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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Talk

After the police shootings of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice (and the litany of other African American men and boys and girls too), white folks began to discover that the parents of African American boys gave their sons “the talk” (the literature is primarily about boys, though it should be about girls too). “The talk” instructs young black men how to behave if confronted by a police officer: do not run; do not make eye contact; be polite; keep your hands in plain view; no sudden movements, and so on.

But what happens if this advice—the advice to be passive and deferential—is not simply disenfranchising; is not even useless, but is actually dangerous? What if the advice accepts the loss of rights that white citizens enjoy when confronted by the police; if it makes no difference to the police what people do if the officer has decided to engage in an investigatory stop; and if the officer is trained to look for “body language” signs indicative of guilt, many of which are exactly the signs of angry passivity that African Americans are likely to display when they know they are being subjected to an investigatory stop and at the same time try to behave in a deferential way?

The talk is disenfranchising precisely because of the passivity it preaches. For the most part, we have the right to ignore the police and “go about our business.” Only if the police have some articulable reason to suspect that we might be engaged in criminal activity may they interfere with us. And even if they can interfere, the scope of their interference is generally limited. Having stopped us for a traffic offense, the officer cannot search the car for without our permission unless she has some level of suspicion that drugs could be found in the car; having issued the citation, the officer cannot extend the search if the civilian declines to consent; and having posed questions to the suspect, the officer cannot force him to speak should he assert his right to silence. All these rights to refuse to comply are denied by “the talk” which preaches respectful compliance with the police.

More fundamentally, for many people, their primary objective is to avoid the police. And the reason to avoid the police is that the defense mechanisms preached by the talk do not matter if the police have decided to engage in an investigatory encounter. The difference between investigatory and other encounters was first articulated in Terry v. Ohio and the two other stop-and-frisk cases decided the same day, Sibron and Peters. All three cases recognize that the sort of aggressive investigatory use of stops and frisks can be used as an instrument of domination. More fundamentally, Charles Epp and his co-authors have revealed that at least one police department deliberate plans to engage in separate types of traffic stop, one for safety, another investigatory, and targets minorities for investigatory stops. If the police have already prejudged the scope of their search, there is little the subjects of the search can do (or, more to the point, feel they can do.) The talk is useless for avoiding the harms inflicted by investigatory encounters. The only real solution is avoidance.

Worse, even if the police have not prejudged the type of search, certain forms of deferential behavior may convince a police officer that the suspect is dissimulating. Richard Leo has described the police interrogation as a two-step process, in which the first step is directed towards the suspect’s body language, to determine whether they are telling the truth; and if the officer perceives the offender is lying, the second step is geared towards getting the offender to comply and cooperate by confessing to the crime. One feature Leo identifies as indicating guilt during the first stage is a failure to maintain eye-contact: precisely the sort of deferential conduct promoted by “the talk.” Deference may appear evasive, especially if it is accompanied by barely concealed frustration at having to undergo a discriminatory, investigatory stop.

All this is to recognize the truth in Ta-Nehesi Coates’ claim that “Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me 131 (2015). It is particularly true for African Americans, guilty or innocent, and even those of us who are best drilled in deference and compliance—in giving up our standing as an equal citizen in order to avoid the brute force of policing—may simply confirm the worst suspicions of the investigating officer.

Posted by Eric Miller on February 25, 2016 at 03:49 AM | Permalink


Paul, I'll freely admit that there are differences in degree, although the exact measure of that degree is always going to be a question of anecdote. But the original post presented it as a categorical difference.

Posted by: RandomYak | Feb 28, 2016 4:58:34 PM

Paul, I'll freely admit that there are differences in degree, although the exact measure of that degree is always going to be a question of anecdote. But the original post presented it as a categorical difference.

Posted by: RandomYak | Feb 28, 2016 4:58:25 PM

RandomYak, black kids are told to be EXTRA deferential, because black parents, unlike white parents, are genuinely afraid that if their kids aren't obsequious they'll end up dead.

And black kids have to act out that obsequiousness lots more often than white kids. Because, you know, stopped all the damn time.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Feb 25, 2016 8:57:53 PM

Not to be too much of a radical, but the American police, today, are equal to the British redcoats and what the founders feared a standing army would become: a powerful occupying force that citizens are unable to control.

Now, before people say there are good police officers, let me say I believe they're right. Just like I believe there were a lot of redcoats who would've been great guys to sit down and have a beer with. And I'll bet that the majority of redcoats were conscientious when carrying out their duties (like most of the police).

Both of those points, though, are beside the point. It's not about what individual officers do. It's about what the institution they are perpetuating has become. Regardless how great a guys the redcoats may have been, their *institution* (the British army) was an occupying and oppressive force. The same has become true for American police.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Feb 25, 2016 6:12:31 PM

Cloaked by anonymity, a comment.

I'm a white person. I also got a talk about dealing with the police as a kid. It was that they're there to help you but you should always be polite and nonconfrontational with them.

Yes, there is systemic racism and police assumptions about black male criminality (and also actual black male criminality). But really...I think all kids are told to be polite and deferential and nonconfrontational with the police. And frankly, the thought of being anything but was completely alien to us. That doesn't mean that society is cured of systemic racism or that all police officers are angels, but I think this post suffers from both misguided premises and misguided policy goals.

Posted by: RandomYak | Feb 25, 2016 4:49:43 PM

I take it that the point of "the talk" is to keep your kid alive *and* out of jail: to avoid both the physical *and* normative power of the police; to minimize the length and legal consequences of contact with the police. African Americans face a Hobson's choice: court violence or create suspicion. This is an insupportable feature of policing and citizenship.

Posted by: Eric Miller | Feb 25, 2016 1:28:51 PM

I had a reaction similar to Paul's. The point of the talk is to try to keep your child alive. And one reason that giving it is so heartbreaking is that parents understand perfectly well that having to behave this way to stay alive is disenfranchising and harmful. It is not the lessons of "the talk" that denies young black men the supposed right "to ignore the police and 'go about our business.'"

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Feb 25, 2016 11:03:46 AM

If you're right that responding deferentially to the police reads as suspicious, it's still not actually more dangerous than the alternatives. It's more like a grim tradeoff: accept the long-term burden of more police harassment as well as the short-term burden of more suspicion in a single encounter, as a way to mitigate the immediate risk that, not seeing a visible display of deference, the officer will interpret your behavior as aggressive and start shooting.

Which just makes Coates's point even stronger.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Feb 25, 2016 9:24:19 AM

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