Big city news this week is that ahead of an upcoming Father’s Day march that will likely be the largest public gathering against stop-and-frisk to date, mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the NYPD’s policy this past Sunday at a Brooklyn church. For non-NYC readers, data drives the criticism. Last year’s numbers showing the gap between all stops and guilty stops reflect a decade of growing concern: of roughly 700,000 stops in mainly black and Latino neighborhoods, 90 percent were innocent. I’ve been covering stop and frisk since last fall and while Bloomberg’s address was the news hook, a more inconspicuous quote–one typical of how race talk can undermine both the pro and con stop and frisk positions–caught my eye. The church’s pastor, pointing out that it is wrong that so many of those stopped are black, says,
“We’re not the only ones carrying guns.”
That’s a curious construction, “we,” as I’m willing to bet that 90-year-old Bishop A.D. Lyons’ weapon of choice is a Bible, not a Glock.
Race language, always a funny thing, has become funnier in this new century. The old, packaged ways of talking about the group frequently crash into the in-flux and flexible way that’s required by our time and the results ain’t pretty.
To wit, the dear pastor probably means to identify himself with his community and vice versa; it’s an old and by now, subconscious cultural off-hand most popularly recognized in the routines of, for example, Jewish, black or Latino comedians. But in this century and particularly among the under-45 crowd, significant intra-group differences like increased class stratification and immigration have made it more acceptable for us to consciously re-evaluate who ‘we’ is.
From the perspective of a generation that increasingly parses the meaning of ‘we,’ Lyons’ once innocent race talk is, now, not. He ends up either suggesting that all urban blacks carry guns or identifying himself as belonging to the criminal element within his Brooklyn community. The latter is absurd of course but the former may undermine the pastor’s position. His language shares a womb with the same logic on which the stop-and-frisk policy, as implemented over the last decade and in the absence of evidence proving otherwise, is based.
If you live in a high crime zip code and you are black and male then you are a criminal. Even if you’re not a criminal, being black, male and living in a high crime zip code sufficiently justifies your being policed like a criminal.** The NYPD’s ‘they,’—like Pastor Lyons’ ‘we’—are all criminals.
Which brings me to the practice-what-you-preach question inspired by Bishop Lyons: can you successfully argue for police to make distinctions within the group when you do not? When your own words teach that it is okay to freely and uncritically interchange “we” for “I”? Words count. This battle is as much a public relations campaign in the court of public opinion as it is a court fight. In fact, the argument can be made that court battles matter relatively little when it comes to de facto policing; street stops increased exponentially following the post-Amadou Diallo legal concessions that forced NYPD to publicly release stop data in the first place.
I don’t know the answer the practice-what-you-preach question. I do think however, that some race talk is a holdover from another era and other social realities and in this time, it may retard progress on inequalities in urban development, healthcare, criminal justice, etc. Just a theory. I’m still working out the detes.
** Supporters of stop and frisk, as currently practiced, can argue against my interpretation. But a strong argument can be made that by not erecting effective checks to policing influenced by said logic, the policy tacitly allows for abuses to occur.