Conservative talk show host and Red State blogger Erick Erickson asks of the turmoil in Ferguson, “Must we have a dead white kid?” The question might be reworded to read, “If we had a dead white kid, shot by a police officer under circumstances similar to those surrounding the death of black teenager Michael Brown, would the white masses feel differently about police brutality?”
Erickson’s assumption is that non-blacks would be more upset about the shooting if the person shot were white. But, instead of responding with greater empathy to white kids shot by police, people might actually say things like:
- Good riddance. Glad they are dead. THUGS GET SLUGS!
- Well, they got a lead sandwich. I hope they enjoyed the free meal.
- The gene pool just got a little deeper, and the taxpayers are off the hook for paying for the housing and feeding of these two punks later on.
That’s precisely how several commentators responded to my article about the shooting of two white teenagers who were killed by homeowners while attempting to rob a home (for the third time). Similar sentiments would undoubtedly be directed toward a white version of Michael Brown.
“Must we have a dead white kid?” At least one conservative commentator thinks the answer to the question is obvious. But the answer is really not obvious at all. The assumption underlying Erickson’s query is that, by answering the question, whites will be forced to confront their lack of empathy. This assumption is severely flawed, and a bit insulting.
The premise of Erickson’s question is that whites have less empathy for the deceased when the police shoot a minority under circumstances like those in Ferguson. In this way, Erickson sees white racial sensitivity as defective or needing improvement. I don’t know what Erickson thinks he gains by posing the question in this manner, but he’s not in very good company with that premise.
Another problem with Erickson’s question is that it assumes whites would have more empathy if police, under similar circumstances, shot a young white person. There is no reason to believe this is so. Theoretically, whites could be more comfortable openly expressing disdain for a white person shot under similar circumstances. No one would accuse whites of racism for expressing disdain toward a white person shot after robbing a store and initiating a violent confrontation with police (if those facts were all that was known about a particular incident).
“Just because Michael Brown may not look like you should not immediately serve as an excuse to ignore the issues involved,” says Erickson. In other words, if you don’t immediately criticize the law enforcement response without having all the facts, then you have defective racial sensitivities. You’re ignoring the “issues involved” due to your lack of racial empathy, according to Erickson. This is a slight against a large number of people.
Let’s really think through what would happen if whites were seeing white suspects more often apprehended and occasionally mistreated or treated with excessive force on a more frequent basis.
If Michael Brown had been white, whites could feel comfortable coming to conclusions about the character of the deceased, based on their own experience or based on what they knew of the limited facts available thus far. Nonminorities would be less afraid to openly express criticism for a white person shot under circumstances like those in Ferguson. It would be fair to ask whether the white kid brought his fate upon himself — even if the officer’s conduct was later found to be wrongful. If there weren’t as many “disparities” in police encounters, then perhaps all racial groups would actually be more supportive of punitive policy and aggressive police tactics. In such a world, the police could receive an even greater benefit of the doubt from people of all races when there was a shooting like the one in Ferguson. Dead white thugs wouldn’t garner any more sympathy or media attention than other varieties of dead thugs.
Erickson shouldn’t just presume that white people are deficient in empathy when they don’t leap to conclusions critical of law enforcement. Perhaps enough people, of all races, have seen their neighborhoods and cities wrecked that we’re slow to make presumptions in favor of people who rob stores and fight police officers. We can be fed up with crime without being racially insensitive.
If Erickson thinks he is going to effect a change in law enforcement tactics by conjuring generalized empathy, he’s mistaken. Americans have a tremendous capacity for empathy for people of all races — and that empathy is largely directed toward crime victims and the law-abiding public who have to live with the disorder and pain caused by crime.
There is enough turmoil in American race relations. We don’t have to pretend that white people have a disorder if they don’t automatically join in a chorus of denunciation against law enforcement whenever the police use lethal force or respond to riots with tactical equipment. Erickson laments that the Ferguson police “behaved more like a paramilitary unit than a police force.” But the police response may have been appropriate because the rioters were acting more like a hostile mob than a peaceful assembly.
When riots break out before a verdict, before an investigation, and before many facts are even known, many Americans, from a variety of backgrounds, are willing to give latitude to a democratically accountable and strongly regulated local police force.
Erickson is severely overestimating the extent to which white people would sympathize with a white teenage male in Michael Brown’s circumstances. Erickson is also unfairly condemning a large number of people as lacking in racial empathy for not reflexively criticizing the Ferguson police. We know very little about what happened in Ferguson, so we shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions about any individual, or group, or the nation’s psyche.
After the Trayvon Martin controversy (and after Tawana Brawley, and after the Duke lacrosse “rape” hoax, etc.) everyone was supposed to learn that we shouldn’t rush to judgment. It seems that we forgot that lesson, and it only took a year. How odd that in the aftermath of events in Ferguson, at least one conservative is rushing to judge the police, and judge Americans’ racial sensitivities.
Cross-posted at American Thinker