What lives matter?


In the wake of two tragic shootings of police officers in just the last two weeks, not a news page can be opened without reading some story on guns, racial tensions, or police corruption. Politicians are tiptoeing the fine line between supporting the police and supporting groups like Black Lives Matter, undoubtedly in fear of being misunderstood or losing one or the other voting bloc.

For example, one politician several months ago early in the primaries got into a bit of trouble for saying “All lives matter.” A reasonable statement, but one that was quickly interpreted by Black Lives Matter as an attempt to discount the alleged problem of police officers targeting young black men. This politician, and several others, quickly walked the statement back.

Likewise, on multiple occasions, the President has commented that there is racism in the ranks of police departments across the nation. These statements have angered law enforcement and their supporters because they believe the President has overlooked the many good cops in the country.

I’ve read many of these news stories and listened to many advocates on both sides as they put forward their arguments. As is often the case, both sides leave out inconvenient information. So here are some facts.

First of all, racism exists. There is no question. Some police officers are overtly racist, just like they were in the 1950s, but this applies to an extremely small number of people. More common, however, is covert racism. Covert racism occurs when the individual isn’t even aware of it. Studies have shown clearly that race matters when we make some kinds of decisions.

One great example comes from the University of Chicago where they developed a simple game that could be played online. The viewer was presented with a number of backgrounds. At random, a male figure in still pose would appear. In each case he was either Latino, African-American, or Caucasian. In his hand, he either held a firearm of some kind or a non-threatening item like a cell phone.

The viewer’s job was to decide to shoot or not. The time it took the viewer to make his or her decisions was computed over the length of the game. After thousands of participants were logged, it was clear that players took less time to decide not to shoot Caucasians, longer to decide not to shoot minorities, MORE time to decide NOT to shoot Caucasians, and LESS time to decide to shoot minorities.

These measurements were in the milliseconds and these players were not “racists,” but the consistency made it clear that internally, viewers — both Caucasian and otherwise — were clearly affected by race.

On the other side of the argument, groups like Black Lives Matter have picked some weak cases on which to build their movement. For example, in Ferguson, Michael Brown was a criminal who tried to take an officer’s gun. The law allows all of us, police officers included, to use deadly force when our lives are directly threatened.

This doesn’t discount the fact that some officers profile illegally, have used unnecessary force, and have used deadly force, in part based on race. But this group has also incited the type of behavior we have seen in these past few weeks. While both the President and BLM leaders have made passing comments that blatantly hunting police officers is no solution to the problem of racism, these weak comments are couched in a more global rhetoric that says otherwise.

To deny that there are corrupt or racist police officers is absurd, but to deny that this is a distinct minority is irresponsible. By far, the majority of officers at all levels of law enforcement are helpers. Daily, they put their lives on the line to protect all of us – because all lives matter – white, black, and blue.

It was our hope that electing a minority as president would calm racial tensions. Unfortunately, tensions are as high now as they were in the 1960s. I would like to see our President, the leaders of Black Lives Matter, and spokespersons for law enforcement agencies open a thorough and ongoing dialog, such as the one I’ve described above. One-sided arguments will only lead to divisiveness and anger rather than solutions.

[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. He holds an M.A. in Counseling and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Georgia State University and has taught at the college level for over 30 years. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]