I Know We Can Do Better
Sometimes, I think this country's conversation about race might be moving forward just a little bit.
Consider Monday night's presidential debate. The one part of the 90 minute conversation that I thought was actually worth listening to was the extended conversation about race and criminal justice. For the first hour of the debate, both candidates were repeating talking points and shedding very little light on the real issues behind their positions. I found it very hard to watch, especially Donald Trump's repeated interruptions of Hillary Clinton. But then moderator Lester Holt shifted to the last set of questions in the debate which were said to be about "America's direction".
"Let's start by talking about race," Holt said. I sat down and listened.
Both candidates saw this question coming, of course, and both had their prepared answers. There was a surprising amount of agreement between the candidates. Both said that the violent death rate of young black men in this country is absolutely unacceptable. Both said that the relationship between the community and the police in many places needs to improve. And both said that we need to get guns out of the hands of "people who shouldn't have them". There was a difference of opinion about how to do that, of course, with Trump calling for the expansion of "stop and frisk" policing.
The conversation (if you can call it that) spun around a little, with Trump denying that there with constitutional problems with stop and frisk and Clinton mentioning the "unintended consequences" of criminal justice policies she previously supported: "systemic racism" and mass incarceration.
Holt then asked the only question that actually surprised me: "Do you believe that police are implicitly biased against black people?" Clinton responded, "I think that implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police." She went on to say that it is possible to address this bias with training, and the federal government could do much more to enable police departments who want to improve.
This strikes me as progress. Although Hilary Clinton doesn't, as a rule, talk about how her thinking has grown and evolved, clearly she has been listening to the public conversation about race over the past couple of years. Donald Trump hasn't been listening. The racial bias we all have makes it hard to accurately assess risk which in turn makes it hard to police effectively. Having explicit conversations about these implicit biases doesn't make implicit bias disappear, but it can help us begin to put some space between our assumptions and our actions. Police need to do that, but so do teachers and shopkeepers and managers and pastors.
But in some law enforcement departments, bias isn't just implicit. It is explicit--and tolerated. According to the Baltimore Sun, the Howard County Office of Human Rights has concluded a year-long investigation of a complaint by Lt. Charles Gable against Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald. The allegations are truly jaw-dropping including:
In several instances, the sheriff used the "n-word," made derogatory comments about women's breasts and called former county executive Ken Ulman "little Kenny Jew Boy."
The report also claims the sheriff said, "The African-American deputies are not too smart, but they get the job done."
Fitzgerald has yet to speak to the press about the report. In the report, he denied any wrong-doing and explained that he is just "a loud New Yorker". (Read the full report here.)
Elected officials around the County responded to the report, immediately calling for Fitzgerald's resignation. Four County Executives issued a joint statement, followed by the County Council and the Howard County Democratic party. There have been small protests outside of the County court house on Friday night and Monday afternoon and a petition calling for the sheriff's resignation has (as of this writing) has about 300 signatures (I've signed--add your name here).
But when Fitzgerald leaves, as he inevitably will do, we need to have a deeper conversation. How did he get away with this kind of behavior for so many years? This report doesn't describe a single incident of indiscretion. It doesn't even describe a toxic relationship with a single employee. This report describes a pattern of behavior that is completely unacceptable in any workplace in this country. Many people knew about this. Many people chose not to file a complaint. Many people decided to laugh it off.
In order to move toward healing the deep wound of racism in this country and this county, we need to say out loud things things that go on inside our heads. "This is making me uncomfortable." "I don't think that's funny." "I have a lot to learn." "I'm not sure how to respond to this situation." "I need your help."
Or just, "I know we can do better."