Where is the boundary between what’s called implicit or unconscious bias—internalizing and enacting beliefs about specific groups without being consciously aware of doing so or the harm it causes—and culturally encoded entitlement, the conviction of having the prerogative—even the duty—to exert authority over others? Hint: the answer definitely can be found on YouTube.
We are fortunate (and not—I’ll just stipulate to all the downsides of social media) to live in a time and place where a great many people have the capacity to document public actions. George Floyd’s murder may not have triggered monumental outrage if 17-year-old Darnella Frazier hadn’t begun recording as he started to plead for his life. Without video recordings of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, what could have impelled so many people to face the truth of structural racism after so many years of denial?
A flood of videos is showing us the illegitimate detentions and the cold-blooded murders. We are also offered daily videos of the BBQ Betties who report Black people to the police for such acts as picnicking; the Amy Coopers, who use their white skin privilege to punish Black people such as Christian Cooper for daring to challenge their entitlement; and a thousand variations on each theme.
If we take these videos in without denial, seeing and hearing deeply, they also expose what many wish to bury. Like tracing the life of a tree through its roots, we discern in real-time behavior the generations of training that installed, nourished, and spread the unearned entitlement that drives such actions. Like every massive collective challenge, racism is not just a legal problem, a moral problem, and an economic problem. It is at bottom a cultural problem, because cultural processes are the primary forces shaping consciousness. In the vast network creating and expressing culture, pernicious ideas often have staying power. And in the fertile soil of a false idea—the easy assumption that “everyone” who matters holds the same beliefs and values—racism becomes normalized. Once normalized, it is hard to uproot, but not impossible. The antidotes are plentiful: awareness, shame, and choice. But we have to use them.
My husband has been watching YouTube videos taken by self-authorizing civil libertarians—the police have taken to calling these people “constitutionalists”—who test the limits of free expression by livestreaming encounters with police officers just beyond the boundaries of their stations. There are tons of them; this is one picked almost at random.
They follow a typical pattern. The guy behind the camera starts filming near a police station. Officers emerge and ask what he’s doing. He says he doesn’t have to tell them. They ask for I.D. He says he doesn’t have to produce it unless they have a reasonable suspicion that he is violating the law: do they? They reassert their demands, exuding a belligerent sense of entitlement, seemingly unable to grasp the constitutional principle that we are not required to identify ourselves or submit to any sort of search without a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.
The cops repeatedly ask the cameraman why he is filming, and he always counters with a question: “What are you doing?” The police seem astounded to be questioned, but when asked their names and badge numbers, they know they must comply. The person behind the camera is usually polite but forthright, usually but not always white, always (so far as I have learned) male, and remarkably persistent. All the encounters I’ve seen end with the person filming requesting a supervisor to clear up the matter. A superior officer is summoned—one who seems to possess some knowledge of basic legal rights—and the confrontation ends with the police walking away.
I take three main things from these videos:
First, that these police officers either have not been trained in constitutional rights or their training was so long ago, brief, or so thoroughly superseded in practice that they feel no need to recall it. As J. Scott Thomson put it in Sunday’s New York Times roundtable on policing, “Within a Police Department, culture eats policy for breakfast.”
Second—the thing that makes it hardest to tear my eyes away—is the absolute confidence and certainty the officers display that they will be obeyed. I surmise that nearly everyone they meet complies with their demands for identification and self-justification. And in their minds that compliance, repeated endlessly, confers entitlement to be obeyed, whatever they may demand.
Third, that as we have been shown in recent weeks, when compliance with illegitimate authority ceases to be reflex action—when many people begin to see it as a matter of choice, a choice where basic rights are at stake—entitlement begins to crumble. This is where I put my hope.
I think the people making these videos are brave, far braver than I. I was brought up to fear and avoid the police. My family of immigrants explained that my great grandfather had been killed in a pogrom by Cossacks—not exactly police, but people of a common ethnic origin who formed militias in their enclaves, not unlike the white supremacist militias in the U.S. today, and who were famously fierce warriors. My family’s suspicion of uniformed authority was well-founded and historically verified. Everyone knew that it had been armed and costumed men who herded other relatives to the death camps or the frontlines. Everyone had plenty of personal experience with uniformed bullies. Everyone knew to steer clear if they possibly could.
