A week after the Justice Department — led by a black attorney general appointed by the nation’s first black president, who is enjoying high national approval ratings — excoriated one of the most diverse police departments in the country — which is headed by a black man in a mostly-black city with a black mayor and black city council members — for its systemic, discriminatory tactics against black residents, a black police officer in Milwaukee shoots a black man.
This sparks unrest in a black community — unrest so profound the Wisconsin National Guard is put on standby as police walk the streets in riot gear.
For those who grasp the complexity of race in America, it all makes sense and underscores something we don’t acknowledge enough: that while diversity might be a worthy goal, it is not an elixir that will solve the problems we face.
That’s true no matter what an investigation eventually uncovers about the Milwaukee shooting, which is the latest event to pull off the scab that is police/African-American relations. There’s no need to litigate in this space the reasons why Sylville Smith is dead, apparently killed by a 24-year-old black police officer after a short chase; no need to jump to the cop’s defense and claim the shooting was justified or to hastily add Smith’s name to the list that includes Freddie Gray of Baltimore, Eric Garner of New York, Laquan McDonald of Chicago.
The facts of this case will eventually emerge.
The broader, more pressing — and vexing — problem is what to do to get us beyond the ugly ebb and flow of shooting then outrage, shooting then outrage, shooting then outrage. One of the most widely-discussed solutions is making sure police departments “look like” the communities for which they are responsible.
In theory, it sounds wonderful, post-racial even. But in the real world, one in which not only white police officers have been fed a daily diet of ugly black stereotypes, it simply doesn’t work.
While we don’t know exactly why that particular black police officer in Milwaukee shot Smith, who police say was armed and refused to drop his gun, we have enough data and research to know that the officer’s skin color would not have inoculated him against the much-discussed implicit bias most often attributed to white officers. The truth is that nearly half of black people also harbor some level of implicit bias against fellow black people.
That’s why diversifying a police force alone will always be woefully inadequate. Changing what’s going on between police officer’s ears — not what color skin they wear — is part of the solution. More department heads are realizing that and implementing sophisticated implicit bias training to root out ugly things from the subconscious of police officers.
That’s an important distinction: that implicit bias affects behavior in subtle ways of which the officer is often unaware. The harm from this, however unintentional, is real. That it affects officers both white and black should give pause to those too quick to claim that officers are intentionally hunting down black men, as well as to those who jump to an officer’s defense in just about every case, no matter what facts are uncovered.
While that kind of training is a necessary step in the right direction, it, too, is inadequate. Police departments have to be slower to declare an officer did nothing wrong, quicker to admit wrongdoing when and where it occurs. That’s one way to begin rebuilding trust with the community. It must be paired with a top-to-bottom examination of the purpose of policing in general.
Angry people in Milwaukee weren’t burning buildings and cars and hurling bricks and bottles at police only because Smith was shot. They were responding to a distrust and displacement that is generations deep, as well as systemic policing problems that have been found throughout the country, whether it is Ferguson, Los Angeles, Baltimore or anywhere else the Justice Department has looked.
That’s not the kind of anger that dissipates because you put a few black people in charge of a system black people have felt oppressed by since its inception. Things can change. But it will take much, much more than that.