Ferguson, Police & Race
On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson. Repeating an all too common pattern, Brown was unarmed when he was killed. While some claim that Brown was murdered, others claim that the shooting was justified because Brown was attacking the officer. While this might strike some as implausible, unarmed people do attack police officers and, though this might seem odd to some, an officer can be morally justified in using lethal force against an unarmed attacker. As this is being written, the facts of the matter have not been established so I do not know whether Brown was shot down in cold blood or in a legitimate use of force. Obviously enough, if the officer used force legitimately (that is, in defense against an unprovoked attack), then he acted in a morally acceptable (though regrettable) manner. If Brown was not a threat or if Brown was a threat but could have been subdued without killing him, then the shooting would be immoral. This is, of course, a matter of the ethics of the incident taken in isolation. That is, was the officer morally justified in shooting Brown or not, regardless of the broader context? Settling this will require knowing the facts of the matter.
In discussing this matter, I have found that some people consider this aspect of the incident the most important one. That is, the critical issue is whether or not the officer was justified in shooting Brown or not. This view is clearly reasonable, but has an obvious defect: it does not consider the broader context. Roughly put, it could be the case that the officer was morally justified in shooting Brown in what could be regarded as the individual context of one person facing off against another. However, there is also the broader context that involves the social roles of the individuals, the social context, the history of race in America, the political context and so on. That is, the incident is not just a matter of two men who confronted each other. It is also a confrontation of class and race heavy with the weight of history. These considerations lead to the broader moral concerns regarding why Brown and the officer were in that situation.
One obvious part of the answer is the history of race in America, both recent and in the more distant past. This history, as it has done so many times before, has set the stage for death. To state a truism, being black in America is generally rather different from being white—despite the untrue claims that America is post-racial. Since I look very white, my experience has been the white experience. However, I have taught at an HCBU (Historically Black College and University) since 1993 and this has given me a perspective somewhat different from most other white folks. One rather obvious difference between whites and blacks in general is how they tend to be treated by the police. It is a considerable understatement to say that blacks tend to be treated rather worse by the police and young black men tend to be singled out for some of the worst treatment. It is, of course, important to note that many police officers are decent people—one should no more stereotype people by profession than by race. Not surprisingly, young black men tend to look at the police rather differently than white folks and the dynamic between young black men and police is often a rather bad one. I have had indirect experience with this dynamic: many years ago I was training for a marathon with a fellow grad student who happened to be African American. While running through a neighborhood we apparently did not belong in, we were stopped by a cop who inquired what we “boys” were doing. I have never been fond of being called “boy” and my friend clearly hated it. Not wishing to be arrested so close to the race, I reigned in my pride and engaged my diplomatic skills while my friend stood in silent anger. The cop let us go and we left the area at a good clip. I am not sure how things would have gone if my friend had been alone—but I suspect it would have not gone quite so well. I have been stopped by police while running one other time and also while biking—although I was not doing anything illegal on any occasion. From these incredibly limited experiences, I can only imagine what it would be like to be subject to such police attention on a regular basis. Once again, to be fair to the police, I have also had many positive experiences with the police and it would be unjust to sweepingly condemn all police because of the actions of some. However, there is clearly a serious moral problem in America in this regard.
Another obvious part of the answer is the philosophy of order held by many in power. While perhaps not familiar with Hobbes, they tend to operate in accord with his view of order and morality. The practical application of this view is that force is the primary (sometimes sole) tool in the toolbox of order. The most visual manifestation of this is the militarization of the police: even small town police forces have combat gear and sometimes even armored vehicles. As Thoreau noted, “thus the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” That this approach leads to violence is hardly surprising.
When the context of race is combined with a philosophy of force, it is hardly a surprise that violence and death are all too often the results. As such, even if the officer was justified in his individual actions, they were taken in a context that is fundamentally morally flawed.