Once again, an unarmed black man has been killed under suspicious circumstances by a white police officer.
Once again, as in the cases of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, we know about this not because the police themselves brought it to light but because an enterprising bystander in North Charleston, S.C., trained his camera phone on the action, and because concerned citizens insisted that we pay attention. And once again, we greet the news of all this with shock and disbelief.
But why are we still shocked?
We know about the racial disparities in police surveillance, in arrests, in sentencing.
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We know about the communities that, like Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, are populated mostly by black people but policed and run mostly by white people. We know that communities like this are vulnerable to dehumanizing treatment — to being treated as ATMs by revenue-hungry municipalities, and as bull’s-eyes and punching bags by over-militarized security forces.
If we know all that, how is it that this latest tragic encounter still scandalizes us? We should be outraged, to be sure. But we should not be stunned.
We continue to be astonished in part because of the way we think about morals in social life.
First, Americans are skeptical of black and brown testimony. The things that we now know, after Ferguson and Staten Island, are things that we should have known long ago. But we have a long history of ignoring the experiences of our problem people. So even now, we still can’t quite believe that things are as bad as “those people” say.
Second, we are not skeptical enough when it comes to our public safety officers. We want to believe that they are all virtuous and pure, and that none of them would do the bad things that people in targeted communities say they do.
Third, we want our moral lives to be simple. We want villains and heroes, rather than the complex characters that all of us actually are. More than this, we want solitary villains and heroes. We want Batman, toiling alone against evil, and the Joker, acting out his private grievances. This makes it harder to see the systems we’ve set up that encourage and excuse bad behavior — like planting evidence on the man you’ve just shot to death — and that make this behavior harder to discern and discourage.
Put all of these factors together, and the struggle against race-related state violence becomes a game of whack-a-mole. We wait for an incident to flare up, we beat it down, and we wait for the next one.
In 1963, James Baldwin wrote that the crime of American democracy was that it didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, how its racism was destroying people. This false innocence was the main target of his book “The Fire Next Time,” and it remains a factor in the fires this time, in the upheavals in Ferguson and North Charleston.
We don’t want to know how our approaches to policing and our ideas about crime and criminals turn certain of our communities into tinderboxes awaiting the match.
If we wanted to know, we would keep good records about apparent bias in police-involved killings, and we would empower civilian review boards. We would, above all, let go of our astonishment, so that we can anticipate the next shooting — because there will be one — and try to prevent it.