin.

These are complicated issues.  Personal individual responsibility plays an important role.  But people can also become caught in destructive systems – systems that no one wants to continue, but no one knows how to stop.  All our neighborhoods want less crime, less violence, and a positive, trusting relationship with law enforcement.  We will not reach that goal, however, without a deeper understanding of the structural racism which poisons the well of our country and city, nor without a deeper commitment to compassion, justice, and reconciliation.

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