The killing of Michael Brown, a teenager whose alleged shoplifting earned him two bullets in the head and four in his body, is not only a tragedy but an opener of some of our nation’s oldest wounds. Again in America, police have gunned down an unarmed black teenager. Again, a community has responded with justified outrage. Again, law enforcement has responded abysmally, opting to protect their own rather than address larger civic problems. Again, media discussion has turned a complex issue into a formulaic face-off between cops and protesters. Worst of all, it appears that again in America, we feel like there is no way of changing any of this. And while implementing change is long, arduous, and complex, actual solutions are often quite simple. The solution to not just Ferguson’s, but America’s, profiling problems can be summed up with one word—diversity.
Diversity means far more than affirmative action, equal pay for equal work, or mandated integration of schools can ever sum up. True diversity is to successfully have people from different backgrounds interacting with one another on a variety of fronts, especially in public institutions. Diversity has also gotten something of a bad name in recent years, often being attributed to elitist, PC liberal preaching about societal woes. Worse yet, association with the civil rights movement makes the term feel dated, or even irrelevant, which leads to acts of idiocy such as court-supported affirmative action bans on the grounds that racism is over.
Why talk about diversity at a time like this? Because the lack of it is exactly what leads to these kinds of police shootings. According to 2010 U.S. census data, Ferguson, Mo. has a population of just over 21,000 people. Even though 14,000 of those people (2/3 of the city) are black, 50 of Ferguson’s 53-officer police force are white. Ferguson’s white community is also very segregated from the black community. As outraged as many feel by the insanely disproportionate amounts of arrests, shootings, and incarcerations of black men, we can hardly be surprised by such data when white men make up the majority of police forces and even city governments not just in one Missouri town, but all over the country.
Like McDonalds, it’s the same every time
No matter your background, everyone’s views are vulnerable to bias. Whenever you’re in a group of people with similar backgrounds to your own, you’re likely to share many of the same biases with that group. This can lead to a lot of understanding of one another, but it also leads to the amplification of everyone’s shared blind spots. White police officers that grew up in white neighborhoods are going to have less sympathy and a poorer situational judgment of black people from black neighborhoods than a black police officer would. A well-meaning white police officer who is unaware of his or her own bias may very authentically believe their life is in danger when it is not and pull out their gun at the wrong time. They could also truly value people of other races less than whites. Both are possible. Regardless of motive, however, white cops that work almost exclusively with other white cops aren’t only not exposed to a diversity of views, but will also feel far less accountability for race-based police brutality than they would in a racially diverse peer group.
The issue also goes well beyond just police. Lack of diversity in institutions is what allowed Nazi Germany to carry out the Holocaust. The institutionalized cover ups of sexual abuse in male-dominated groups ranging from sports teams to Catholic clergy come from a lack of accountability due to a lack of diversity. Congress’ failures to represent the concerns of the United States population today are largely a diversity problem. Most of them are white male millionaires over the age of 50. Too many are far more in touch with their own careers than the needs of their constituents. It’s also not only white men who are to blame for bias. Many studies have argued that part of why American men academically underperform compared to women is due to the majority of K-12 teachers in the U.S. being female. Given that men drop out of school far more often than women, that’s something serious to look at. One study at Stanford even found that among middle schoolers, students performed better overall when they had the same gender as their teacher. Since K-12 teaching is overwhelmingly a female profession (less than 20% of elementary and middle school teachers are male) the absence of men in the teaching workforce could lead to more male dropouts in the same way that the absence of black people in Ferguson’s police force ups the likelihood of young black men getting harassed, arrested, or shot.
When institutions that serve the needs of many fail to be diverse, we all suffer for it. Prejudices felt by certain individuals can unintentionally or very intentionally inhibit the well being of those who are different from them. Additionally, they can reinforce the negative choices of those with more malicious feelings. But when institutions are diverse and accurately reflect the makeup of whom they serve, the needs of everyone are far more likely to be met.
Demonstrations in Ferguson make it very clear that police in that community have not only failed to serve the needs of most of their population, but indeed are still doing it harm. They have trained their police to seek out and discriminate against the largest racial group in the city, thinking that this will somehow make the pocket of Ferguson that is white safer. That logic has failed. Until public services such as police make serious efforts to reflect the demography of their citizens, Michael Brown will be far from the last teenager to be needlessly shot.