“Privilege” is an act performed by a person upon others. It takes the form of a person doing something for another person, which can include shielding a person from a bad thing. Some classic examples would be two men facing charges and are identical but for their skin color. The Black man receives a harsher penalty than the White man. If enough individuals collectively make similar decisions, than I can understand those who believe there is a societal privilege, but it’s still an individual’s choice.
A friend (I’ll call him “Frank” for brevity) recently related his personal example about his “White Privilege.” Frank was driving his vehicle shortly after having his car broken into by having a back window smashed out. There Frank was, driving from point A to point B, minding his own business when all of a sudden his car was boxed in from all sides and eight officers surrounded his car, guns drawn. Frank froze, kept his hands on the wheel and confirmed with the officers what he was going to do before he did it and was given permission. It was then determined that a wanted felon had the same make, model and color vehicle as Frank, all the way down to the busted out rear window.
After the police determined that Frank was not the wanted felon, the police apologized and Frank was allowed to be on his way. As he drove off, his thought (as was relayed to me, and I am paraphrasing) was, “If I had been a black guy, the police probably would have shot me.”
Let’s look at this encounter from one of the officer’s perspective, we’ll call the officer “Bob.” Bob is a human being, just like Frank. Bob wants to do his job, get paid for his efforts and go home to his family at the end of the day, just like Frank. However Bob, unlike Frank, routinely encounters people who are either a) genuinely bad, or b) having the worst day of their lives. Bob carries a sidearm (and more firepower in his cruiser) not to enforce the law, but to improve his chances to go home at the end of his shift. Bob doesn’t get to shoot people without good reason, which is 99% of the time, the bad guy was going to kill or seriously injure Bob or innocents.
Every encounter Bob has with people while he’s in uniform has a significant chance of ending with Bob dead on the ground. Bob has to have the base mindset that any traffic stop or any on the street encounter will be his last if Bob doesn’t act like the people in the encounter won’t kill him the first chance they get. If he loses that mindset, that’s when he really will end up dead on the roadside. Bob had a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) for a “Gold 1979 Cadillac with missing drivers-side rear window, Felony warrant out for owner of car matching this description.” Bob sees a vehicle matching that description, calls it in and coordinates his fellow officers to surround and immobilize the vehicle and see who’s driving.
Bob, a survivor of a thousand traffic stops, of which fifty went bad for whatever reason, is now downloading his personal experience into his reflexes. Out of those fifty “bad stops,” 60% were Whites, 40% Blacks. Ten of those stops had armed people actively resist and tried to shoot Bob. Seven Black people, 3 White people.
Suspecting the driver of this vehicle has a felony warrant out for them, Bob already knows that this stop has a high probability to “go bad” very quickly. He sees a white guy behind the wheel. Does Bob stop pointing his weapon at the driver? No. Does he lower his “shoot first” state of alertness? Maybe a little, because in his mind, White guys are (slightly) less dangerous to him.
The driver can feed into this situation as well. A driver who sits still, hands on the wheel and says, “Tell me what to do officer” has a lower percentage chance of getting shot than a driver who responds, “Yo pig! What the f**k is it this time?!” A driver who moves around in the vehicle after stopping, reaching under the seats, reaching for the glove box and such significantly increases that driver’s chance of being shot.
Can the chance of being shot be lowered to zero? No, it can’t. During any police encounter, there is always a chance of the civilian being shot by the officer. A bad confluence of events can always happen to leave an otherwise civilian in the encounter injured or dead.
There are at least 15-20 factors that can feed into the chance a police officer shoots the civilian. From dinner last night giving Bob “intestinal distress,” to his sergeant chewing him out at roll call on the low end, to something in the hands of the civilian and the civilian not doing what he’s told on the high end.
The biggest determining factor is more Blacks give police problems than Whites. I personally think this issue come from both sides of the encounter. I will not deny “Driving while Black” exists, I will not deny confirmation bias, or perception, or any sociological and racial tendencies that escalate such encounters. There are no innocent parties in this.
Frank and I are going to disagree with my assessment. He thinks he didn’t get shot because he is White. I firmly believe it was because he didn’t move until he was told to and he did exactly what he was told.
We do hear about police killing civilians. We should hear about it and those events should be investigated. I also believe that 6 months of analyzing the dash cam footage frame-by-frame and a couple hundred hours of research should be used be used to find the truth, not to see if the officer was to blame. The officer has to make an assessment of what the person is doing, determine if they are a threat (all information is incomplete BTW) and make a life-or-death decision, me or him, in 0.6 seconds.
I am reminded about a 12-year-old Black teenager. He had a toy/pellet gun that was painted black all over, covering the orange muzzle and other parts that would easily identify it as a toy and not a real firearm. The officer yelled “halt,” the teenager turned toward the officer, weapon in hand and got shot for his efforts. For a time I recall, gangsters would spray paint their real firearms orange to look like toy guns, with the intent of having that officer hesitate just long enough for the gangster to shoot and kill the officer.
You know what we don’t hear about? The 125,000+ daily police encounters where no one gets hurt and most everyone goes home.
I am willing to stipulate for the sake of argument that the base data in this article, Police kill about 3 men per day in the US, according to new study, is accurate. But there’s no context about this. I can think of three different ways someone can end up dead from a police encounter:
- Violently resisting arrest
- Error by police or civilian
Once we know the numbers of each of these categories, then we can start asking intelligent questions and really get a handle on this problem. I’m sorry to say the article doesn’t answer those important and pertinent questions.
Just to put things into perspective, every day in the US, 9 die from drowning, 16 die from getting run over while they were a pedestrian, 36 die from falling and 40 people die as the passenger in a motor vehicle.
In any given year, your chances of being killed in a police encounter are around 1 in 277,500. The chance of that happening over your lifetime is 1 in 3,840. Now, to be killed in a police encounter, you must first have a police encounter. If you don’t engage in criminal activity (and thus earn major attention of the police), I’m moderately sure those chances will get significantly better.
In the end, as I started this, there is no “societal” privilege, only the choices of individuals. We have very little control over the decisions of others whom we haven’t met yet.