The end of Breonna Taylor’s life is a perfect example of how systemic racism works.
I don’t know if any of the police officers involved is a racist — and because of systemic racism, that’s almost beside the point.
And although I disagree, I can see how the case might be made, under the existing laws, that her shooting was a legally justified accident — and because of systemic racism, that too is almost beside the point.
Systemic racism means the racism is in the way systems are designed. It’s there because of our history of racism, or because of assumptions that are the living legacy of that history.
Systemic racism means that it’s almost impossible that what happened to Breonna Taylor would ever happen to someone like me. This remains true even if you assume the worst about her — remembering that assuming the worst about her is at the heart of the problem — and if you transfer those worst assumptions to me.
If someone close to me were suspected of dealing drugs, the police would not break down my door in the middle of the night. If I were suspected of dealing drugs, the police would not break down my door in the middle of the night. And if somehow they did, and I fired at them, in the aftermath I’d get the benefit of the doubt.
Systemic racism starts with assumptions about how and why we pass and enforce drug laws. If people of my race and class use drugs, it’s just harmless recreation — “Hey, let’s celebrate 4/20!” Or it’s a minor vice — “Yeah, we may have done a little blow.” Or at worst, it’s a health problem — “Good for him, he got himself into rehab.” And whatever legal trouble someone like me gets into can be made a lot less serious by an expensive lawyer.
Take class out of it, and the difference remains. Look at how the meth epidemic in rural America is seen as cause for concern, while drug abuse in inner cities is seen as moral failure.
Look at those two phrases: a “meth epidemic” is a disease afflicting a community. “Drug abuse” is your own damn fault.
Think of how often you hear about “black on black crime.” You know what? By far most white crime is white on white. It’s because criminals prey on their own communities. And our communities, after all this time, are segregated.
Even with perfectly unbiased police, prosecutors, and judges, systemic racism would remain. It would remain embedded in the laws we expect those people to enforce. It would remain embedded in the economic choices that produce so much poverty, which is the surest predictor of crime and other social problems, independent of any racial or individual characteristics. And it would remain embedded in our failure to support alternatives to enforcement. I’ve never met a police officer who wanted to be sent to deal with domestic strife or mental health crises. But we keep sending them.
We don’t have to believe all law enforcement officers are racist (or any more racist than anyone else is) to see that there is systemic racism in the way our society enforces law.
Through my work I’ve gotten to know cops who are among the least racist people I’ve ever met. I don’t know many other people who would unhesitatingly risk their lives for strangers with whom they may have nothing in common. These cops do that all the time.
Some cops fall far short of that standard. But this isn’t a “bad apples” problem. Our real problem is not caused, and will not be solved, by individual police officers.
It will be solved, or not, by all of us. And that starts with something that couldn’t be more simple, although for some reason we find it hard: seeing that every one of us is a human being, and precious.
To be handled with care.