Wednesday, July 18, 2018

#HardPickHal and the Rise in (Stories on) Calling the Police on Black People

By now you're familiar with #HardPickHal (my hashtag -- make it fly), who called the cops on a fellow pickup basketball player after -- I swear I'm not making this up -- a particularly hard foul.

He follows in the grand tradition BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, and the many other cases of White people calling the police on Black people for mundane activity -- at best, trivial offenses, at worst completely innocent conduct.

The recent flurry of these stories makes it seem like this is an newly-emergent phenomenon -- what happened to make White people start calling the police on Black people willy-nilly all of the sudden?

Of course, the most obvious explanation for our increased awareness of this phenomenon is not that it's suddenly occurring more frequently but a simple availability bias -- it's always happened like this, only now we're actually hearing about it.

And that seems mostly right. For a long time there have been complaints about White people -- particularly in the context of gentrification -- calling the police to enforce "quality of life" norms that target Black and Brown members of their community (typically long-standing residents) as a means of harassment. If we're hearing more about it now, that's not due to any change in behavior but rather new attention on an old phenomenon.

But I do wonder if there might be something going on reflecting an actual change in behavior -- an increase in White people threatening to call the police on Black people as a means of asserting racial dominance.

Basically, the idea goes like this. One way #BlackLivesMatter has impacted the cultural zeitgeist is that it has brought unprecedented attention to the way that the police can threaten the lives and liberty of people of color. It has placed into the (White) public eye a counternarrative to the dominant view that "the police are here to protect you".

One thing this could be doing is making more salient the prospect that threatening to call the police is a way for White people to specifically hurt Black people. It is a legitimate threat. Think of circumstances where people grope for ways to hurt others -- in an argument, in a dispute, or just when one is being an asshole. One of the reasons racial slurs are most likely to appear in situations like that is that they are a very quick way to wound someone one wants to wound. But -- perhaps paradoxically -- the rise in White associational awareness regarding the role of police as a danger to Black lives also makes it cognitively more available as a "move" one can pull when one is trying to dominate or terrorize the Black life standing in front of you.

I still think that most of the answer lies in column "a" -- this has always been happening, only now it's getting more exposure. But it wouldn't surprise me if there's a bit of column "b" in play as well. The counterreaction to BLM demonstrates that those deeply antagonistic to the claims Black people are making regarding the police nonetheless have absorbed -- through the mirror darkly -- the message regarding the danger the police pose to Black bodies. They just think that danger is justified and legitimately wielded. And if we're seeing that threat put out more explicitly nowadays, that might be part of the reason why.

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