Truthiness, that wonderful concept Stephen Colbert introduced to us. It’s when something has the feel of truth to it, even if it’s not quite true. Heck, it’s almost as if it is true. Almost.
So it is with police violence. It MUST be just “a few bad apples.” Or must it?
Call me obtuse, but I’m not buying it. If we’re so sure it’s just a few bad apples, why is systemic corruption in police departments so ingrained in our popular culture? How many dozen movie plots are based on one or a few good cops facing long odds in a fight against a corrupt police department? Funny, I’ve never heard anyone say about such a movie “Oh that’s ridiculous. Police departments can’t get corrupted like that.”
And those cop corruption movies are not entirely fictional. Remember Serpico, the circa 1973 thriller about an idealistic cop who wages a one man fight against corruption in the NYPD, and nearly pays with his life? That was based on the story of Frank Serpico, a real-life cop who was left by his fellow officers to die from a gunshot wound.
Sorry, but there’s a complete contradiction here. A society that readily accepts systemic police corruption as the premise for books, television shows and movies doesn’t really believe police violence is about just a few bad apples.
2015 is barely half over, but already over 600 have died at the hands of police in America.
Would you be willing to bet that when Joe Arpaio has been in hiring mode over the last 20+ years, he has stayed away from the bad apples? Not me. I’d bet that he’s stayed away from the good ones.
Why is it that all those good apples don’t do more about the bad apples? Or do they, and it’s just kept a secret from us? It’s funny, though, I’ve not heard of any cases where a good apple went after a bad one for a violent act against a Black kid. Or testified against one. Or lifted a finger to stop one in the act.
Another disconnect: I’m reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. Like his parents before him, he lives under the assumption that the police who are supposed to be there to ensure his son’s safety are far more likely to kill him. Every Black writer I’ve read and every Black acquaintance I’ve asked has the same outlook. That universal feeling could not develop if it’s just a few bad apples. So, are they all delusional? Are they all liars?
If it’s so clear that we’re only dealing with a few bad apples, why hasn’t anyone called BS on all the Black commentators for what would have to be a fiction? Here’s why: Because Black fear of police violence isn’t about truthiness, it’s about real, hard truth, and everyone gets that. We all know Black fear of police is both real and rational. So, even those who purport to believe in the few bad apples theory know better, consciously or sub-consciously, than to confront the direct contradiction between what’s become part of the fabric of Black America and a theory that falls apart once subjected to logical scrutiny.
The reality here is that the few bad apples theory is about political expedience and nothing more. Truthiness is a matter of convenience. If cop violence is just about a few bad apples, it’s not the same problem as it would be if it’s the face of institutional racism.
I asked a Black acquaintance about the “few bad apples” theory. In his mind, the police who are considered bad apples largely are acting out a policy desired by the greater community that hired them. He cites as an example the Texas pool incident from a month or so ago. In order to keep an undesired element (Blacks) out of high-income white neighborhoods, police use traffic stops for such things as broken tail lights aggressively. Thus, he rejected the bad apple theory entirely, instead attributing cop violence towards Blacks to the reality of longstanding inequality and officers hired to maintain a physical separation of races.
Is my acquaintance’s theory correct? I can’t say, but I can say this: It’s a heck of a lot more plausible than the few bad apples theory. But in a society dominated by whites who don’t want to see a racist when they look in the mirror, his theory utterly lacks truthiness.
Which may just mean he’s right.