The Presumption of Dangerousness Behind Police Abuse of Black People


Last week’s violence has fueled a much-needed conversation about racial discrimination, police violence, and the tensions created by a society still corrupted by a narrative of racial difference that undermines justice and public safety. EJI believes this conversation cannot produce lasting change until it is put in a larger historical context.

In the wake of the fatal shootings of two Black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota and the killings of five police officers during a peaceful protest in Dallas last week, EJI director Bryan Stevenson appeared today on CBS This Morning to discuss how the presumption that people of color are guilty and dangerous impacts policing in America.

“These shootings in my judgment are symptoms of a larger disease” — a disease that has festered since slavery, when Americans were infected with the false idea that Black people are inferior. The myth of racial difference is a legacy of slavery that persists because we have not yet confronted it. “In this country, there are very few places where you can deal honestly with the history of slavery. There is no place where you can deal honestly with the history of terrorism. We actually haven’t dealt with all the resistance to integration. And we’re indifferent to this victimization of Black and brown people.”

Failing to deal honestly with the legacy of America’s history of racial injustice has allowed us to hold people of color responsible for how police treat them. “It’s unfair to burden Black and brown people in this country with the obligation to navigate police encounters safely,” Mr. Stevenson said. “The burden is on you as a Black or brown person to make sure you say and do the things that avoid some tragedy, and that’s not right.”

An important step towards reform, Mr. Stevenson said, is that we have got to begin talking differently about what a police officer is. “We’ve got too many police officers in this country who think of themselves as warriors, not as guardians.”

“Thousands of police officers in this country are committed to public safety, and that commitment has to be honored by changing the culture in a way that we can trust one another.” Good police officers want to be held accountable, and we need to hold ourselves accountable as a nation for segregation, lynching and terrorism, slavery, and for the police misconduct that we’ve tolerated.