Op-Ed: Respectability politics won’t save us from police violence

Tomiko Shine, left, holds a photo of Tamir Rice, a boy fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer, in Ferguson, Mo. on Dec. 1, 2014.
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

Philando Castile was a veteran of police stops, if there is such a thing. By the time he encountered his final, fatal one in July 2016, the Minnesota school cafeteria worker had been pulled over more than 49 times in 13 years. So when he calmly volunteered to officer Jeronimo Yanez that July 6 that he was carrying his legally licensed firearm, he likely thought he was doing his best to ensure the situation didn’t escalate. His girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter were in the car, for one thing. In the video recorded from Yanez’s patrol vehicle, Castile can be heard saying, “Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me.” He never reached for it, but it didn’t matter. It rarely does.

There was no physical altercation between he and Yanez before the shooting, nor had he been aggressive or defiant in any way. Castile had no criminal record, nor any of the other faults for which the court of public opinion tries police victims, postmortem and in absentia. He had done everything that was asked of him during the stop, even volunteering information about his weapon in the interest of full disclosure and de-escalation. He was still shot to death by a panicky cop who was later acquitted on all charges. Castile’s honesty and impeccable conduct only made the tragedy more absurd.

Despite this proof that dutiful behavior cannot by itself save anyone from being killed by a cop, the sorry argument that decorum is prophylactic persists. It just won’t go away. The latest example is “Home Alive: 11 Must Rules for Surviving Encounters with the Police,” a self-published book that’s been making the usual rounds.

The author, a black emergency room doctor named Geoffrey Mount Varner, addresses his argument primarily to young people and their parents, and that is no accident. According to WTOP, Mount Varner was inspired by the realization that “his 11-year-old son was old enough to be killed by the police.” One doesn’t have to remember the late Tamir Rice to validate that fear, but it’s the way Mount Varner takes on that reality that is so wrongheaded.

It is not the job of marginalized people to convince those in power not to kill them.


The emergency room doctor’s prescription for the epidemic of police violence—a systemic problem if ever there was one— is the politics of respectability, tailoring actions so as to appear more reputable or gain acceptance in an unfriendly environment. Of his 11 rules, Mount Varner told the reporter that “be humble” is the chief one to follow. One passage reads:

“Train your kids regularly that this is how Daddy is going to act if he is ever pulled over by the police. Tell them, ‘Daddy is going to be purposefully meek, humble, and deferential because Daddy wants to be sure that he has a long life with you.’”

I don’t mean to pick on Mount Varner, who I’m sure is well-meaning, but these messages are harmful. What kind of assurance does Daddy really have that no harm will come to him? It is not the job of marginalized people to convince those in power not to kill them. Those who want to keep America where it is, replete with its institutional and incidental intolerance, must love when people like Mount Varner speak up. At what point does this effort to assimilate, not agitate, become inherently submissive?

The ultimate danger is that this regressive mindset will be incorporated into public policy; in fact, that’s already happening. Ralph Brown, a bureau chief with the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, told the state’s racial profiling panel Wednesday that the responsibility for de-escalation during a traffic stop lies with the driver. In such “less than pleasant” situations, Brown said, “because the person or subject is not compliant with the voluntary request of ‘keep their hands on the wheel’ or whatever the case might be, then that forces the officer to get into a reactionary mode and depending upon the escalation of the subject, that will dictate the escalation of the officer’s response.” Brown has instructed police officers for a living, yet he acts as if it’s citizens that need the training.

It is one thing for black parents to sit their kids down and give them the “talk” — letting them know what to expect during a traffic stop and wherever else racism might kill them. It’s quite another for a state to mandate the “talk.”

In August, Illinois enacted a new law requiring new drivers to get instruction on how to behave during traffic stops. Virginia’s new driver education law, which went into effect on July 1, requires the same thing. Mississippi, which has the largest percentage of African Americans of any state in the nation, is considering similar legislation. So are Texas, Rhode Island and North Carolina. New Jersey’s version passed in June, despite strong protest from black liberation activists who insisted that it is lunacy to expect children to “master the idea of respectability politics” before grown police officers are expected to harness their violent behavior.

Although these legislators, like Mount Varner, may think that courtesy is the easy way out of this debate, demanding that victims modify their behavior only exacerbates the problem at hand. No amount of humility or deference will address our justice system’s failure to end police abuse, or sexual assault, or any other crime that has gotten the Mount Varner treatment. Being a “superhero” — seriously, that’s one of his rules — can’t answer why courts seemingly can’t convict cops, even when the dead victim did everything right.

One constructive sign comes from Philando Castile’s state, Minnesota, which just authorized a new $12-million police training fund. (Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, wants it to be named after Castile.) Will it save any more lives than would Mount Varner’s approach? We don’t yet know, but at least it addresses the issue from the proper angle. Black people and other folks of color cannot behave their way out of this crisis, nor should they be expected to do so. Police violence is a police problem, and police must fix it.

Jamil Smith is a journalist in Los Angeles.

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