While riding the subway the other day, I overheard a mother and daughter discussing the police. The two of them had just boarded the train after witnessing an officer stop a young man whom the officer believed didn’t pay the fare. Apparently, the young man had explained to the subway booth attendant that he didn’t have any money, and the attendant took pity on him and let him through. The young man became defensive when the police officer didn’t believe his story.
The mother, a black woman who looked to be in her 50s, was upset about the interaction she witnessed. “As a police officer, you should be out trying to catch people doing murders and robberies, not things like hopping the turnstile,” she kept saying. “I feel like they’re just picking on these kids.” The daughter, also black and probably in her 30s, had a different view: “They’re doing their job. They know enough to know which kids are the ones coming on the train stealing iPhones. Not paying the fare is the beginning of mischief. These kids are bad,” she said.
“These kids are bad” isn’t solely the opinion of that one woman I overheard on the train. And as such it wasn’t surprising to read the findings of this Quinnipiac University poll that shows that 57 percent of black voters support “broken windows” policing. It’s one reason why folks like President Obama and the Rev. Al Sharpton can go before black audiences and, as The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart argues, “air the dirty laundry” of black America and receive rapturous applause. “These kids are bad”—and if we don’t set them straight early on, the thinking goes, they’ll be worse adults. Even given the adversarial (at best) relationship between black folks and the state, many black Americans still view police as part of the solution.
It’s important to note, though, that this particular poll surveyed registered voters. As Kristen West Savali points out at The Root, “Older black people are more likely to be registered voters than younger black people, and in populations most affected by police brutality—low-income, black communities—access to a landline or cellphone is not assured.” She adds: “When reading these results, one also has to take into consideration the disenfranchisement restrictions placed on black voters on parole.” In other words, the people not as likely to face police harassment are the ones who support a crackdown on so-called “quality-of-life” crimes.
Fact is, black people can also be complicit in upholding the system of racism, having internalized the idea of black criminality and inferiority. Consider that during the 1980s, at the dawn of the crack epidemic, the War on Drugs had the support of many black activists. They saw it as a means of cleaning up their neighborhoods; in reality, it was a way of creating a new racial caste system through mass incarceration.
I understand where the impulse comes from. We look around our neighborhoods, witnessing despair and desperately wanting a solution. But the police aren’t it. They are not disciplinarians. They are agents of the state whom we have authorized to use force, often with impunity, against mostly black youth. But when you believe the answer to “these kids are bad” is police intervention, and then don’t take into account what those interactions often entail—harassment and disrespect, sometimes violence—you’re damning those children even further. Instead of pushing for more police intervention, while simultaneously chastising black youth for their behavior (much of which is not, or should not be, criminal), we need to find the political will to invest in the things that actually work. Affordable housing, recreation, education, food security. These are things that will build the type of neighborhoods and communities we want to see.
Even if we were all to concede that “these kids are bad,” more policing won’t make them any better.