When we hear about white people calling the police on Black people, it seems like an epidemic of racist jerks ratting out fellow citizens for trivial crap. It is. It’s also a product of the fact that white people — or specifically middle and upper-middle class white people — have a relationship with authorities which differs from other ethnic groups.
It is a worldview, which is much larger than just calling the cops on suspicious black people. We call the cops on each other at a rate much higher than other groups. We are accustomed to using the police, state agencies, and other civic authorities as conflict-resolution mechanisms (other recent things white people have called the cops to complain about: a cold Happy Meal; being sold bad drugs; a pizza place getting an order wrong; teenaged son refusing to get a job.
This attitude is picked up young, too — a 12-year-old boy in Canada called the Mounties because his parents made him eat salad. This is not to deny that racism is often part of the equation — but to point out that it is part of a much larger dynamic.
I guarantee that these women have a history of calling police, security, and building management over various non-criminal things (the fact that they are women is a key point I’ll return to later). This culture of appealing to authorities to step in is just that: a culture.
Noisy party down the street? Call the cops.
Someone parked in the bike lane? Call the cops.
Graffiti on a fence? Call the cops.
Neighbour’s tree growing over your property line? Call the town council.
Think the apartment down the hall is an illegal sublet? Call building management.
And that is before we even consider the passive-aggressive reports to CPS, the IRS, the DSS and any other agency who can stick a spoke in someone’s wheel. I’d bet that 99 per cent of calls to the EPA tipline, for instance, come from white people.
Of course, laws and statutes have typically been written by— and for the benefit of— white people. We have a buy-in. As far as these statutes typically uphold what could be considered white social norms, we are more interested in their enforcement.
Nor is it a coincidence that whenever you see a group campaigning for more regulation, more laws, more rules — on everything from noise pollution to speed limits to soda taxes to plastic straws — these are usually white people. Once the laws are introduced, those same people will expect them to be enforced. And enforced they will be, against the groups who usually feel the the back of authority’s hand: the poor and people of colour. (Yet how few of the liberals outraged by Eric Garner’s death seemed to grasp it was a direct outcome of punitive taxation on cigarettes?)
The horrific outcomes of too many police encounters with people of colour are also the result of a culture — a police culture, springing both from racial attitudes, and more generally the warrior-cop mentality. This has emerged since the 1970s, and presents the civilian community as adversaries to the police. It was this culture that created police departments who want to drive around in tanks and armoured gear, entering neighborhoods like an army into enemy territory. When this warrior-cop stance meets the “call the cops for everything” culture, that’s the nexus where these tragedies often occur.
Two further factors have weaponised an already cosy relationship with authority that (affluent) white people have tended to enjoy. The first is the obvious “see something, say something” motto of the war on terror, which encourages all of us to look around for people doing something wrong and wonder if that backpack is a bomb (and yes, to many white people, the person who “looks wrong” is going to be a person of colour).
But there has been a deeper cultural shift, encouraging people (especially white women), to be scared of everything. As exhibit A of this psychosis, I offer Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear (1997). It was published in the wake of the crime peak of the 80s and 90s, when Oprah had guests telling us what to do if carjacked and Hard Copy made us feel we were likely to become victims at any moment. De Becker’s thesis is that we should listen to our gut, and not brush off anxiety about people and situations — our gut fear is warning us for our safety. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this book recommended, by women, to women. We are meant to be on guard ALL THE TIME.
As Exhibit B, I offer the way that social media has turned everything up to 11, including women’s ideas of their own vulnerabiilty. Some readers may recall the video about “street harassment” which showed the attention a young woman received while she was walking around New York. Occasionally it was creepy (one guy followed her), but most of it was — truly— harmless. Someone saying “hello” from a stoop, for instance. But in the minds of the video-makers, this was all HARASSMENT. (And almost all of it from non-white men, who were presented as villains because they happened to say “hi” to a passer-by). Humans are a social species — telling young women that ANY human interaction that they didn’t initiate is “harassment” is a pretty warped view, and frankly ridiculous if you live in a city. But this worldview is regularly reinforced on social media, connected to a broader victimhood culture. Mild disagreement is “abuse”, words are violence, etc. Abundant use of the “block” feature means at least on Twitter you can hive yourself off from anyone who might say something you don’t like.
Unfortunately, that’s not an option in the real world. So people like Barbecue Becky want the police to do their blocking for them. If a black man saying “hello” is threatening, black men barbecuing must be terrifying. Exhibit C, of course, is the cellphone, giving us the long arm of the law in our own pockets (how few of these calls would be made if people had to find a payphone?).
Unless we start banning cellphones — or start slapping draconian penalties on people for wasting police time — I’m not sure how to dial all this back. The online shaming of cop-calling idiots doesn’t seem to be having much effect. A general “Just Calm Down” movement is not likely to gain traction in these days of Trump Derangement Syndrome. But telling white women to stop seeing everything as a threat might be a start.