By Bryon Garner | Contributing Writer
In “The End of Denial,” an article published recently in The Atlantic, Ibrahim X. Kendi asserts that a “racial reckoning,” the unintended consequence of what some call the Age of Trump, is upon our society now. Contemporary anti-racist fervor preceded the current momentum resulting from the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and represents an overall shift in American attitudes regarding racial and ethnic discrimination. The Obama-era American belief in a post-racial society succumbed to a sobering truth: There can be no denial of the pure virality of the racism that exists within the Age of Trump. Kendi argues: “It has become harder, in the Trump years, to blame Black people for racial inequity and injustice. It has also become harder to tell Black people that the fault lies with them, and to urge them to improve their station by behaving in an upstanding or respectable manner.” In arguing that America is now at an inflection point — an end of denial regarding racism — Kendi posits that our society through the exercise of our right to vote in November, will push forward a racial reckoning that will “Abolish police violence….Not in 20 years. Not in 10 years. Now.”
Notwithstanding the hope expressed by Dr. Kendi, I admit that I am decidedly less sanguine with regard to the abolishment of police violence. This week, I read the United States Conference of Mayors Report on Police Reform and Racial Justice, a document which further illustrates the practical effects of white ignorance. In particular, the mayors recommended altering the Use of Force matrix to include more de-escalation tactics by investing in training conducted through the use of “realistic, scenario-based training on how to apply de-escalation techniques to real-life encounters.” In response, Police Chief Joel F. Shults provided a critique of this recommendation, echoing the prevailing opinion of many in law enforcement: he declared that sanctity of life policies “are common practice and policy in use already within law enforcement.” Chief Shults contended, “One of the frustrations of the flood of reform recommendations is that the public is never informed that these practices are nearly universal in policing and have been for a long time.” On one hand, many in law enforcement believe that they already do enough to protect the sanctity of life, that they are already sufficiently trained and certified. While, on the other hand, many civilians recognize glaring institutional problems with law enforcement. For me, there is no more focused space where the persistence of dominant culture ignorance operates than in the space where law enforcement encounters communities of color. To wit, from an epistemological perspective, what we have is the dominant group telling the marginalized group that the knowledge they possess is not legitimate because it was gained through their own lived experiences, which are inherently de-valued; in short, their devalued experiences do not result in/constitute “real” knowledge.
Challenging Dr. Kendi’s claim that the end of denial will bring abolishment of police violence, I posit that there can be no abolishment of police violence until culturally dominant ignorance has been deprived of its socially based, relational power. Culturally dominant ignorance operates in at least two spheres: race and gender. Having mostly white and/or mostly male law enforcement organizations is anachronistic to say the least. Chief Shults’ perspective brings this point to clarity because failing to acknowledge problems — or that there could be a problem — is not only an example of privilege resulting from power, but it is also evidence that someone has been too long in his own silo. Politicizing law enforcement for the advantage of cultural divides adds to the problem. Georgia recently passed legislation that provides legal protection for law enforcement officers by establishing “bias-motivated intimidation” as a criminal offense. (Https://blue lives matter.blue/new-Georgia-law-criminalizes-bias-motivated-intimidation-against-police/)
This new law will allow law enforcement officers to sue “those who knowingly file false reports against them or who infringe on the officer’s civil rights in connection with the officers performance of official duties.” Arguably, this reactionary law responds/addresses the increased calls for civilian oversight, a plea that likely grew out of citizen complaints. As law enforcement culture doggedly builds a wall of fear and reprisal around itself, there is increased likelihood that its ability to bridge any cultural divides will be walled off. Chief Shults’ response — and I have no reason to believe that he stands alone in his assertion — illustrates that the abolishment of police violence begins with removing officers who do not have the capacity to change or evolve. Then, we can move forward with conversations that improve, for example, the Use of Force matrix. For law enforcement to take the position that there is no way but their own way, that they have done all of the training necessary to solve the complex problems in demographically evolving neighborhoods is the clearest example of culturally dominant ignorance.
Society at large and law enforcement should employ language that validates the experiences of Black people with regard to law enforcement — this would be impactful and useful ally-ship. Accountability and, moreover, having the same response to problems doesn’t make the problem go away. I further assert that the citizen as a situated knower of the realities of their interface with law enforcement requires more than advocacy through the ballot box. For example, much of American language and military culture are not only racialized but also weaponized to impose or maintain binaries. Binaries are representative of the persistence of ignorance. Given this context, I do believe public discourse and intellectualism can put greater pressure on law enforcement to hire more officers with evolved thinking.
While serving on a police review board a few years ago, I investigated a case in which an officer who was making a traffic stop was angered because the Black male driving the car kept driving slowly until he could pull over in an area he felt was safe. In California, this is allowed based on a past incident involving the rape and murder of a young woman who had been pulled over by a California Highway Patrol Officer. In the case I was reviewing, the officer walked up to the Black male and asked why he kept driving when he saw the officer’s lights flashing. The man responded that he didn’t feel safe. The officer responded, “What are you, a girl?” In this situation, the officer’s language infantilized and feminized a Black male. Had this situation escalated, there would have been a far different outcome than just traffic ticket.
Dr. Kendi rightly proclaims that America is at an inflection point. However, I do not fully agree that it is the beginning of the end of denial as much as I feel it is the end of the beginning of the beginning of denial. Denial of racism has been around for over 400 years. Denial of racism has persisted in the Age of Trump. I concur that we now have greater momentum and more public discourse on anti-racism, equity, and abolishment thanks in no small part to Dr. Kendi’s contributions. Nevertheless, I assert that the persistence of culturally dominant ignorance and weaponized language will require more than advocacy through exercising our right to vote. The reckoning on race is more about the capacity to be accountable and to embrace or accept evolving from old perspectives. It remains to be seen whether we have enough momentum to prove if that exists.