Why White Americans Don’t Believe in ‘Personal Accountability’ For Police

Do the nation’s police suffer from the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’?

James Thindwa May 11, 2015

Police aren't subject to the conservative mantra of 'personal accountability.' (Thomas Hawk / Flickr / Creative Commons)

By a mar­gin of 41 per­cent to 34 per­cent, white Amer­i­cans say police treat African Amer­i­cans and white peo­ple equal­ly, accord­ing to a YouGov poll con­duct­ed 11 days after Fred­dy Gray’s death. African Amer­i­cans, how­ev­er, over­whelm­ing­ly — 76 per­cent to 13 per­cent — said that cops treat them unfairly. 

The respons­es of white Amer­i­cans are unset­tling in light of the seem­ing­ly end­less video accounts of racial­ly tinged police vio­lence cir­cu­lat­ing online, the mil­lions of dol­lars cities have paid to set­tle police bru­tal­i­ty law­suits, and the many stud­ies that have demon­strat­ed a racial bias in policing. 

A dis­turbing­ly large num­ber of white Amer­i­cans, it seems, will­ful­ly dis­miss the evi­dence. Per­haps their own rel­a­tive­ly unevent­ful con­tact with police pro­vides com­fort­able dis­tance and deni­a­bil­i­ty. Or maybe white Amer­i­ca has been swayed by per­sua­sive and pow­er­ful coun­ternar­ra­tives, espe­cial­ly from con­ser­v­a­tive media. 

What­ev­er the expla­na­tion, there is a bewil­der­ing dis­con­nect between white tol­er­ance of police mis­con­duct — includ­ing homi­cides — and the call for per­son­al account­abil­i­ty” that has long per­me­at­ed our nation­al pol­i­cy dis­cus­sions. Cham­pi­oned by con­ser­v­a­tives and fur­thered by lib­er­al elites wary of social jus­tice, per­son­al account­abil­i­ty” has been ele­vat­ed to a nation­al reli­gion. In the 1990s, with full coop­er­a­tion by the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion, this rhetoric was used as a cud­gel against the poor in order to pave the way for dra­con­ian wel­fare reforms, pack­aged as The Per­son­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty and Work Oppor­tu­ni­ty Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Act of 1996.” The same dog­ma helped jus­ti­fy the three strikes you’re out” and manda­to­ry min­i­mums” poli­cies that fueled the country’s racist and expen­sive incar­cer­a­tion fren­zy. Today, politi­cians bran­dish the term to demand drug test­ing for poor recip­i­ents of pub­lic aid and to cut social pro­grams that help the needy. 

Most recent­ly, per­son­al account­abil­i­ty” has been deployed against pub­lic school teach­ers, to dev­as­tat­ing effect. George W. Bush charged that too many teach­ers were incom­pe­tent, and famous­ly accused them and oth­ers in the edu­ca­tion sys­tem of prac­tic­ing a soft big­otry of low expec­ta­tions.” That big­otry, he said, con­tributed to black aca­d­e­m­ic under­achieve­ment and the per­sis­tence of a racial gap” in aca­d­e­m­ic out­comes. Of course, Bush’s analy­sis was flawed, for it ignored the out­sized role of pover­ty in shap­ing edu­ca­tion­al out­comes. Nev­er­the­less, soft big­otry” became the lin­gua fran­ca of edu­ca­tion dis­course in Wash­ing­ton, enabling the insti­tu­tion of strict teacher account­abil­i­ty” stan­dards enforced by the high-stakes test­ing of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and oth­er mea­sures. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma fol­lowed with his Race to the Top, which George­town law Pro­fes­sor Jonathan Tur­ley has dubbed NCLB on steroids.” The nar­ra­tive of bad teach­ers” has only gained trac­tion: A 2010 Newsweek arti­cle pro­claimed, In no oth­er pro­fes­sion are work­ers so insu­lat­ed from account­abil­i­ty.” Of course, no one who has fol­lowed the nation­al scan­dal of police impuni­ty, or sim­i­lar­ly Wall Street exec­u­tives, will believe that. 

How­ev­er, the nation’s police forces are indeed insu­lat­ed from the fer­vent nation­al demand for per­son­al account­abil­i­ty.” White Amer­i­ca has set a very low bar for police account­abil­i­ty: Police can gun down a flee­ing black man, a black boy play­ing with a toy gun, a black Wal­mart cus­tomer hold­ing a fake gun he’d pur­chased at the store, and a naked, men­tal­ly dis­turbed and unarmed black man. They can choke to death a black street ped­dler, and let die a dis­tressed, hand­cuffed black man as he begged for help. And still, majori­ties of white peo­ple believe police treat black peo­ple fair­ly”?

What explains white America’s indul­gent atti­tude towards the homi­ci­dal ten­den­cies of so many police? Where is the clam­or for per­son­al account­abil­i­ty” that has been direct­ed at poor black peo­ple and pub­lic school teach­ers? Why don’t white Amer­i­cans who ful­mi­nate about both high tax­es and per­son­al account­abil­i­ty” demand the removal of cops whose con­duct has become expen­sive and disgraceful? 

