Rex Smith: Confronting racism (we'd rather not)

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Twice this week, I’ve been engaged in thoughtful conversations about whether local police are infected by racism. Then a video emerged showing an Albany cop spewing a shocking racial epithet. That put a pretty clear punctuation mark to all the talk.

Here it comes: There’s racism in policing. Period.

No, maybe we need a semicolon or a dash — because this is not a problem only in the ranks of the police, nor is it probably found more frequently among cops than in the broader society. In fact, since police agencies routinely put personnel through training aimed at fighting implicit bias, it might be true that police are less imbued with racism than the rest of us.

And given how starkly race divides our communities, you may see racism among police more often just because there is more interaction between the races when law enforcement is involved. It’s easy to decry racism if you’re a white person who rarely encounters a Black person. Tut, tut.

But it matters more when racism emerges from the thin blue line, in no small part because we have put so much of our society’s well-being into the hands of cops these days. We need them to be better than we are, not just as clueless or callous.

On Thursday, Albany police Chief Eric Hawkins suspended Officer David Haupt without pay after a body camera inadvertently caught Haupt calling Black people “the worst race.” Haupt well understood that his comment was detestable; he had preceded the remark by saying, “I know it sounds terrible to say, but I don’t give a f... what anybody says. I sincerely don’t.”

Fine. Since he (sincerely!) doesn’t care what I say, let’s go with this: The man shouldn’t be a cop. Mayor Kathy Sheehan said she expects Haupt will be fired. You go, Mayor.

But let’s not feel smug, white people, if one dumb cop is drummed out of the department. We ought to know that we share the blame for the ugly reality that his words reflect.

Imagine being black in Albany, white folks — or anywhere else in America, because the divide is visible everywhere.

The median net worth of white households in the United States is about 10 times that of Black households. The poverty rate for Black Americans is more than double that of whites. Black people make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 23 percent of the COVID-19 deaths, which isn’t surprising since a far larger share of Black Americans don’t have health insurance.

Are cops called disproportionately to Black neighborhoods, which is what Haupt was ranting about when he slurred a whole race? Of course. Why do you suppose that is so?

We are all products of our heritage and our environment, and more than a century and a half after slavery ended here, America still hasn’t figured out how to fix its lingering effects. It’s not that descendants of the involuntary immigrants from Africa can’t escape the debilitating disparities that plague their communities; it’s that they’re usually born into circumstances that make such transcendence almost impossible.

My conversations this week came at the request of the newly formed Justice Center of Rensselaer County, which wants to build dialogue between Troy officials and that city’s Black community. The pandemic has made in-person forums impossible, so I moderated a talk with the officials one day and with citizens two days later. You can see both full conversations on the website of the New York State Writers’ Institute.

The gap in their views was striking. While Mayor Patrick Madden thoughtfully laid out many of the ways in which “systemic racism has an effect on lives in this country and in our city,” the notion that racism might affect policing in the city was rejected by Troy’s police chief, Brian Owens.

Perhaps the chief didn’t fully grasp what was being discussed, one of the Black residents later suggested. It’s hard not to recognize that race underlies the disadvantages confronting Black Americans, and that those disadvantages put people in the sights of law enforcement. You may admire a Black woman who works back-to-back eight-hour shifts to put food on the table, but then you can’t be surprised if her kid who grew up without enough supervision runs afoul of the law.

Luz Marquez-Benbow, an organizer of the massive rally for Black lives in Troy in June, noted that police racism exists alongside racial gaps in education, health care, housing and other sectors — a system of racism, that is — and that police are “protectors of that system.”

Madden argues that we have come to rely too heavily on police — and, I would add, on the schools — to solve problems that are too hard to confront more directly, like mental illness, drug addiction and handgun availability. “It all becomes a police problem,” he said.

Which makes it all the more essential that cops confront racism as a driving force in their work, no less than it is in so much of the rest of our society, and that we unite to change the conditions in which it thrives.