Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


Someone self-identified as “In The dark” offers this response to my reposting of my son’s FaceBook post of Professor Steve Locke's account of his experience with the police:

In The Dark said...
I get how frustrating and terrifying it is to be detained by the police (and I know all too well how they will slip past your rights if you let them), but I don't get what these officers did wrong. No, you just saying you aren't the suspect isn't going to clear you of suspicion. But why should it? Isn't that a ridiculous thing to expect? And the eye-witness testimony of another person doesn't "decide" you're a criminal--the court does that--and I see no reason to think the cops were going to let the woman decide that. And if she positively IDed him during the detention, my understanding is that that would have been probable cause to arrest him.

What am I missing here? Please explain it to me. I really do want to understand.”

All right, let me explain it to you.  This is not simple, so you will have to be patient and exercise a certain amount of imagination.  You are going to have to be willing to keep in mind a good deal of background information that was immediately and painfully available to Professor Locke, but may not in the same way and with the same urgency be available to you.

Your question is, “what did the officers do wrong?”  Let us suppose I were stopped in that fashion by two police officers who had received word of a breakin by an old white man wearing jeans and a sweater. [Parenthetically, let me note that there are virtually no cases of an innocent old white man being shot dead by a policeman because he reached into his pocket for ID and the policeman thought he was reaching for a gun.]  Suppose that when old white men are stopped by policemen [something that rarely happens], they are treated politely and with respect, even with a certain deference, because that is the way police routinely treat old white men, especially those  who look upper middle class.  Would the policeman address me as “Hey my man”?  Not likely.  Would he unsnap the holster of his sidearm as he addressed me?  Also not likely.

After I had identified myself, would the policeman say that the victim had to identify me as well, or would he apologize and continue looking for the alleged perpetrator?  I rather suspect the former.

Now look at it from the point of view of Professor Locke.  Did his father have “the talk” with him when he entered his teen years?  I would guess yes.  [If you do not know what “the talk” is, you really need to look it up, in order to broaden your understanding of American society.]  Did you note, in Professor Locke’s account, that before reaching for his wallet to show ID he asked the policeman whether that was all right?  Do you understand that that simple question was Professor Locke’s desperate effort to avoid being shot by a policeman with an itchy trigger finger?  Do you understand why he was terrified of getting into the police cruiser, even though he is a college professor? 

What might the officers have done differently?  Well – and this is complicated – the entire American police force might fundamentally change the way it interacts with African-Americans.  But, you protest, these two officers cannot change the way the entire criminal justice system interacts with Black men!  And this is where things get difficult.  That was not only an interaction between one Black college professor and two white policemen.  It was an interaction between the Black population of America and the entire criminal justice system.  And it cannot be understood unless one grasps this fact.

All well and good, you may say, but in the moment, right then and there, how should they have acted differently?  And the answer is: While these two policemen were, so to speak, waiting for all of America to change, they could themselves have chosen to interact with Professor Locke as though they were interacting with a white man.  Had they done so, the entire interaction would have gone differently and in a non-threatening manner for Professor Locke.  But they did not.

That is what they did wrong.

Let me close with an old, bitter joke told by my colleagues in the Afro-American Studies department at UMass Amherst:

What do you call a Black man with a Ph. D.?

Answer:  Nigger.


Dean said...

I wouldn't give the police too much credit for the way they interact with white people, either. It isn't exactly a model of professional behavior. See, e.g., Franklin Zimring's When Police Kill, in which he reports data indicating that ~51% of victims of police shootings in 2015 were white, and ~35% were over 40. Over 40 doesn't equal elderly, of course, but I have heard Prof. Zimring remark that older victims include those who, e.g., fail to take needed medication and whose resulting behavior triggers (pardon the pun) police intervention. But his work isn't ultimately about the racism that taints police interactions with citizens. It's about finding remedies for the training and the ethos of hyper-violence -- violence given and received -- that prompts police to err on the side of shooting early and often. Prof. Locke's experience was a compound of that phenomenon exacerbated by indisputable racism.

