Personal Freedom

Police Shootings: Racial Identity Politics Sidestep the Conversation on Government Power

So-called “identity politics” have recently been at the heart of many political controversies in this country. From immigration policy to public spending, it seems that political spin doctors attempt to make each policy controversy personal for voters by making the narrative about personal traits like race or gender and creating an “us versus them” dichotomy for each debate.

This approach often sidesteps the more fundamental questions about the proper role of government and the use of government power. Such is the case with recent police shootings. A recent Washington Post article did exactly this by framing the differences in media and community responses to the Ferguson shooting and Utah’s own shooting of Dillon Taylor in racial terms. In Ferguson, a white police officer shot a black teen while in Utah a white man was shot by a non-white officer. The article tries to frame the outrage in Missouri with thousands of protestors versus the more subdued response in Utah as one based on race. This approach misses the more important point—the difference in responses is a direct reflection of the level of discomfort with government power in the two states.

In Ferguson, racial terms are only an easy way to understand people’s level of personalization with the event. There is a large population of racial minorities who may perceive the shooting of Michael Brown as a use of police authority that could be used against any of those who share Michael Brown’s race. That group is likely to respond strongly because the use of deadly force by a government actor is considered a more likely possibility for them on a personal level. However, in Utah a member of the racial majority being shot by police didn’t evoke the same response. The use of racial terms are only superficial. The deeper issue is whether Utahns see the use of deadly force by government agents against them as a possible or personal reality.

Because those in Ferguson believe the treatment of minorities by police is disparate from that of whites, they internalize and personalize the shooting more than Utahns do, and see it is a greater possibility for them. This racial lens, however, is a narrow view. The more important—and broader—issue is whether people perceive the use of deadly force by their government against them as problematic—not merely likely.

While members of the racial majority may not see police abuse against them as a possibility, all citizens can and should see police abuse against any citizen as a deeply troubling possibility for anybody else, regardless of that citizen’s identity. It is easy to compartmentalize police power as only being an issue for those in high crime areas or those that somehow “deserve it” or are guilty of not complying with police orders. However, a more principled approach would suggest that all of us should be alarmed at any injustice perpetrated by a government agent, because it threatens our collective liberty. Even if we are never subjugated to abuse personally, the frequent occurrence of abuse leads to institutional and societal tolerance for such misuse of government force. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement about justice sums it up nicely when he wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Likewise, misuse of government power anywhere is threat to liberty everywhere.

In response to the shooting of Dillon Taylor in Utah, the local Police Chief called the incident unfortunate but stressed that “this is not Ferguson.” He’s right—Utah is not like Ferguson. Unfortunately, in Utah it seems people are far more comfortable with the use of deadly force by armed government agents. While weeks of marches, protests, riots, or looting are highly unlikely to occur in Utah, one still might have expected more than a dozen protestors on a single day.

While the specific circumstances of each shooting are still under official investigation and may result in justifying of the officers’ use of force, the growing trend of “officer-involved shootings” should alarm all people in a free society—not just those that share a racial identity or neighborhood with one of the victims. The conversation about the use of deadly force by armed government agents against the individuals who employ them is far more fundamental to all people than the narrow and often divisive conversation about personal racial identity. If we allow ourselves to be sidetracked in these fundamental debates by salacious headlines, we lose focus on important issues.

In the quest for liberty we must remember the advice of our little league baseball coaches: “don’t take your eye off the ball.”