The tragic events in Baltimore -- first the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, then the riots that brought the city to a standstill -- have once more focused the nation's attention on the problems of policing and race relations. And, once again, the ensuing debate has often reduced the issue to black and white, in both the literal and the figurative sense. The right tends to fixate on law and order and downplay the reality of abusive encounters with the police that very disproportionately affect African Americans. The left tends to fixate on racial oppression and downplay the complex dynamics of class and the problem of crime. The right disregards societal barriers; the left, personal responsibility.
There is no question that America has a long, terrible history of racist police behavior. In cities like Ferguson, Missouri, we still have a nearly all-white force policing an majority black population -- and using petty arrests as a municipal cash cow. That's a prescription for racial resentment.
The situation in Baltimore is very different. The city has an African-American mayor, a majority-black city government, and a black police commissioner. Black officers make up 47 percent of the police force. With a population that is nearly two-thirds black, this still means that the police force is disproportionately white; but the city has been making a concerted effort to promote racial balance. Has this made a difference in relations between police and the community?
Obviously, not enough.
We know that three of the officers indicted in Gray's death -- now believed to be the result of a police transport during which he was hogtied and unsecured -- are African American. Joan Walsh, editor of the leftist Internet magazine Salon, has blamed the mistreatment of black detainees by black cops on racism absorbed from white co-workers. But this is a disturbing and demeaning argument that turns black men and women into puppets of white supremacy.
In fact, race is only one factor in interactions between police and citizens. Especially in high-crime areas, police officers are likely to engage in profiling based on class, appearance, age, and gender as well as race or ethnicity, and to regard potential suspects as "bad guys" who don't deserve compassion or respect. Poor or socially marginalized whites, too, often become victims of police brutality. Meanwhile, the culture in police departments across the country tends to encourage tribal loyalty to fellow cops -- and police unions often sustain that culture.
Genuine respect for law and order can exist only when law enforcement shows respect to the community. But mob violence, vandalism and looting are an assault on communities as well, not merely an overzealous protest.
Both President Barack Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake were widely criticized for using the word "thugs" to describe the rioters, with many decrying the term as a coded racial slur. Bizarrely, some even claimed that the word has never been used in reference to white criminals, even though a quick Google search shows plenty of examples to the contrary -- from mobsters such as the late John Gotti to perpetrators of racially motivated attacks to President Richard Nixon's Watergate henchmen. This is not just about semantics; the attacks on the "T-word" are part of an attempt to strip moral judgment from the discussion of violence and looting and absolve the perpetrators of responsibility.
Writer and Columbia University professor John McWhorter, one of the most astute contemporary social thinkers, has expressed the hope that despite the violence, Baltimore will promote a necessary conversation about the tense relationship between the police and the African-American community. But for that to happen, we must also reject excuses for wrongdoing -- whether by civilians or police officers, black or white.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.