By Gordon Coonfield
Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced forthcoming measures that "will help end racial profiling" at the federal level "once and for all." As participants in a White House meeting on the issue pointed out to President Obama, we have heard all this before.
What makes this time different, Obama insists, is his commitment. And a $263 million Christmas gift to law enforcement for expanded training and resources. This includes $75 million toward the purchase of 50,000 lapel-mounted cameras. These stocking stuffers are supposed to bring greater transparency to law enforcement. But this is an illusion, one that panders to our blind faith in the power of images, cannot help but fail to fulfill Obama's promise, and distracts us all from the deep, abiding wounds Ferguson has reopened.
Our blind faith in the power of images to reveal the truth is easily demonstrated.
On March 3, 1991, George Holliday used a newly purchased camcorder to videotape the beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers. Most of America saw an edited version of that tape and believed the truth to be self-evident: White officers from a notorious police department used excessive force (again) to subdue a black suspect. The prosecution believed this too.
However, the defense succeeded in convincing a jury that the real truth lay in what the tape could not show: the officers' thoughts, intentions, and feelings of fear. The announcement of the not-guilty verdict led to six days of rioting in Los Angeles.
Twenty-three years later, despite videos and witness testimonies, grand juries have decided that the killings of two more black men by police were not crimes. In both cases, the problem is not the quality or source of the video or the lack of witnesses. The problem is the limitations of video itself.
A video can show bodies being battered with blows, but not the thoughts and motives of those who beat them. It can record the effects of bullets striking bodies, but not the emotional state of the one firing the gun. Images can show dying, but not death. They can show violence, but not contempt. They can show race, but not racism.
Racism. Now that is a tricky word. Especially when it is used in media coverage of events like the recent killings of unarmed black men by police. Racism tends to focus us on individuals' intentions, motivations, and beliefs. If you watch interviews with the LAPD officers who beat King, or the interview of Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, they don't sound like raving neo-Nazis, and there is no evidence that they hate or enjoy hurting black people. But that isn't racism.
Racism is the system of distinction between kinds of bodies based on physical appearances. It assigns to those characteristics particular meanings, and it institutes a hierarchy of values produced by those distinctions and meanings.
Spouting racial slurs is just the most obvious and extreme expression of racism. Like many words and images, they reduce people to a set of stereotypes based solely on arbitrary aspects of physical appearance. But racism is not only expressed in words and images. It is practiced in other, more profound ways - like lopsided incomes, reduced life expectancies, and disproportionate incarceration rates. And, yes, in the killings of unarmed black men for minor offenses, like selling loose cigarettes - or for simply being black men.
The practice of racism is enabled and sustained by social institutions like the news media, and the criminal justice and educational systems. Racism is distributed in hiring practices, standardized tests, and the behavior of people toward one another. Racism is expressed in the "fear" Darren Wilson felt of a young black men whom he characterized as a "hulk" who attacked him without provocation or reason.
What does this have to do with lapel cameras?
You can show a security guard following a shopper, but you can't show whether that guard suspects him because of his race. You can show a cop stopping a jaywalker, but you can't photograph his motivations for using his discretion to pat down and handcuff one jaywalker and not another.
The effects of racism are obvious to anyone who understands it. The problem is, many white Americans don't. Like the illusion of transparency, many believe we live in a postracial, color-blind society. For them, it is, and it is hard for them to believe this same society could be experienced differently.
To be fair, it isn't all their fault. As with many complex, challenging news issues, the media tend to focus on the episode, not the theme. They individualize events and report them in ways that defer to official sources who represent the very institutions that are part of the problem. In times of uncertainty, the media comfort us with clear victims, heroes, and villains. We are as much to blame for wanting and needing those comforting archetypes as they are for providing them.
In view of the fact that the officer who shot Michael Brown and those who choked the life from Eric Garner were exonerated, the notion of transparency is an illusion. Lapel cameras and the "enhanced training" the Obama administration is peddling as a solution to our collective trauma are snake oil. While they may lead to an uptick in viral videos, they can't show what we must all learn to see.