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We engage again in another distracting, energy-consuming debate about whether wanton, cruel, murderous police practices originate with systemic racism. First of all, systems are notoriously hard to define, which means that when you add the adjective systemic to racism, you now have to speak another language to explain what the concept means. Targets of your accusations, namely police departments and benevolent associations, can obfuscate matters with aggressive denials and standard language to justify their behavior. You can always deny a blanket charge.

If you charge police with wanton cruelty and murderous acts, they cannot deny that. We have too many video recordings of extra-judicial executions by now. Police unions and chiefs no longer try to deny that charge, or try only half-heartedly. So one asks: why introduce a cultural construct or accusation that interferes with your goals?

You might respond, “It’s not so hard to define systemic racism. Systemic racism is apartheid in South Africa, Jim Crow in the South.” Yes, those are reasonable examples: but how do you apply the concept to many thousands of police departments across the country, and hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers? Some of those officers are racist, many are not. Implicit in the concept of systemic racism is that variability across departments, and across individual officers does not matter. All participate in the same system.

I would say the concept, and the implicit argument that follows from it, do not help the cause of change. Yes, black communities are over-policed. That could be because they are black, because they are poor, because police departments receive calls from black crime victims in black neighborhoods. Brutal police methods applied to over-policed communities result in more police crime in those communities.

I would not treat a fish the way Derek Chauvin treated George Floyd. Many other police officers would say the same thing. If we say Derek Chauvin represents systemic racism, and that systemic racism explains his cruelty, then how do we explain his condemnation from other police officers? Have they managed somehow to step outside the system, to detach themselves from it? Or do they recognize cruelty when they see it, and say that you do not treat other human beings that way, no matter who they are?

By making these remarks, I do not want to suggest communities and individuals of color have no grievance, that police departments have not singled out communities of color for especially harsh methods. They do have a just grievance, and police departments have singled those communities out. Police do profile, they develop a dislike for particular people, they want to look aggressive for their colleagues, they want to fit into a culture that says you must be a uniformed warrior first, a human being second.

Besides that, systemic racism may be a useful concept for sociologists who want to explain how cultural patterns translate into individual behavior, and how individual behavior translates into cultural patterns. If police act out of fear rather than compassion, if you train them to use violence, intimidation, and coercion to overcome fear, you will see patterns of behavior that appear race related. They may be race related, but the picture is more complicated than that.

Above all, if you want to change how police departments operate in the field, concepts like systemic racism do not furnish practical tools to start. Police reform relies on political, organizational processes that account for local circumstances. When you undertake changes of this scale and complexity, why saddle them with an ill-formed, readily denied accusation?

We can lay blame against officers like Derek Chauvin. We can indict them, and prosecute them for murder, not because they are racists, but because they are murderers. To reform organizations, start with people and practices embedded in particular institutions. Start with budgets, leadership, employment contracts and qualifications, disciplinary processes, training programs: administrative details every organization must address to function effectively. Academic concepts like systemic racism do not give you traction you need for deep change.