By Dr. Denise R. Ames, Center for Global Awareness
A police shooting of an unarmed victim. An image of the event quickly comes to my mind: an unarmed black man shot by a white police officer. The media has conditioned me to imagine this scenario. So as I read about the shooting, I was confused. The scenario was different from what I had imagined.
In a nutshell, on July 15, 2017, a white woman from Australia, Justine Ruszczyk, called 911 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to report a domestic abuse case. Police officers were dispatched and arrived in a squad car. Apparently Ms. Ruszczyk went to the passenger side of the squad car and banged on the window. At that time, Officer Mohamed Noor, who is black and the first Somalian officer on the Minneapolis police force, shot Ms. Ruszczyk.
The point I would like to make in this blog article is that our typical picture of a white police officer using excessive force against a black (usually) man has been turned upside down. In fact, it was reversed. There were no protests by Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter. What can we make of this?
Doug Criss wrote a short article about the shooting for CNN entitled “There’s a predictable pattern to a fatal police shooting. But not in the case of Justine Ruszczyk,” which sheds some light on this question. I encourage you to read it.
My take on the tragedy is that it brings to light some important questions about how we unconsciously filter events through our own cultural, social, or racial lenses. In our fixation with trying to blame either cops or blacks of misdeeds, we miss the fact that our particular judgment is filtered through layers and layers of accumulated biases, personal experiences, history, inherited behaviors, and group influence. Unfortunately, this is happening on both sides of the political spectrum.
Understanding others is imperative to transcending the constant “blame game” in which each side demonizes the other. One theory that, I have found, explains part of this fixation with demonizing the other is called social identity theory. Briefly, according to this theory, the groups people belong to are an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity, a sense of belonging to the social world.
In order to improve our self-image, we enhance the status of the group to which we belong. For example, if we identify with Blue Lives Matter, we may feel that we have the moral and political authority to keep people safe, and we may feel affronted by those who challenge it. If we identify with Black Lives Matter, we may feel that racism is rampant in American society, and policy shootings are a violent example of this fact. Whether you are black or white, supporting the victims of racism gives one a sense of identity with the victims. Protesting this perceived racism becomes the group’s moral obligation.
We can also improve our self-image by discriminating and holding prejudicial views against the out group (the group we don’t belong to). Thus, to Black Lives Matter members, racism is systematic, and no amount of sensitivity trainings is going to help alleviate it. To Blue Lives Matter supporters, the Black Lives Matter people are supporting thugs, arsonists, and those bent on destroying their country. Each group feels they have the moral upper hand, and understanding the other’s position is tantamount to treason.
Therefore, when events don’t play into the preconceived notion of what police do and the multiple identities and roles blacks have, those events can be calmly ignored, or even explained away. In the case of Minneapolis, it seems that the events are just being ignored.
The truth is that blacks have multiple roles—including police officers, who have to carry out justice in an irrational and violent atmosphere. Not all police actions are carried out because of racial hatred or prejudices; motivations may include fear for their lives, gut instincts of survival, or ambivalent situations in which the rules of training are hard to interpret. The prevalence of guns and drugs in society adds uncertainty to most encounters. Black Lives Matter supporters may feel that past discrimination has not ended, the civil rights movement of the 1960s is unfinished, and economic opportunities for a better life are closed to them. Therefore, racism, to them, seems a logical reason for the plight of some black people. It is an easier and more visceral explanation than the effects of economic globalization and sweeping technological disruptions.
Although this was a brief attempt at understanding a very complex situation, I hope that looking at an issue—such as police shootings—through a lens that can understand the complexity of all sides will be useful. Perhaps doing so will help us to better understand the actions of those who are different from us, as well as our own.
Questions to Consider
- How would you interpret the shooting in Minneapolis?
About the Author
Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator and president of the nonprofit Center for Global Awareness. The Center for Global Awareness develops books and materials for adult learners and educators with a holistic, global focus. In January 2018, CGA will launch the Global Awareness Adult Conversation and Study Program, or Gather. In this unique program, adult learners form small study groups to have conversations about pressing global issues, seeing different perspectives, transcending deep political and cultural divides, and engaging with others to create positive change. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.global-awareness.org for more information.