In the summer of 2020, while standing in the fervent energy of a sea of protestors, I felt the demand for long-overdue change in our country. Masked people of a diverse set of ages and colors, chanted in unison, “Black lives matter,” “Defund the police,” and “No good cops in a racist system.”
This third chant made me pause: “No good cops in a racist system!” Really, there are no good cops? After all, I grew up in an affluent city in California where police were beacons of control and order within our community. Furthermore, there are many officers who are people of color, and this blanket condemnation felt inappropriate. My understanding of police brutality in America had always hinged on the “bad apple” narrative, the thought that the majority of police are good and unbiased and it is the evil few who harbor lethal racism.
But that is not the truth, in fact, the reality is scarier, more widespread, and systemic. We have seen this in the consistent and disproportionate number of black lives taken every year at the hands of police.
This “bad apple” narrative is not only false, but also diminishes blame on the overarching systems in place that allows for, and was built upon, the oppression and control of black people. So instead we must look at it from another view; Critical Race Theory. Developed in the 1970s in the wake of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Critical Race Theory introduced theoretical foundations rooted in critical legal studies to focus on race against power and law through the lens of marginalized groups.
The first basic tenet of Critical Race Theory is that racism is normal in America and that laws that take a “color blind” approach do not fix meaningful, casual racism. The second tenet is that racism is the status quo, but it is the goal or critical race theorist to challenge this and create a better reality.
Through Critical Race Theory, it becomes apparent what radical changes must be made. It points to the underlying systems in place that hold and abuse power. In Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, she identifies how deviances in the United States have been defined and policed all within a system that is rooted in fundamental racism. Therefore, what the chant truly means is that no matter how well-intended any law enforcement officer may be, institutionalized racism goes above and beyond any individual. In order to obtain real change, we need to focus on altering our criminal justice system as a whole. This includes law enforcement, radical legal reform, and rethinking the United States’ toxic prison system.
Police accountability is an important step, this constitutes external police oversight and the implementation of internal checks and balances. There is also a dire need to reform policing practices, such as ending excessive patrolling in neighborhoods deemed to be at a “higher risk” for committing a crime. Also instituting more effective training to prevent excessive force and putting bans on dangerous physical constraining methods such as chokeholds and spit hood. Furthermore, defunding police and reallocating that money towards counseling resources, substance abuse centers, affordable housing, job training, and education is a crucial step.