Statistics like that one, coupled with a largely unsavory urban black culture (not to mention what passes in some circles for black leadership), predisposes many of us to assume the worst about all blacks — or, at the very least, to be sympathetic to law enforcement officers in their dealings with black suspects.
And, as a result, many white Americans tend to be wary of claims that black Americans are unfairly singled out by police for arrest, mistreated and even killed without justification.
So when, in 2013, George Zimmerman, a volunteer with a local “Neighborhood Watch” in Sanford, Florida, was acquitted by a jury of shooting to death Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth whom Mr. Zimmerman was following (against orders from a dispatcher to not do so) and with whom he got into an altercation, many of us felt that the volunteer’s claim that he killed the youth in self-defense was plausible, if not probable. The subsequent protests over the killing were regarded by many as an indefensible rush to judgment.
And last year, when Eric Garner, who was illegally selling individual cigarettes on a Staten Island street corner, died after being put in a chokehold by police, it seemed self-evident that the overweight and asthmatic black man’s death was unfortunate but didn’t negatively reflect on the officer who applied the chokehold and who ignored Mr. Garner’s 11 wheezy pleas that “I can’t breathe.” When a grand jury declined to indict the officer, that judgment seemed vindicated.
It was also last year that a grand jury elected to not indict Ferguson, Missouri policeman Darren Wilson, for killing Michael Brown — a black youth — in the line of duty; and the U.S. Justice Department declined to prosecute the officer for a civil rights violation. There were widespread protests over that killing, but also a widespread sense that the reaction then, too, had been misguided, and the protesters’ claims of police racism unjustified.
Then, though, came the blatantly racist emails exchanged by various Ferguson court and police employees, which led the Justice Department to assert “a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct within the Ferguson Police Department that violates the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law.” Mr. Wilson was not personally implicated in that ugliness, but the culture of bias clearly existed.
And now we are confronted with the case of Walter Scott, the 50-year-old unarmed black man stopped by a North Charleston, South Carolina police officer for driving with a broken taillight. Mr. Scott was shot in the back and killed when he fled (presumably, according to reports, because he feared being taken into custody over missed child support payments).
Of all the recent cases, this is the only one where we needn’t — indeed, cannot — rely for judgment on either our preconceptions or anyone’s word. A bystander’s cellphone video of the incident shows the policeman, Michael Slager, aiming and shooting at Mr. Scott’s back multiple times.
And there’s audio, too, of Mr. Slager telling someone, presumably his wife, that he had killed somebody who had “grabbed my Taser” — the stun gun used to subdue people engaged in violence or resisting arrest. In the video, the policeman is seen calmly taking something from his patrol car, walking over to the man he had just shot to death and dropping the object near his body.
Mr. Slager is charged with murder.
There are, I think, two takeaways from the most recent story. One is something the alleged murderer discovered in a this-worldly way but that believing Jews know well in a more profound one: “There is an eye that sees and an ear that hears” — and, of course, “all your deeds are recorded. …” (Avos 2:1).
The other is that, while it’s only human to harbor preconceptions, it’s important to realize that presumptions can be wrong, and to recognize that racial prejudice, like religious prejudice, exists, and can lead to terrible things. Yes, most police are upstanding public servants who would never mistreat any citizen. But by the same token, most blacks are law-abiding citizens. There are black criminals, to be sure; but there are also trigger-happy racist cops.
And if any group should be rightly disturbed by the specter of innocent people being killed by armed authorities, it should be one that has been victimized by hatred and violence over most of recorded history.