I know people who were treated in grade school to an annual presentation from Officer Friendly and came away—at least until greater awareness kicked in—believing his slogan, “the policeman is your friend.” My skin is pale, conferring the privilege of walking, driving, or entering shops in neighborhoods where suspicion would be heaped on those with darker complexions. But like many Jews of my generation, I came up understanding that the authorities’ X-ray vision exposed our identity, and that whatever safety we may have been promised was absolutely contingent, absolutely temporary. I have never called the police in my life.
But for the people who summon the police on ordinary folks doing harmless things, it is clear that Officer Friendly lingers in memory, close to hand, the protector of privilege. A viral video shows a white woman called Lisa Alexander policing the actions of James Juanillo, a fellow resident of San Francisco’s prosperous Pacific Heights neighborhood, as he chalks “Black Lives Matter” on the retaining wall of his house. In the course of confronting him, she says she’d be okay with what he is doing if it were his property, but she knows he is not the current resident—a lie. In the end, the police drive by, recognize Juanillo, wave and drive off.
I take two main things from this video and the subsequent events, including Alexander’s apology:
First, Alexander is convinced she is being a good person, discharging her sacred duty to protect neighbors’ property rights (although evidently not their right to freedom of expression). She displays the complete confidence in her entitlement that is seen in the police officers taped by the “constitutionalists.” She seems befuddled that Juanillo isn’t aware of her right to police him, explaining herself as if she were trying to convince a recalcitrant child to eat her broccoli.
Second, Pacific Heights isn’t a suburb, but in terms of police presence, it may as well be. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was asked on Twitter to say what defunding the police might look like, she replied this way: “It looks like a suburb. Affluent white communities already live in a world where they choose to fund youth, health, housing etc more than they fund police. These communities have lower crime rates not because they have more police but bc they have more resources to support healthy society in a way that reduces crime.” When the police drove by Juanillo’s home after being summoned by Alexander, they didn’t push him up against the wall, demand I.D., frisk him, kneel on his neck. They just waved and went on their way.
Third, in the video, Juanillo displays a calm and steadfastness many people would find it difficult to muster. The culture of entitlement is infuriating, trying even the gentlest spirits. That people forebear deserves honor, respect—and awe. What echoes in my head in the last line of Kimberly Jones’ viral video breaking down racism. She is speaking of black people, but what she says pertains to every group oppressed by the culture of entitlement “…they are lucky that what black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.”
A significant number of actions, long-coming—are being taken to change laws, policies, and practices related to oppressive policing and other race-based official practices. Platforms that go far beyond questions of policing and criminal justice to necessary economic and social changes are being proposed and promoted. A great deal is being said about the unprecedented multiracial, multigenerational, and otherwise multifarious nature of protests and their demands. Few racial justice advocates will take it on faith that these alone will create a paradigm shift toward healing and reparations, though a great many see what’s possible and are prepared to persist, demand, and organize to make it so.
But even if and when the offending laws and policies are changed, what these videos show is what must be conquered, a long-cooked culture of entitlement that blinds its adherents to the harm done by their own words and deeds, convincing them that their privilege is earned. Most of us have seen or experienced an aha! moment, when someone’s eyes are opened to the reality their received notions have obscured, when the entire deck of their understanding is reshuffled, dealing them a new hand. I love this clip of Jane Elliott asking a single question that tears the veil away from entitlement, exposing racism in its stark truth.
The things that will generate enough aha! moments to topple the culture of entitlement will themselves be cultural: videos like these, visual imagery, films and plays, writing, music, and more. It’s when people show up in their truth and bring it home not only in words but in images, emotions, movements, and stories that they hit home. More people than can be counted are working on this now. The moment is inviting everyone to expose, reject, and demolish the cultural of entitlement. It can be a tipping-point. Will enough people perform this sacred duty to make it so?
Charenee Wade performs Gil Scott-Heron’s “Ain’t No Such Thing As Superman.”