Civics: Getting Real About the Job of Police: A Letter to Barack Obama

Chenjerai Kumanyika:

Your initial statement in response to Floyd’s killing revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of police in U.S. society. Because of that, I’m offering my thoughts as an educator who sees an urgent need for massive political education in the context of an explosive uprising and intersecting oppressions about what you should say next. 

In your May 29 statement on Floyd’s death, you amplified the words of 12-year-old Keedron Bryant, who sang a viral song about being a black man in America, and of your friend who identified with it. 

Thank you for that. These were not simply examples of the trauma of racism as they are frequently presented, but also an important analysis of the interlocking systems of oppression that we are facing. Bryant’s lyric that African Americans are being “hunted as prey,” for example, reminded me of NYPD Lt. Edwin Raymond’s complaint that he “got tired of hunting Black and Hispanic people.”

Bryant’s observance that this is happening “every day,” along with Raymond’s lawsuit against the NYPD for discrimination, counter the idea that racial, extrajudicial state violence is the exception to the rule.  

For this reason, I found myself anxious and disheartened when you said that the solution should include “the majority of men and women in law enforcement who take pride in doing their tough job, the right way, every day.”

Your premise here, as I understand it, is that when police officers commit acts of racist violence, they are outliers, doing something other than the job they were hired to do — that racist violence is a departure from the work that police officers are paid for and expected to do.

By presenting things this way during this time, I assume you are trying to avoid alienating police officers who see themselves and their work as a force for good. Their job is indeed challenging, and I know many officers understand their own work that way.