Who would want to be a policeman in America in 2020? It’s badly paid and dangerous. You might get to be a hero. You are more likely to be despised as a racist. Every day, in crime-ridden urban areas, officers of different ethnicities must make intensely stressful life-and-death decisions as they engage with other people of different ethnicities. That’s the job. It should go without saying that the vast majority of law enforcement officers carry out their duties with admirable professionalism and skill. Watching the news, however, or listening to certain Democratic politicians, we might easily reach a very different conclusion: that cops are vile bigots who target and kill black people for sport. Even Donald Trump, who became President in no small part because he promised to uphold law and order, seems to have surrendered to the idea that American policing needs urgent reform; either that or he is trying to tell African American voters that he takes race seriously ahead of the election in November.
Policing could and should be better. There are legitimate concerns about the militarization of law enforcement officers in a republic founded on liberty. Americans have seen too many instances of police brutality, often against minorities. Some police departments are worse than others. Yet any dispassionate analysis of the facts will debunk the idea that police violence is endemically racist in motivation. In 2019, in roughly 375 million annual ‘contacts’ between the police and the public, officers shot dead 14 unarmed blacks and 25 unarmed whites.
Given that African Americans make up less than 13 percent of the US population, that number seems very high — until you consider that, in 2018, African Americans committed 53 percent of homicides and 60 percent of robberies. There are profound social and economic reasons why black people perpetrate more crime. Those factors should be addressed. But deep societal problems ought not simply to be pinned on the police.
For Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists and other left-wing radicals, however, the police are the outward and visible enforcers of an inwardly cruel society — and must therefore be crushed. In BLM’s radical philosophy, all authority is reprehensible, since it perpetuates an unjust, greedy and oppressive capitalist system. If you believe that society is depraved, those who uphold the law must be wicked, and must be fought.
Happily, only a small number of Americans hold such views — or so we thought. In a matter of days, from the end of May to the beginning of June, a revolutionary mindset hijacked the public mood in America. Professional pundits on major networks talked relentlessly about white tyranny. Democratic politicians seriously pushed the idea of defunding, even abolishing, the police. BLM suddenly emerged as the most powerful political group in America, and polls suggested they had huge numbers behind them. Politicians, Republican and Democrat, genuflected before them. Public officials competed to ‘take a knee’ for the cameras.
The BLM revolt soon spread to other countries. America used to be the world’s policeman, for good or ill. Now the world seems to hate America’s policemen. A radical but powerful minority used the moment to police their fellow citizens. People who criticized, questioned or just failed to repeat BLM’s subversive slogans were fired from their jobs. Rather than reject the movement’s proposal to abolish law enforcement, police chiefs and political leaders, Democrat and Republican alike, sought to accommodate their ridiculous demands. The President tweeted ‘LAW & ORDER!’ and ‘THE SILENT MAJORITY IS STRONGER THAN EVER!’, only to sign an executive order that promised federal funds only to police departments exhibiting ‘best practices’.
Right-wing politicos spied opportunities. They talked about how the radical left and its fellow travelers in the media had ‘overplayed their hand’ — the implication being that most Americans would be revolted by the general lawlessness and therefore wouldn’t vote Democrat in November. That is myopic, to put it mildly — America is still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and a catastrophic recession is brewing. Americans aren’t in the mood for clever electoral tactics. Some of President Trump’s biggest admirers are appalled at his slowness in combating the lightning-fast cultural revolution that is taking place. Leadership should be about more than winning elections. Leaders who fail to appreciate that usually end up losing.
What’s really happening in America is a crisis of authority, from the White House down to your local police precinct. This in turn derives from a crisis in America’s identity — and that’s not about race or racism. It is a crisis in national confidence. There is no consensus on what it means to be an American. There is, however, as Peter Wood argues, a destructive consensus in the education system. At every level, from preschool to grad school, the system teaches the racial equivalent of Original Sin about America. The chaos of recent weeks confirms that racial disparities continue despite the government interventions of recent decades. It also exposes the development of two further challenges: class disparities so wide as to make a mockery of the idea of E Pluribus Unum, and the emergence of an alienated, violent and educated class of young people who despise their country. Policing can only attenuate the harm these children wreak.
This article is in The Spectator’s July 2020 US edition.