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Published on Sunday, June 7, 2020

Why police forces can’t help being racist

Following the death of George Floyd, killed by  cop Derek Chauvin, which provoked days of protests and nights of rioting and looting, governor Tim Walz has launched an inquiry into whether the Minneapolis police force has “systemic racism that is generations deep.” 

            Of course it does. 

            Stop! Before you fire off flaming letters telling me that I’ve maligned the good people who maintain law and order in our communities, before you tell me that the police officers you know are fine upstanding people, before you accuse me of wanting to abolish an essential service, read on.

            This is not about individuals. 

            Individuals may disavow racism. Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen marched with the protesters. So did police chiefs in Norfolk, Virginia, and Green Bay, Wisconsin. The mayor of Newark supported the protestors. Members of the National Guard called in to quell riots “took the knee” in Hollywood. 

            But the system they belong to can’t help being racist, because it defends the rights and privileges of a class that is fundamentally racist. 

            Regardless of individual sympathies towards justice and fairness, enforcement agencies still  massed behind shields and batons, and used tear gas, rubber bullets, and explosive devices called “flash-bangs” to control protesters. Even peaceful protesters. Most notably, to clear the streets so their Commander-in-Chief could cross the road to brandish a Bible in front of a church that opposes his policies. 


“Systemic” racism

            Governor Walz and I are talking about “systemic racism” that’s built into the genes of all law enforcement agencies – police, National Guard, and the armed forces. 

            They can’t avoid being racist because their job, perhaps their only job, is to defend the property and power of the privileged classes. Who are – at least in the United States – mainly white males.

            Look at the U.S. Congress, to take just one example. With a few notable exceptions, old white males. 

            The same might be said of corporate boardrooms. Whose buildings and businesses the police and National Guard are sent to protect. 

            Show me any instance where a poor black neighbourhood could call up a police force to protect THEIR interests.

            There is systemic racism even though a high proportion of members of both the police and the military forces called on to quell violence are themselves black. 

            They have themselves grown up being victimized by racist organizations. Being pulled over for driving while black. Insulted for asking a difficult question in a press conference while Asian. Arrested for birdwatching while black. Exploited by employers for being Latino. 

            Basically, penalized for not being white.


Defending privilege

            If the upper echelons of U.S. commerce and politics are racist, then their police cannot help being racist. Because that’s on whose behalf the police act. They defend the privileges of the privileged.

            That doesn’t justify Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. But another factor explains why the three other cops with Chauvin didn’t attempt to stop him. 

            Jonathan Haidt has spent 25 years studying the values that distinguish liberals and conservatives. (Those are his terms, not mine; argue with him, not me, if you dispute his definitions.)

            Liberals, Haidt says, value care and fairness most highly. Other words might be  compassion and equality. They discount authority, blind loyalty, and private morality, which Haidt calls “sanctity.”

            Conservatives are the direct opposite. They value most highly authority, loyalty, and personal purity. 

            In practical terms, liberals may vigorously work for environmental causes while having the sexual morality of an alley cat. And conservatives can be extreme patriots and pillars of their church while being viciously racist. 

            Haidt pictures liberals on the left, and conservatives on the right.

            The social structure of police and military automatically puts them in the far right. Of all organizations, they place the highest reliance on loyalty and authority. Discipline is crucial. You cannot have a foot soldier making personal decisions about whether or not to go to war. You cannot have a cop refusing to clear the streets because “they’re m’ brothers.”

            In the military context, failing to protect your comrade’s back is betrayal, near treason. So the three officers who did not intervene as Chauvin killed George Floyd probably saw themselves as living up to expectations of them. 

            In summary, as long as the dominant elements  of any society benefit from racist policies, police forces will continue to act in racist ways, regardless of their members’ personal convictions. 

            To change “systemic racism” in his police forces, Governor Walz has to change Minnesota.  


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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You wrote some long letters in response to last week’s column, about the lack of care in “care homes.” I’ve edited some of your letters fairly severely. 


Tom Watson agreed “that there are things, such as long-term care for seniors, that shouldn't be left to what you describe as ‘the tender mercies of for-profit corporations.’ Nor should they be left to the tender mercies of governments that are bent on reducing spending wherever possible. I personally shudder at the thought of spending my final years in some places, so tell my youngest daughter to keep that spare room dusted off...there might come the day when I want to use it!”

            JT comment: So much depends on whatever it is that’s taking me towards death. If I’m afflicted by some illness that requires constant attention, and makes me difficult to live with, I don’t want to inflict that on my daughter’s spare room.