Mauss said...

MY first comment was a Thank You (re "Night Thoughts"), and I remain thankful--but disappointed in this response. Analyses like this, on this topic, is why I lean so heavily on folks like "The Black Guys" at bloggingheads, as far as popular media goes (Dan Kauffman also recently had a podcast discussing guns and cops in US).

The present analysis depends on my just having the appropriate intuitions that: (1) being a white suspect is much nicer than being a black suspect and (2) this asymmetry is the result or fault of the police not treating black suspects as they do white suspects. Absent any argument, this intuition is fueled by a lay familiarity of the relevant data via heart wrenching anecdotes.

And if I happen to have similar anecdotes (as I do) that conflict with this narrative about how white people that are suspected of a crime get treated, then I won't trust the 'appropriate intuition'. Or if I have something slightly beyond the lay familiarity with the data, then I may be skeptical of this appropriate intuition.

And then what? You're just preaching (what McWhorter would call the antiracism doctrine or gospel) to the choir, without actually advancing things like: the relationship between police and those they are sworn to protect. Instead, we are just here to repent for, as old folktales say, treating the black man with a PhD as a "nigger." So we're telling In The Dark that they too need to internalize this original sin (their white privilege, their cozy encounters with powers that be) and repent!

To quote McWhorter: "Real people are having real problems, and educated white America has been taught that what we need from them is willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history. Naciremian Antiracism has its good points, but it is hopefully a transitional stage along the way to something more genuinely progressive."

Anonymous said...

This unfortunate event looks like it happened about 3 years ago. Nonetheless, it's exceedingly relevant.

Reginald Harris ends his poem "New Rules of the Road" with this last stanza (with apologies to Harris for incorrect spacing):

Do not say you
Do not fit The Profile

This is America:
You ARE the profile.

I live near a university campus in which the campus police, in looking for a black male robbery suspect of a certain age, publicly posted a picture of completely RANDOM black man of approximately the same age, saying this random black male was the suspect. To continue Professor Wolff's analogy, one can reasonably assume that police, if looking for someone who matches Wolff's description, would not post a picture of, say, Gene Hackman, implying that these two elderly white men (or ANY two elderly white men) essentially look the same.

That's one small way that racism works. More broadly, as many scholars and activists remind us, the historical role of the police is to protect the white power structure, white property, and white wealth. Thankfully, books like Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow have catapulted this history, as well as how the Nixon / Reagan / Clinton era coded "tough on crime" dog-whistle rhetoric, into broader consciousness.

Bystanders, such as the lady in Professor Locke's account, can play a big role in reducing the potential for police abuse of power, and in most states, one can legally film these interactions -- it is advisable to do so while keeping a respectable distance (lest you get charged with "interfering"), and calmly and objectively trying to narrate what's happening.

In most states, too, Professor Locke would not have needed to respond to the police officers' initial questions unless he was actually being detained. It would have signaled to police that he knew his rights. (Not that police always respect these rights, but it can change the starting point.) I understand Professor Locke's instinct to resist arrest (as a way of resisting being profiled), but I think it would have been even more of a risk to resist arrest. Any physical resistance, no matter how small, police will meet with various degrees of force (including lethal force) that, as we know, they are rarely held accountable for. In such cases, it's better to remain calm, stay quiet, wait for a lawyer, and more than likely, refuse any plea bargains. So thankfully, it didn't come to that.

In Professor Locke's account, as jarring and upsetting as it was, these cops could have done much, much worse. We should also remember that in incidents where law enforcement severely brutalizes or kills someone, standard operating procedure (cops investigating themselves, journalism = whatever law enforcement's talking points are), in addition to corruption, dishonesty, testi-lying, harassment of witnesses and family members, and blue walls of silence all work to stack the deck against civilians getting any justice.

But maybe -- just maybe -- the tide may be beginning to turn (witness Lacquan McDonald's murderer).

