Want to Make a Terrible Argument? Consider Publishing this Instead

For the past few years, I have talked about the nature of policing and our relationship to it amongst my circle of friends. My friends, mostly progressive, ask me if there’s anything we can do to help solve some of the serious problems that exist in policing, even though only one of us is Black and has real-life lived experiences with police violence and racism. Our discussions are enough to qualify me as an Expert on this topic, and today, young people all over the country are asking the same questions as we did, and I feel that I am a Qualified Expert to write about this topic.

Here’s the answer I think is the right one for the country: Consider becoming a police officer.

To many reasonable people, the suggestion to join the police force may be counterintuitive, even offensive. After all, based on what you’ve seen, read, and experienced firsthand, policing is a racist and oppressive institution, so how could I ask you to ignore all that? Simple: I will ignore that argument or my complicity in a society that created and persisted this system of policing, and instead turn it around and somehow make it your fault even though these problems began before you were born.

One of the main challenges when it comes to controlling the police is that police officers are granted a great deal of discretion. Instead of engaging with the question of whether such an institution should exist in our society, I will support the premise that we should live among and continue to fund an unaccountable, violent arm of government. The police deal with many varying and ambiguous situations, which is why we need to continue to live in a country where armed officers (given limited training that almost always focuses on responding with violence) are the only tool available to our emergency dispatchers to deal with all and any scenario. Officers, like any citizen, must follow applicable laws and policies, and I will make no mention of the fact that officers do not follow such laws and policies, and not only remain unpunished, but remain as police officers; for it does not support my point that The Police is a Fundamentally Good Institution.

I will lay the blame for systemic police violence and brutality as a matter of individual “judgment that isn’t good,” because that is most definitely very different from the A Few Bad Apples argument that has been made and countered for decades. I will give no links or external evidence to support my viewpoints. It’s common sense.

Yet this unaccountable and ungoverned system of violence is also an opportunity that somehow we have not realized after the 1960s police riots: We could reform the police by adding more Good People, like how you can cover up spilling poison in your cooking by adding more good-tasting spices! (Years ago, I added paprika to the poison I was feeding others, and I will include this as a fun side note and gloss over the relevant circumstances of why I was feeding poison to others and why I stopped.)

A new generation of Good Cops would still be vulnerable to the same problems that have plagued new police officers for decades, but there’s a glimmer of hope. I will ignore everything like the chain of command, how senior officers can use their positions of power to deny raises, harass “problem” junior officers, prevent promotions, or drumbeat Good Cops out of the force; because by the power of my hand-waving, all problems with institutional power will go away. I will believe that Good Cops will call out their fellow officers and can reform the force, which is why we’ve never had to implement whistleblower programs, because of course the Bad Cops will want to be called out and corrected by their juniors! I will write that these Good Cops can use their discretion (within limits!) to arrest serious offenders, despite that nobody arrested by the police is an offender as we are all innocent until convicted by a competent tribunal, and that individual junior police officers have no discretion over what tasks they are ordered to do and refusing is grounds for dismissal.

Furthermore, I will continue to make arguments predicated on the eventual turnover of Bad Cops to Good Cops, agai ignoring the question in society about whether we should even have an unaccountable violent arm of government, and also being okay with continuing the suffering and deaths of people of color — especially Black people — by police officers until this turnover is complete.

It is not until later that I will even acknowledge evidence that invalidates my earlier points, and even then I will argue that there are “reasons to be more optimistic,” because while the arguments against my points are damning and conclusive, I will find some studies that do support my position and shroud them with the optimistic language of possibilities such as “suggests,” “may,” and “encouraging” as if these are somehow strong enough to counteract more conclusive arguments.

I’m not saying you have to be a good writer to write well. While conducting research on what good opinion looks like, I’ve come to know many writers who are things that aren’t relevant to the job, like some of them prefer dogs more than cats and some of them can wiggle each of their toes independently of the others. My point is that we should derail the conversation about whether the people should exercise their right to alter or abolish the police as an institution of government and provide new guards for their future security, because that is most certainly a meaningful contribution to the democratic conversation.

Americans are now facing one of the most difficult labor markets in generations, which is why we should not defund police forces and spend society’s resources on alternative things for the public good, like housing, food, healthcare and a social safety net. If you’re a young person who cares about social justice and are willing to put your body on the line for it, you should wait your turn until you get your say in how our society should be run — or better yet, work with the people casually killing people like you. Letting more people die from police brutality might just be the right thing to do.

Leo Ji is an expert on race affairs by having lived as a non-white person for over two decades.

This is a response to “Opinion | Want to Abolish the Police? Consider Becoming an Officer Instead” by Neil Gross, published in The New York Times on July 13, 2020.

The image attached to this post is the same as used by The Times in its original article, and is creditable to Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis, via Getty Images.

Whiteness as default

I’m guessing that a two-minute video produced a student homecoming committee was not meant to appear in The New York Times in this way. And yet, in 2020, here we are again: Still discussing race as it exists in America, and grappling with the realities of our racial condition from one decade to the next.

This isn’t a criticism of the University of Wisconsin or of its actions, simply because I believe that the there’s little left to be said and other people are saying it better than I can. I do believe that everybody involved in the situation had good intentions and acknowledge that missing out all the people of color from a university video celebrating the campus is a terrible, bad, and inaccurate thing to do. (As one commenter on YouTube pointed out, it’s like creating a documentary about D-Day and only including the Canadians.)

Instead, I’m discussing two observations we can draw from the video: First, nobody noticed the whiteness and thought it was a problem until after the video was published and students of color noticed and complained. Second, the university’s follow-up video was a feature on students of color and their achievements on the university.

Nobody noticed it was so white

That the video was published only featuring white students means we can reasonably conclude that nobody thought this was a serious enough problem during the video’s editing and production. (The Times article notes that Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black sorority, had been filmed; they simply weren’t included in the final cut.)

It signifies the unfortunate reality of race in America: Whiteness is seen as the default and standard, for the presence of an all-white group of people of any kind does not arise any suspicions or signify any alarm bells.

We would probably not say the same if the video — or theatre casting, or stage performance, or any other media production — were all Black, all Latinx, all Asian American, all South Asian or, more expansively, all people of color; nor would we probably be so insensitive if the characters featured were all visibly masculine or feminine.

This is a sign of the white supremacy that race theorists describe in the United States. White people are not a racial category in and of itself, but rather the default category from where the “other” races are drawn. An all-white video for homecoming arises no suspicions at all. Whiteness is the null value for race in the United States.

The burden of correcting white people’s mistakes… again disproportionally falls upon people of color

When the problems were finally identified and students of color began to speak up, the university’s response was a series of statements acknowledging and apologizing and promising to improve, as well as a video of students of color each stating their achievements and aspirations at the university.

It is difficult to watch because it is such a painful and poignant reminder that the mistakes of white people on race become obligations placed upon people of color. It necessarily becomes the work of people of color: to actually fix these problems, and to resolve the guilt of the white people who committed the source mistakes so that they can get to problem solving.

Neither are ideal or acceptable, but are necessarily evils that many people of color face every day just to move on with their lives. These students are, as the video insists, doctors and researchers and practitioners and musicians and artists and more. But their very presence and the video’s very existence also belies the contradiction and their unalterable identity: They are people of color and they are there, stating their name and work, because we have to continually make the case for our own existence.

We can never be just scholars. We can never be just Badgers, or just Wildcats, or just Americans. We will always be that, and more.