Racism Reproduced in Social Institutions Like Police Departments

Print More

brooklyn shooting of police

Police officers Rafael Ramos (left) and Wenjian Liu (right) fatally shot in Brooklyn over the weekend. Credit: Creative Commons / The Independent

A 28-year-old man identified as Ismaaiyl Brinsley apparently shot two uniformed New York City Police Department officers, Rafael Ramos, 40, and Wenjian Liu, 32, execution-style as they sat in their marked patrol car in Brooklyn last Saturday. Investigators believe the gunman’s motive for the slayings was to avenge the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown – two black men killed by police officers earlier in the year. Police also suspect Brinsley of shooting his ex-girlfriend in the abdomen previously that day at her residence in Baltimore.
According to NYPD Police Commissioner, William Bratton, the gunman shot the officers with “no warning, no provocation – they were quite simply assassinated, targeted for their uniform.”
Only minutes after murdering the officers, Brinsley turned his gun on himself and died on a subway platform as police began surrounding him.
While allegations of racism against individual officers and entire departments have certainly gained traction across the nation with the high-profile killings of black men and boys recently, no one can condone the random murder of police officers as a solution to this long-standing problem.
In fact, speaking for the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton was emphatic in his condemnation of the events in Brooklyn: “I have spoken to the Garner family and we are outraged by the early reports of the police killed in Brooklyn today. Any use of the names of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, in connection with any violence or killing of police, is reprehensible and against the pursuit of justice in both cases.”
I contend that allegations of racism in the hiring practices, policies, and attitudes in police departments represent in microcosm much larger forces evident in our country. We must not and cannot dismiss police killings of black men and boys as simply the actions of a few individuals or “bad cops,” for oppression exists on multiple levels in multiple forms. These officers live in a society that subtly and not-so-subtly promotes intolerance, imposes stigma, and perpetuates violence. These incidents must be seen as symptoms of larger systemic national problems.
The concept of “Social Reproduction Theory” asserts that schools and other social institutions reproduce social inequities, especially in terms of socioeconomic class and race, which exist in the larger society. When we challenge racism only within any institution like law enforcement organizations, we are missing the point if we do not address the roots, the origins of racism (and all other forms of oppression).
Researchers Charles and Massey interviewed 3,924 undergraduate students at 28 selective colleges and universities on their perceptions of various racial and ethnic groups – 959 Asian-Americans, 998 whites, 1,051 African-Americans, and 916 Latino/a students. Results indicated that “black people are rated most negatively on traits that are consistent with American racial ideology. White, Latino, and Asian students are all likely to perceive blacks as violence-prone and poor. They also rate black people more negatively than themselves in traits like lazy, unintelligent, and preferring welfare dependence.”
These students represent the very types of people who eventually enter police training academies and take their place patrolling the streets. These are the very types of people who eventually enter the classroom and teach our children. These are the very types of people who eventually enter politics. These are our future and current leaders.
So, where did they (we) learn these attitudes that they (we) are reproducing? They most certainly did not invent or create these negative belief systems. Rather, we all are born into a society that teaches us these biases. These systemic inequities are pervasive throughout the society. They are encoded into the individual’s consciousness and woven into the fabric of our social institutions, resulting in a stratified social order privileging dominant groups while restricting and disempowering marginalized groups.
Other researchers, Artiles, Harry, Reschly, and Chinn, contend that “bias is more than the personal decisions and acts of individuals. Rather, bias against minorities should also be thought of in terms of historical residua that are layered in social structures and that may lead to various forms of institutional discrimination.”
By our challenging social institutions, we are taking a necessary step in reducing and one day eliminating cultural bias to ensure that these institutions work for everyone regardless of race and other social identities. But this is surely not enough.
All individual police officers do not necessarily exemplify the problem, though some officers perpetuate the oppression. Law enforcement as an institution does not necessarily represent the problem, though many agencies perpetuate the oppression.
Rather, racism stands as the problem: the systematic and hierarchical ideology of white superiority and white privilege. We must look into the mirror at ourselves as well. Especially for us white people, we must come to consciousness of our social conditioning and the ways we have internalized notions of “race.”
I believe we are all born into an environment polluted by racism (one among many forms of oppression), which falls upon us like acid rain. For some people, spirits are tarnished to the core, others are marred on the surface, and no one is completely protected. Therefore, we all have a responsibility, indeed an opportunity, to join together as allies to construct protective shelters from the corrosive effects of oppression while working to clean up the racist environment in which we live as well as addressing the racism we have internalized. Once sufficient steps are taken to reduce this pollution, we will all breathe a lot easier.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).