"My American Experience Is Positive, So Everyone's Must Be!"

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

by Josh Gane

Having read many Facebook posts in the midst of the increasingly volatile racial relations in the U.S. following the murder of George Floyd, I have identified what I believe are obvious fallacies in many right-wing leaning themes. There is one in particular I would like to address. Part of my motivation is admittedly selfish: It is my shear frustration with what appears to be shortsightedness on the part of many of my 'friends," and this blog is surely an outlet. However, I do have what I believe is an altruistic, genuine desire to explain what feels like a gross misunderstanding on the part of many, though I am aware that granting it a misunderstanding is generous, if not naive. It is just as likely that my 'friends' motivations are less than excusable, and that any explanation on my part is futile. In both cases, their views are surely affected, consciously or subconsciously, by systemic racism. This is true for us all. Never-the-less, I am going to take this step because I believe that this subject, in particular, is easy to explain to even the least willing listener. It is almost ridiculous for people not to consider it.

The theme in its most basic form is this: "Because my American experience is a positive one, I expect that everyone's experience must be the same." When I see it written, I assume that any rational adult would say that this statement is absurd. Most everyone agrees that experience shapes perspective, and everyone knows that experience is different for everyone. And yet, people still speak from this childish perspective all of the time. Let me offer an example.

One of the most common posts, that seeks to defend the police from what many view as unfair criticism, is the bad apple argument. These, almost exclusively white posters, argue that 99.9% of cops are 'good,' and a few bad apples give the rest a bad name. Further, they claim that the media is responsible for perpetuating the 'bad cop' myth. This argument begs a few initial questions, such as how does one know what percentage of any group is 'good' given that 'good' is one of the more subjective words in the English language, and more importantly, for this article, on what authority does one claim to have an objective view of policing in America?

Most people judge the entirety of the law enforcement system based on their personal experiences with individual officers, and their willingness to accept, reject or question the prevalent narrative put forth by those in positions of power. Personal experiences can be as simple as, "A police officer found my bike when it was stolen." (this was my experience that gave me a favorable view of the cops in my childhood) Narratives on the other hand are things like, "Police keep communities safe," or "Police treat all people equally under the law," etc. People often take these two inputs and form their worldview, without many questions, to the detriment of people in minority positions. They think, "My experience with the police has been a positive one, and therefore I believe these grand narratives about the police because it agrees with my experience."

We have all mistakenly used this logic at some point, and applied it to one issue or another. How often we rely on such short-sighted logic is a function of how self-aware we have become as mature adults, and how willing we are to consider that we could be misinformed. The bad apple argument is a product of this type of logic. In this current example, obvious questions emerge: "Why would you think that black peoples' experiences with the police are the same as your own white experience? How do you know the breadth of police discrimination in America?

I will suggest a few answers to these questions. First, if people abandon their favorable view of the police, they will feel less safe. Fear is a powerful motivator. But more importantly, white people naturally benefit from being white under the law, and to attack the police is to attack their own white privilege. The system 'works' for white people. Further, these myths are passed down through generations of privileged ancestors, and white ears hear such things at young ages. Finally, those in power work hard to perpetuate this myth because it helps to keep people, all people regardless of color, in check. Poor white people are less likely to complain about their dire circumstances if they can point to a common nuisance. In this case, it is black people. Black people must deserve harsh treatment.

These people use clever strategies, such as siting black-on-black crime, or statistics showing that more black people are arrested under the law than other races. They will use these strategies to draw the conclusion that police violence must be warranted. What they will not site are statistics pointing to the overpatroling of black neighborhoods, the excessive use of drugs by white populations, and statistics that shed light on why crime is high in certain neighborhoods (lending practices, white flight, in adfinum) So if the stats are misleading, what are we left with? Well, we can listen to the people themselves. Listen to the voices! Regardless of it all, we cannot currently claim to not at least hear the opposite point-of-view.

There is currently a tidal wave of sound in the streets, full of peoples' voices that are trying to get our attention. Why in the hell would we not at least consider that their voices speak truth? Why? Is it possible that other people have experiences that are different than our own? Is it possible that other peoples' experiences contradict the accepted police narrative? Why does one choose to believe one group of people over another?

Personal experience is intrinsically subjective. In other words, nobody can ever truly put themself in someone else's shoes. This means that there is no amount of data in the world that can discount what someone has experienced. It comes down to whether you believe someone or not. Is there a reason to doubt what someone says about their own experience in America? Is their a reason to doubt millions of similar experiences?

There is one more thing that I want to say about the bad apple argument, though I may be sidetracking a bit. This argument makes the mistake of focusing too closely on the behavior of individuals, not the structure of the institution. For the voices in the streets to have any merit, there has to be a problem of much bigger proportions. If this many people have been mistreated, the issue is not individual cops alone. It is about a failed system. 'Good' cops can be a part of a toxic system. Consider it. It might be possible that the world is larger than your own backyard. Maybe Officer Billy who always says "yes ma'am" to you, also scoffs and mistreats black suspects. Maybe he is part of a culture that views blacks unfavorably. How would you know?

The obvious response to my criticism will be the following: "You are doing the same thing that you are accusing me of doing. You are not considering my point-of-view." Not true. The white perspective is automatically considered by all because it is the dominant point-of- view in the debate. The dominant class controls the conversation. I have heard this point-of- view all of my life. I was unaware, however, that black people were mistreated to this degree. I am white. I had no reason in the past to think that my opinion of the police was flawed.

Those of us who are attempting to step outside of ourselves are learning to listen. Listen. If you cannot hear the pain in the voices filling the air, then you may never hear them. I have listened to the white perspective all of my life. I am giving the voices of the oppressed a chance. I am going to try to use self-awareness and admit that I could be wrong about things that I do not have the ability to experience first-person. I am going to listen. Will you? Would you listen if your white little boy told you a cop mistreated him, or would you point to statistics and call him a liar? Be honest.

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