Step one is to identify racism in individuals before it manifests itself in physical violence. We have the technology. Body cams are out there recording conversations (all that’s missing is a “switch it on to enable pay-checks” directive). We can rank the aggressiveness of these conversations, and track them over time, to see how an officer is interacting with the public. As bias creeps in (and there’s good reason to think it’s a process, not a static characteristic of an individual) alarm bells will go off.
If you’re thinking the difference would be too subtle, you are wrong. A machine learning algorithm was able to listen in on cops’ conversations and correctly identify if they were talking to a black person — based purely on the extent of their (im)politeness — two thirds of the time. Source.
So we’ve got the body cam recordings, we’ve got the machine learning know-how to transcribe them to text, and feed them to another machine learning algorithm. (To get really advanced, we would bypass the ‘text’ part. As my mother always said, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. That is, feed the audio directly into a machine learning algorithm to have it rate the interaction in terms of politeness, formality, friendliness, etc.)
With any luck, the Derek Chauvin’s of the world would stand out like dog’s balls on a dashboard somewhere. We would sit them down for a chat and say hey buddy, how you doin’? Have you considered a career in deep sea fishing?
So, that’s a short-term solution ready to go. Someone go do that.
There’s a long term solution too, but it’s difficult to discuss, because I need to make two leaps, and the first one sounds pretty racist (because it’s exactly what a racist would say). Here we go, bear with me:
- There would be less police racism against black people if fewer black people committed crimes
- Black people would commit fewer crimes if they were presented with equal opportunity from birth
I think it’s important to lay out this ugly truth, since avoiding it means potentially fixing the wrong problem. Let me be super clear though, I think the following two sentiments are similar-sounding but entirely different: “black people commit more crime … because they’re black … so it’s their fault … they need to change” (what the racists say) and “black people commit more crime … because of socioeconomic factors … that we must understand and rectify”.
(I’ll get to the potential fallacy of the underlying assumption in a bit.)
Humans are machines, we have programs that run in our heads. One of the programs is a generalising mechanism. We take the properties of individuals, and if we see it often enough we apply it to the whole group (we decide what group the individual belongs to). So if we see a new snake we’ve never seen before, we don’t try and pat it, because snakey bitey. It’s built in to all of us; what varies is the vigour with which we resist it.
And resist it we should, because for any individual human being that you meet, there is an overwhelming chance that they are not a criminal. Almost all white people aren’t criminals. Almost all black people aren’t criminals. Almost all Asians aren’t criminals. Almost all men aren’t criminals. Almost all women aren’t criminals.
This generalising mechanism doesn’t make sense when a tiny subset of the group exhibit the property, but we do it anyway.
We’re on our way to a world without racism, in this I have hope. We’ve come a long way in the last 500 years, I think another few hundred and we’ll be sorted. But right now, we’re in a transition period. ‘Official’ racism is a thing of the past. The absence of racism is in our future. But the levels of education, income, and opportunity are lower in those who still bear the scars of slavery a handful of generations ago.
So what if the arguably-true statement “black people commit more crime” is really “poor people commit more crime” in disguise, and the reason for the correlation between race and crime is the area that requires our attention? But the cop who hears over the radio “be on the lookout, black male, blah blah” ten times a day isn’t thinking “here we go, yet another socioeconomically underprivileged person”. They’re thinking “yet another black dude”, because that’s what our minds are wired to do.
So this long term fix of which I speak? Fix the inequality that exists in society.
How dull. Where’s the instant gratification?
To do this, we must accept the biological fact that all human brains like to generalise; to take individual traits and assign them to groups, and this is unlikely to change (demonstrators poking at the sky with signs sporting “all cops are bad” wincingly demonstrate the point). So we can and should build systems that set off alarm bells when this is happening to a measurable extent, and we can and should design processes that take race out of the equation, but these things won’t change our tendency to generalise.
Side note: I said ‘arguably-true’ above to refer to a correlation between race and crime. There are no solid, indisputable stats on this, because the stats are gathered by a system that is quite possibly racist, and support different conclusions from country to country, city to city, and interpreter to interpreter. The number of people in jail is a function of crimes committed and legal system bias. (There are studies showing that your sentence can be affected not only by whether or not you’re black, but how black you are. That’s fucked up. Also, it can be affected by how hungry the judge is. These are highly educated, highly paid people making these decisions and they’re doling out higher sentences for cooler looking skin? I think 50 years from now we’ll look back and say “wait, they used to have the defendant in the courtroom so the judge could look at them back in 2020? Did they not understand unconscious bias?”)
I see the end of racism coming about like mould growing in a petri dish (where the mould is the absence of racism). Right now there are pockets of it. A certain group of people at work, a family, a circle of friends at a university, maybe even a single police precinct. Areas that are aware of racism, aware of unconscious bias, cautious not to attribute behaviours shaped by socioeconomic circumstances to the biology of an ethnic group. These blobs of non-racism (I’m glad we don’t have a word for it) will grow until the spaces between them are the exception, the thing that stands out. They will be squeezed out of existence.
It won’t happen in our lifetimes, that much seems clear, all we can do is keep squeezing out the racism from our ever-growing blobs of non-racism.
OK so, we need to fix the socioeconomic/ethnic equilibrium. This train of thought doesn’t travel far down the tracks before one must ask the question: “are we saying there should be a more representative racial distribution within the category of poor people?”. Which kinda gets you thinking, maybe a good idea would be to do away with poverty entirely. The countries that lost interest in playing with their army toys and instead spend their time and taxes on The People seem to be doing pretty well.
So maybe the long, long term solution has nothing to do with race at all. Maybe having a country where everyone has equal access to education, a job, and the opportunity to be happy and healthy will be a country with so little crime that the police officers never view anyone as a ‘potential threat’ because criminality is an anomaly, not a property to be attributed to a group.