The Narrative of Police Shootings: Identity, Pride and Prejudice

The Narrative of Police Shootings: Identity, Pride and Prejudice

The political season gives rise to many things: bus tours and tarmac rallies, mass mailings and door-to-door canvasses, robocalls, TV ads and editorial endorsements.

The endorsement that caught my attention over the weekend wasn’t striking for who was endorsed. Given the news outlet, that really wasn’t a surprise.

It was two sentences describing conditions that struck me as jarring . . . whatever one thinks of the conclusions the editorial board drew from their assessment.

The next president will take office with bigoted, tribalist movements and their leaders on the march. In the Middle East and across Asia, in Russia and Eastern Europe, even in Britain and the United States, war, terrorism and the pressures of globalization are eroding democratic values, fraying alliances and challenging the ideals of tolerance and charity.

That got me thinking about a variety of important events tied to notions of identity and prejudice.

Take the shooting of Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The contemporary narrative that unfolds when a black man is killed by a police officer is about racism or, in the terminology of the editorial, bigotry. The questions that follow are obvious: Is the implicated officer a bigot? Are the police, as a group, bigots?

When demonstrators turn violent, or when an individual targets officers in apparent retaliation, are they all bigots of a different stripe? Are they equally tribalistic* (again to use the editorial’s language), simply fighting for a different tribe?

But the Charlotte event, like the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and some other incidents in the list of media-attracting police-citizen encounters, doesn’t fit the narrative comfortably. The primary reason: the officer involved, like Keith Scott, is black.

It would seem, in popular terms at least, that if the officer and the citizen are of the same race, then race can’t have been a factor.

But that would be to misunderstand how identity and “tribalism” work.

What “tribalism” evokes is a sense of group identity, rather than mere classification. Tribal identity isn’t determined by what others see; it is determined by what we feel and by what other members of the “tribe” are willing to accept. Our “tribe” could tend to be defined by race, or ethnicity, or national origin, or religion, or profession, or alma mater, or any number of other traits. But actual membership will depend upon what it is we claim for ourselves, and whether other members of the “tribe” accept the claim.

We all have some sense of “tribal” identity. Human beings have a need to belong.

“Tribalism” takes the sense of belonging and corrupts it with strong moral judgments in favor of the members of our own “tribe” and against those of other “tribes.”

A police officer, for example, might identify strongly with his or her race, but that officer also might identify strongly, perhaps more strongly, with being an officer. If that sense of identity with officers became “tribalistic,” then those outside the force may be judged negatively (especially those whose behavior is perceived as showing disrespect for officers). Racial similarity would not protect the citizen from being identified as “other” and as a threat.

I’m not suggesting that police officers are tribalistic or prejudiced as a group. I don’t believe that to be the case.

I do believe that some officers (like some of the rest of us in other groups) may move from simple and positive group member pride to “tribalistic” attitudes toward members of other groups. A possible and paradoxical result: an officer could be prejudiced against members of his or her own race.

Of course, this actually isn’t just about the officer. It is about how we train officers, about the organizational culture of a department, about the way citizens behave toward officers, about how the media portrays officers . . . a massive constellation of forces that can foster or undermine officers’ openness to and relationship with other members of the larger community.

When pride turns to prejudice and identity fosters exclusion, the conditions for enduring conflict are created.

In prehistory, nomadic or settled tribes often could avoid extensive contact with other tribes. The distances between tribes often were vast, the modes of travel constraining, the need for travel limited. I suppose our ancient forebears could afford tribalism without much cost.

Today, on a planet where distances have been shrunk by technologies related to transportation and to communication, encounters with other “tribal” groups are largely unavoidable.

The narrative we should be exploring isn’t simply black/white (or any other dichotomy). It is about who we understand ourselves to be, in the context of our relationship with others. And it is about a decision to judge others, or not to judge them, simply because of their apparent “tribal” membership.



*The term “tribalist” itself can be understood as reflecting an ethnic prejudice. The “tribes” evoked in popular imagination are nearly always either historical or mythical communities of Native Americans or of Africans. Because the term is a pejorative (being tribalistic is bad), the use of the word can suggest that these communities of peoples were morally inferior to other groups who favored other forms of identity like nationalism or classism. I use the term advisedly, adopting it because it was used in the editorial.