Anonymous said...

Reminiscent of Henry Louis Gates’s treatment a few years back, inside his own home, by the Cambridge Police. Gates actually got arrested on a trumped-up charge of “disorderly conduct.” (If I remember correctly, the cops had to get him outside his house before they could charge him with this.) Seems he was, so to speak, where he shouldn’t have been—fancy house in a posh neighborhood. And probably insufficiently deferential (in the judgement of the genius who charged him). He had his Harvard faculty ID card on him, too, but that didn’t do him any good. All this sort of stuff reminds me of “the law of suspects” that got the reign of terror rolling (along with the heads) after the French Revolution. --Fritz Poebel

Jerry Brown said...

Outside of the times police act heroically, or even helpfully, which they do sometimes, cops are a necessary evil that we suffer because of the injustices some of us do to others in society. We give the police guns and power and resources to do a job that is almost entirely unproductive in nature just in the hope that it will prevent some of those injustices from occurring, and also to help to address our sense of justice after the fact. It is not a job that is easy to do well, and it is probably very easy to make mistakes even under the best of circumstances. It is an easy job to do poorly or to take advantage of that extra power. It can be a very dangerous job at times- not that anything the professor did here showed that he posed any danger.

So did the Professor Locke do anything wrong here- absolutely not. Did the police do anything wrong? I think that is hard to say without knowing the details of the description provided by the complaintant and how reasonably the professor fit that description. But unsnapping the gun holster was probably unnecessarily intimidating, and would be wrong unless there was good reason to suspect danger-from this account there was none. It would scare the crap out of me for sure.

What really bothers me about this post is the outrage that hey- a college professor gets stopped and questioned by the police. What if he was a carpenter like me- is that no big deal, nothing to worry about? It sucks being a suspect of the police, even for a few minutes- no matter what you do for a living. I've been there, and also for no apparent reason. But I'm not sure we can make it so it doesn't suck if we still want the police to do the job we ask them to.

The police have guns and the power and authority of the state behind them. And there are a lot of them and they often act like the most powerful, meanest gang around. Which is kind of what we want them to be most of the time. And they take advantage of that far too often. But it is not apparent to me that they did anything wrong here in this particular case.

Derek said...

After seeing some of the above comments, I searched Google for a couple minutes. In that time I found, among many other things: "When we apply the threshold test to our traffic stop data, we find that police require less suspicion to search black and Hispanic drivers than whites. This double standard is evidence of discrimination." "We found that, compared to their share in the population, blacks are almost twice as likely to be pulled over as whites — even though whites drive more on average, by the way. We also discovered that blacks are more likely to be searched following a stop. Just by getting in a car, a black driver has about twice the odds of being pulled over, and about four times the odds of being searched . . . but less likely to be found with drugs, guns, alcohol or other forms of contraband after discretionary searches." "Over four decades of research reveals that both whites and African Americans unconsciously associate black people with negative values and white people with positive ones. That is, they associate blackness with negativity and whiteness with positivity. Importantly, this effect emerged among both black and nonblack police and probation officers. Moreover, the participants’ responses to the prime were not impacted by the participants’ consciously held attitudes toward blacks, suggesting that even well-meaning, racially egalitarian officers may still fall prey to these biases . . . . In sum, the study of implicit bias demonstrates that race influences who will capture an officer’s attention and, once that attention is captured, whose ambiguous behaviors will be perceived as violent and dangerous." "US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: Black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population . . . . The disparities appear to be even starker for unarmed suspects, according to an analysis of 2015 police killings by the Guardian. Racial minorities made up about 37.4 percent of the general population in the US and 46.6 percent of armed and unarmed victims, but they made up 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by police."

So to respond to the general sense of some of the comments here:
Is it really that much different by race? Yes.
Is there data to back that claim up? Yes.
And this is hardly unknown to anyone who's looked into the matter. I'd say it was willful blindness to not acknowledge this to begin with, if I hadn't seen over and over again that people who benefit from social privileges are just ordinarily blind, if you will, to those privileges to begin with. This isn't just dueling anecdotes or one word versus another, as some want to portray it; there is plenty of data out there, if one takes five minutes to find it.