Bill Rogers shared Tom’s distrust of governments: “The scandal of nursing home management has been created by more than the owners (not to give them any slack, mind you) but the buck goes further up the line.  Regardless of management, government sets the standards and operators make less profit if standards are exceeded: bottom line.  Governments are elected by voters.  Unions, inspectors, care-givers, residents, and families have been proving and shouting for years about neglect,  absence of care, etc., but too few have listened or taken the issue seriously. 
Yes, the owners are responsible, the Government is responsible, and I too am responsible, while being aware, for turning aside, for apparently for not caring enough.” 


Bob Rollwagen also pointed the finger at government incompetence: “The picture has been clear to most of us for years. My mother happened to have the option of going to a not-for-profit home. I visited regularly and was always impressed. I ate there and we enjoyed the food options. Recently a good friend died after five years in LT Care, also not for profit. Wonderful institution. Caring, efficient, polite staff and managements. In both cases, they had private accommodations.

            “I have also been in inside the ones that smell like urine when you walk in the door. I have seen the low-end, semi-private two- and four-bed  rooms with shared washroom.

            The governments have responded properly to Covid. It’s the voters that only support parties promising tax cuts. Do you think a party that wants to fix this will get elected if they say it will take a tax increase? Have you heard anyone admit that taxes have to go up to do the job? 

            Can we trust a government that was elected on deficit cutting and tax reduction to fix the problem?

            There have been good economic theories about productivity and the profit sector. However, they were formed decades ago. Recently, the rules have been changed in favour of profit-stripping and generating value at the cost of the disadvantaged. It is no longer illegal to have a monopoly or have unreasonable control of multiple competing market sectors. Big, multi-faceted companies with global presence can destroy local markets, move the profit out and literally act like school-yard bullies in the market. Just look at Amazon. They make what Walmart did to small town Main Street business look like charity. It is possible that 25% of small businesses that existed before Covid-19 will never recover because of Amazon, not Covid. 


Dave Lent: I pray that you are right about people learning from this.  I fear that the neo-cons will double down to keep their privilege intact.


John Shaffer had good experiences: “We live in a retirement facility that is non-profit.  The primary motive is care, not making money, though making money is important to the long-term health of the institution.  There are many horror stories, but those that focus on profit for the investors make for the saddest stories.”


Ray Shaver comes from the corporate world: “Right on!  Space doesn’t permit me to expound on details of my personal experiences relating to the role that only governments can and need to be involved.  Those experiences were in the meat packing industry followed by my extensive career in corporate environmental work.  Corporations react according to the level of public and government expectations that provide the foundation for laws and regulations requiring corporations to live up to those expectations.  The effectiveness of those laws depends upon the degree of  enforcement reflected in inspections, levying of punishing fines, and issuing public reports. 

            Corporations have a legal fiduciary responsibility to generate maximum profits for shareholders.  The responsibility of governments is to make sure corporations live up to high standards of corporate citizenship by responsible attention to the health, safety, and well-being of workers, clients and the public.  As you clearly indicated, the long-term care problems are, to a large extent, the result of governments abrogating their responsibilities, as well as inadequate staffing and low pay levels of most front-line health care workers.  We, too, bear some responsibility for the problem, due to election focus on government candidates that are pressured  to keep taxes low that usually results in cut backs to essential services inflicted upon those with low levels of power to effect needed changes.”


Steve Roney rejoiced: “You have finally again written a column I can disagree with: saying that ‘nationalizing’ all long-term care facilities would mean better care.” [ JT: I didn’t actually say that.]

            Steve went on to justify his view: “Your argument is that this is necessarily so, because the private sector needs to make a profit, and the public sector does not. However, profit for shareholders or investors is not the only cost factor. Government employees in Canada make, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, 18 to 37% more than private sector workers. Average that to 27.5%. That’s a lot higher than the average business profit of 7%.

            “Accordingly, it is likely that the average for-profit business can provide about a 20% higher level of care for the same money as a public-sector equivalent.” [JT again: But does a 27% lower wage attract better qualified staff?]


Isabel Gibson: “For me, it's not a ‘blind belief’ that the private sector is more efficient than the public at delivering services: It's a lived experience in my work.

            “The issue here, I think, is that when we look at our taxes and at competing uses for that money we want efficiency; when we look at people, we want effectiveness. But no solution will be perfect, and all will have trade-offs.

            “We also struggle with effective regulation. I read that Ontario reduced (maybe eliminated) surprise inspections last year -- in favour of a complaints-driven system. The idea was to focus resources on problematic nursing homes. That doesn't sound misguided. Or even unreasonable.”

            In a subsequent letter, Isabel summed up, “So our government has done a shitty job of being ready and of regulating/managing private-sector providers of care, and we want to give these folks more responsibility?”


Thanks to others whose letters I didn’t include today. I’m now closing this subject; it remains a little too personal for me to be objective. 






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                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.

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