The answer, of course, is that the dog­ma of per­son­al account­abil­i­ty was nev­er an hon­est cri­tique, but a ploy to serve con­ser­v­a­tive racial and polit­i­cal goals. It tar­gets poor black peo­ple, who don’t pro­duce votes for the GOP but can be used as fod­der for its race-bait­ing elec­toral strat­e­gy. It tar­gets teach­ers and their unions, who rep­re­sent the last remain­ing bar­ri­er between the bil­lions spent on pub­lic edu­ca­tion nation­wide and the cor­po­rate shys­ters try­ing to get at that mon­ey through pri­va­ti­za­tion. Media tycoon Rupert Mur­doch, for exam­ple, called pub­lic edu­ca­tion a “$500 bil­lion sec­tor … that is wait­ing des­per­ate­ly to be trans­formed,” and Andy Smar­ick, for­mer COO of Nation­al Alliance of Char­ter Schools, calls for replac[ing] the dis­trict-based sys­tem in America’s large cities with flu­id, self-improv­ing sys­tems of char­ter schools.” 

Police are not the only group giv­en a pass by the per­son­al account­abil­i­ty jihadists. Dur­ing the finan­cial cri­sis, few, if any Fox News’ elite com­men­ta­tors ever bemoaned the lack of per­son­al account­abil­i­ty” by Wall Street bankers whose reck­less con­duct crashed the econ­o­my. Calls to drug-test recip­i­ents of gov­ern­ment aid exclude CEOs of com­pa­nies that get tax breaks and oth­er pub­lic sub­si­dies. Nor did con­ser­v­a­tives call for CEO account­abil­i­ty when 15 work­ers were killed in an explo­sion at a fer­til­iz­er plant in West, Texas in 2013; or when 29 min­ers died in a pre­ventable explo­sion at Upper Branch mine in W.VA (CEO Don Blanken­ship was lat­er indict­ed); or when — in a cat­a­stro­phe that experts deemed fore­see­able — 11 work­ers per­ished after BP’s Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon explod­ed in 2010, caus­ing the worst envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter in U.S. his­to­ry. And despite the many calls for account­abil­i­ty in edu­ca­tion, no pun­dits have seized on the fact that, accord­ing to the Cen­ter for Media and Democ­ra­cy, the U.S. gov­ern­ment has giv­en away more than $3.3 bil­lion to the char­ter school indus­try over the past 20 years with no conditions.

Though calls to fire bad teach­ers” are con­trived to serve ide­o­log­i­cal goals while ignor­ing the socioe­co­nom­ic con­di­tions that impact learn­ing, teacher unions such as the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (dis­clo­sure, I am an employ­ee) have nev­er­the­less respond­ed. The AFT has tak­en mea­sures to ensure the prop­er bal­ance between due process rights and the need to facil­i­tate removal of per­son­nel deemed unsuit­able for the job. As a gen­er­al mat­ter, account­abil­i­ty is a noble con­cept with­out which insti­tu­tions can­not func­tion. What is trou­bling about police unions’ response to vio­lence is that, in reflex­ive­ly declar­ing the inno­cence of their accused com­rades, they take a con­temptibly dis­mis­sive pos­ture regard­ing the con­cerns of count­less fel­low cit­i­zens who’ve joined in protest. In the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, union lead­ers went fur­ther and blamed the kid for caus­ing his own death. With­out excep­tion, there is not a moment of self-reflec­tion by the large­ly white union lead­er­ship, or any attempt to under­stand the griev­ances of African Amer­i­cans. Police unions give unions a bad name and rein­force the worst per­cep­tions of unions. Trag­i­cal­ly they are doing so at a time many unions and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions nation­wide are build­ing vibrant and pro­gres­sive labor-com­mu­ni­ty coalitions. 

It is just as trou­bling that many white Amer­i­cans are com­plic­it in an ide­o­log­i­cal­ly ginned up cru­sade about per­son­al account­abil­i­ty.” For if they were sin­cere, this would be the moment — as black lives are snuffed out by police — for account­abil­i­ty cru­saders to step up and say enough is enough! Wor­ship of law enforce­ment, which seems to have reached a fever pitch, espe­cial­ly with­in the Amer­i­can Right, is not healthy for democ­ra­cy. Sus­pi­cion of state pow­er — at times a redeem­ing fea­ture of con­ser­vatism — has been com­pro­mised at the altar of racial and polit­i­cal ideology.

To his cred­it, con­ser­v­a­tive writer Leon H. Wolf dis­sent­ed from this cul­ture of cop wor­ship. Many Con­ser­v­a­tives are Blow­ing it on the Fer­gu­son DOJ Report ” was the title of his scathing cri­tique post­ed at Red​states​.org. Cit­ing the Depart­ment of Justice’s report on Fer­gu­son, Wolf cau­tioned, No con­ser­v­a­tive on earth should feel com­fort­able with the way the Fer­gu­son PD has been oper­at­ing for years, even accord­ing to their own doc­u­ments. ” Among the DOJ find­ings Wolf cit­ed was the fact that between Octo­ber 2012 and Octo­ber 2014, African Amer­i­cans account­ed for 85 per­cent of the 11,610 vehi­cle stops report­ed by Fer­gu­son police, though they make up 67 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. Whites, who rep­re­sent­ed 29 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, made up 15 per­cent of stops. 

It is hoped that the many white Amer­i­cans swept up in the nation­al denial of police bru­tal­i­ty against their fel­low cit­i­zens will face the ever-mount­ing evi­dence and demand stricter police account­abil­i­ty. White Amer­i­ca must stop let­ting rev­er­ence for law enforce­ment dis­tort their per­cep­tions and start believ­ing that black vic­tims of police bru­tal­i­ty aren’t mak­ing this stuff up.

James Thind­wa is a mem­ber of In These Times’ Board of Direc­tors and a labor and com­mu­ni­ty activist.
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