In The Dark said...

I appreciate everyone who responded to me with respect and patience.

I think there's a bit of a confusion here, however. Mauss' comments are helpful on this front. Bob (if I may) asks us a series of questions about hypothetical events, about which there is clearly in his mind a correct intuition to have. Mauss is right that disagreement over these cases cannot be adjudicated without something further, such as data.

On that front, Derek helpfully suggests some data, though he was a rather condescending by presuming I was blind regarding that data. Let me assure you, I am not.

But here's why I don't think that data is enough to settle the question. Let's grant for the moment that all that data really is best explained by disparate treatment by cops on the basis of skin color. What we need is some reason to think the professor in the original anecdote Bob posted was treated disparately--and then that data would suggest that a good explanation of his disparate treatment is his skin color. What I wanted to know from the get-go was an answer to the quesion: in what way was he treated disparately? I am aware that black men are, on average, treated disparately; and I'm even willing to grant that the fact that they're black plays an explanatory role in that. That's all compatible with thinking that, in this instance, the cops treated Professor Locke with the respect he deserves.

Derek said...

(1/2) My statement was a general one about the fact that no one was really using any statistical information to reinforce their points; what was given was primarily anecdotal. Of course, the original story Dr. Wolff posted was also an anecdote. So what's the difference? Fair question to ask.

Here, I think, is the difference. When you or I, say, are pulled over by the cops but know we did nothing wrong, most likely we are going to find it annoying. Even if we did something wrong, like say speeding, we are likely going to just be hoping that we don't get a ticket. Of course, there could be times or situations where we have reason to suspect worse--if we are in a place where the police have a reputation for excessive force, for instance. But not generally.

From absolutely everything I've heard listening to the accounts of African Americans, they experience every interaction with the police fundamentally differently. The statistics we have to look up, they know as a matter of lived experience; that's the basis of 'the talk' that Dr. Wolff mentions. The talk's background consists in the statistics that those of us who are not African American will never experience the reality of, and so have to go out and learn instead. And so when an African American is stopped by a police officer, whether he is living in a project or a professor wearing a Ralph Lauren coat, his state of mind will not be annoyance. It will be, almost certainly, mortal fear, a mortal fear that has its justification.

Derek said...

(2/2) Racism is not just an interaction between one person and another; it is a system. It is not just conscious actions; it is implicit views and attitudes that guide our actions in ways we ourselves cannot see, but that those who suffer from our actions are forced to see clear as day, every day. That's why I talk about blindness. I don't think the people here are willfully blind. But there is a blindness of privilege, which is the natural blindness that comes from not having to see or even notice a power differential when you're the one who benefits from it. It's the fact, for instance, that we are less likely to be pulled over, and that our interactions go more smoothly, and that we don't have reason to feel mortal fear when pulled over. Those of us who benefit from it don't even notice; we just 'experience' it as going about our day. From what I've been able to determine, this is a general feature of people. African American males, for instance, suffer from the blindness of privilege with regard to their being male, when set against African American women; heterosexuals with regard to homosexuals; and so on. Those on the bottom must know, for those on the top it is optional.

There's a history of good people being blind to these things, simply because it is in our nature not to see things that don't cause us problems. One way to counter that is by leading with the data and not anecdotes or response to anecdotes; anecdotes can be summoned up for just about any cause, so they don't do much good on their own. However, another way is to take conscious steps to take with great weight the testimony of those who have a history of suffering at the hands of privilege and power, to suspect that they see things those of us at the other end of things may be blind to. So in that case an anecdote can be useful when it highlights something we're otherwise disinclined to see (of course, the data should still bear it out).

