I respect the Black activists who have suffered from police abuse and protest against it. I respect the Black and white activists and all people of color who are working to reform policing nationwide, which suffers from systemic racism. I agree with Alisa Robinson that “people of color deserve respectful coverage” in Wednesday Journal.
In general, I think people of color do receive respectful coverage in Wednesday Journal. We’ve had our slip-ups, of course, some more notorious than others (including last year’s “terrorist image” letter in Viewpoints). We can do better. Mostly, I can do better. I agree I could have been more respectful in my Feb. 10 column, “To defund or not to defund?” which Ms. Robinson criticized in a One View in last week’s Viewpoints.
I used the term “brainiacs” to criticize those who came up with the slogan “defund the police,” which I described as “the worst slogan in the history of slogans.” She said this was aimed at “the Black activists who popularized the term.” The movement, in my mind, is a progressive movement, quite diverse. I don’t know who invented the term. I do, by the way, think Black Lives Matter is one of the best slogans in the history of slogans.
What I wrote was “The brainiacs who came up with this connivance [i.e. the Oak Park referendum on defunding the police, started by those who oppose it] are the flip side of the brainiacs who came up with ‘defund the police’.” I was criticizing both. But I should have been more sensitive to the impact on my Black readers and that was an oversight.
Ms. Robinson also objected to using the word “pressure” as a cause for police melting down and committing crimes in the line of duty. “That’s not a ‘pressure’ problem,” she writes, “that’s a racism problem.” I think it’s a pressure and a racism problem.
Which is why I wrote: “We can make policing better by making it better for everyone — in particular unarmed Black men and women. But also for police officers, who obviously are under way too much pressure and melting down dramatically — and homicidally — and doing completely inexplicable and inhumane things under all that pressure. Meltdown cops are the canaries in the mine shaft. They are telling us something is terribly wrong, not just with isolated cops, but with the system itself. That system needs to be thoroughly re-examined, repaired, reformed and reinvented.” If we want real change, we have to persuade those who defend the status quo, not just condemn them. That requires a fuller, deeper understanding of the problem.
Later in the column, I suggested wording for an alternative Oak Park referendum, emphasizing racism:
“Shall we, as a community, in partnership with the police department, explore ways to reform and reinvent policing that roots out systemic racism where it exists; improves training to make law enforcement more efficient, effective, equitable and humane; and gives police greater access to resources that benefit both officers and the people with whom they come in contact?”
That’s a more complete summary of our current predicament and a more complete characterization of that particular column.
Ms. Robinson did offer some constructive criticism, which is a rarity these days. She suggested I could more sensitively have written, “I respect that ‘defund the police’ may be a reflection of experiences with police abuse that the Black activists who popularized the term have had, but I do not believe that the term will garner support for police reform in Oak Park.” Her ability to reframe the argument in that way taught me a lesson. I’m grateful.
My principal shortcoming in the February column is that my irritation with the term “defund” made me sound like I was preaching “down” to Black readers, which made them feel disrespected. I’m sorry about that. I also regret that it distracted from the real message of my column.
But the real message of Ms. Robinson’s letter bears repeating: People of color deserve respectful coverage.
I’m sorry I was insensitive to the black activists who have suffered from police abuse and protest against it, and all those who are working to reform policing nationwide, which suffers from systemic racism.
I have plenty of racial insensitivity within. I am trying to eliminate that in myself. I make plenty of mistakes and will make plenty more, but I will keep trying.
And I appreciate the feedback.