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When Will America Take What We Know About Racist Policing Seriously?

After three white police officers beat a Black man named Robert Hall to death, a federally commissioned panel issued a 178-page report on America’s police “failings” which found that while both white and Black people suffered from police brutality “the dominant pattern is that of race prejudice.” According to the report, Black Americans “have been shot, supposedly in self-defense, under circumstances indicating, at best, unsatisfactory police work in the handling of criminals, and, at worst, a callous willingness to kill.”

This is all sadly familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention, but there is one small surprise here. This report was issued in 1947 and the panel was commissioned by President Harry Truman.

It changed nothing, as you’ve probably noticed. The sheriff who killed Hall won his reelection as the wrongful death case moved through the courts. Thus began America’s long history of detailed research on racist police brutality. These studies inevitably confirm that police brutality disproportionately affects racial minorities in general and Black Americans in particular. Often times, these studies even find possible solutions for how to curtail the blight of racist police brutality. Truman’s report did so nearly 75 years ago.

And yet, on Sunday, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was killed by police during a botched traffic stop. The swelling protests around the Minneapolis area reeling over the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin are re-igniting a conversation that most of us have memorized. A young man is dead. According to Brooklyn Center police, his death was likely caused by an officer who confused their taser for their gun. Wright reportedly had a warrant out over two unpaid minor misdemeanors. There was simply no reason for this traffic stop to turn to violence, let alone result in death.

In 1968, a new report was commissioned by President Johnson in an attempt to figure out why America had so many so-called “race riots.” The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders became known as the Kerner Commission, named for the then-governor of Illinois. The Kerner Commission found that “white racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II” and that the police had “come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.”

The Kerner Commission had a plan that they believed would cut down on the protests. Among their proposals were bold strategies that took aim at systemic issues like reforming police departments, desegregating housing and investing in job creation in the public sector. None of these things happened in any serious capacity.

Studies are great. Research is important. Nobody is suggesting that the government fly into any situation without doing their due diligence, especially one as complex and culturally fraught as policing. The difficulty here is that we’ve already done the research. Anybody who cares to know what’s going on can read reams of federally funded reports from experts and educate themselves to the heart’s content. There are some people out there who deny that racist police brutality is a problem, of course, but these are people who haven’t done the reading. For anyone serious about solving the problem, the journey has been plotted. All we need to do is start walking it.

You may have heard of the 1968 Kerner Commission but there’s a sobering line at the end. One of the study’s authors by the name of Kenneth Clark wrote that he was fed up with the data gathering. “I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission — it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland,” he wrote. “With the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations and the same inaction.” Again, this was 1968. 1968 was after Emmett Till. But it was before Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain and, of course, Daunte Wright. To say nothing of hundreds more.

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They knew what the problem was. So do we. They’d studied this over and over again. So have we. Countless reports have been commissioned to study racist police brutality. They’ve found the same thing: It exists. It’s a crisis. It’s fixable.

So, no more. No more reports to tell Americans something we already knew during the Truman Administration. No more needless debating, with talking heads hemming and hawing over if there’s a problem. There is. That’s been determined. What we have not yet figured out is whether or not we as Americans have the moral will to face that problem and make the brave, necessary changes that will address it.

(This piece was adapted from the author’s Twitter thread)

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