What could the police have done differently? Ask for a more careful description of the offender; a knit hat and puffy jacket isn't exactly the best sorting mechanism. The cop could have not put his hand anywhere near his gun; as far as I can tell, he had no reason to do so, and it sends every possible wrong message--explicitly flagging the possibility of deadly force into an interaction where the statistics read as we saw is a massive and immediate escalation. The police could have been more reassuring throughout the interaction; even if you suspect someone, you don't need to immediately treat them like a threat in a case like this. These are barely just a starting point, but the idea is that they reflect a greater understanding of the situation as it exists for the person on the losing end of a history of power.

It could be that Dr. Locke was treated with the respect he deserves. But both the nature of these dynamics and the data very strongly suggests we think otherwise.

J. Bogart said...

Re Derek 1/2: Zimring’s study is cited in the first comment above. A reliable source.

In The Dark said...


What do mean "we", white man? I find it funny that you are presuming me to be white (and a man?). That suggests to me that you have a somewhat essentializing view of the "lived experience" of white people vs. people of color, never mind your various hedges. You seem to think a non-white person *couldn't possibly* experience police encounters in any way except the way you say he or she does.

And then there's the very thorny fact that you seem to believe that, because black people (as a monolith) experience police encounters as mortally dangerous, those police encounters are mortally dangerous. But we all know that just because someone (or even a monolithic group) experiences something in a certain way, it ain't necessarily that way. In fact, groups can get locked in epistemic bubbles by constantly telling stories one to another about how things are, making it very difficult to critically assess the received wisdom. (In this light, the folktale of upper-class black academics getting together at conferences and playing the dozens about their police encounters looks very, very different.) In such a situation, what you would need is some kind of extra-group corroboration of those experiences. What's weird about this dialectic is that the testimony of experiencers outside this (imaginary) monolithic group is *only* admitted if it corroborates the received wisdom. In more scientific contexts, that is what we would call "cooking the data".

An aside: that's one reason why I don't like the old joke Bob told (another reason should be obvious--just read the punchline aloud, if you dare): it perpetuates the narrative in a way that does not invite, and indeed positively discourages, critical scrutiny.

As for me, no, I have never "simply hoped I would not get a speeding ticket", or have felt in the main "annoyed". Police encounters are, for me, always scary.

In The Dark said...

Re-reading my comment now, I am worried I came across as too combative. I hope not, but if I did, let me apologize right away. I hope we can continue this very good discussion :)

Derek said...

I didn't read the comment as combative--not unfairly so, anyway. :)

To see where I'm coming at this from, here are two rules I use:
(1)Generally always trust a person's description of their experience.
(2)Generally don't trust a person's explanation of their experience.

For example, if a white man tells me that he is oppressed, I believe his description of his experience--specifically, I believe that he experiences what feels to him like oppression. However, people often don't know the true explanation of what they experience; in fact, in emotional cases they can be consistently wrong. So I would need solid empirical support before I believed him. He could be right--but I will check the data first. And the data doesn't bear out his inference, to say the least.

Same here. I sometimes hear someone say that they, as an African American, do not experience the things described. I have one such student now. However, my interactions with other students, my knowledge of the community I live in, my sense of the national situation from the media, and--more importantly than all of those--the empirical data all form a very different, consistent picture that also fits the history of our country. That's a lot of evidence to overcome--and indeed, the student is generally in disagreement with of his peers about the total situation. Maybe they are wrong and he is right. I don't doubt that he experiences things in the way he describes. But the general facts say that he is, at best, the exception that proves the rule. Such exceptions exist--but they prove the rule.

So when most of the exchange is centered on a person's experiences, I take that only as a place to start, not proof of anything. To my knowledge Dr. Locke's account is the one supported by the data, which I came in to point to. The other accounts may be true as particular experiences, but most likely as exceptions to the rule.

(Quick note re: Zimring's study, the one such data point given beforehand. It says that 51% of police shooting victims are white--but it should be recalled that whites are about 76.6% of the population, according to the 2017 Census Bureau report.)