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Ending Institutional Racism

My thesis is this: there is nothing more important to the future of our nation than ending racism, particularly institutional racism. This has become a desperate matter of survival for far too many people when it comes to the issue of police killings. These tragedies happen disproportionately to minorities largely because of racism.

Yet the problem goes far beyond that. There is not a single issue in this nation which does not ultimately become polarized and frozen by race. Much of the resistance to government intervention and assistance comes down to a belief that “They” are getting the benefits – the mysterious “other” that is easily blamed for everything. It prevents us from having a useful discussion about “Us”, a free and united people ready to tackle the changes of our world bravely and directly.

But let’s stay with police killings for a moment. Let’s talk about how we get from where we are to a world where no cringes in fear when the disco lights and sirens blare, a world where Black Lives Matter. Let’s talk about how complex issues with hardened battle lines are taken on so that we can get past the problem. Let’s talk about tactics, or how a battle is won.

Well, the laws do apply to you. Plus a little more.

Well, the laws do apply to you. Plus a little more.

Police killings do not happen in a vacuum. We know that police in general are quick to shoot for many reasons, and that these reasons are often accentuated by race. I maintain that White Privilege is real, but usually comes down to little more than the benefit of the doubt. When the guns are drawn, in a split second the benefit of the doubt can become a matter of life and death.

We won’t end racism overnight, but we can continue to make progress. We won’t end the desire for many police to use deadly force overnight – the axiom “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six” describes a “siege mentality” that is very real and will not dissolve instantly.

Certainly, anger boiled over from years of fear and frustration will be a part of the situation. We cannot expect those who have been on the receiving end of injustice to simply remain silent. They can, they should, they must speak up and demonstrate. The system must be confronted.

From the recent Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis. The two were identified as a Disciples of Christ Pastor and a Presbyterian Minister. The get this.

From the recent Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis. The two were identified as a Disciples of Christ Pastor and a Presbyterian Minister. The get this.

But I put it to you that this is not how the battle is won. Advanced tactics must be deployed to encircle and envelope this terrible problem. It is simply too big to be defeated with a simple frontal attack.

This requires explanation. The best illustrations are not social justice or policy, but military. There are many examples, but I will start with Hannibal’s defeat of the Romans at Canae. No one has a strong opinion of Carthage or Rome anymore, so the discussion is largely academic and cold. The lesson, however, is as real and hot as pitched hand to hand combat with nothing more than spears and swords.

The situation was this: Hannibal of Carthage, North Africa, invaded Italy to take on his perennial Roman foes. His army of 50,000 was confronted by 86,000 Roman defenders near Canae and essentially cornered. But outnumbered Hannibal had a plan.

The progress of Canae, during the Second Punic War in 216 BC. The Carthaginians under Hannibal are on the right in blue, the Romans on the left in red.

The progress of Canae, during the Second Punic War in 215 BC. The Carthaginians under Hannibal are on the right in blue, the Romans on the left in red.

His main body of troops engaged the Romans in what looked like a “spearhead” shape, intent on attacking them in front. They quickly retreated, however, goading the Romans into chasing them. At the same time, the Carthaginian cavalry flanked the main line and charged at the rear. Surprising the Roman cavalry, they quickly dispatched them and then came to the assistance of the troops on the line. At that moment, the foot troops engaged the Romans again and maneuvered to the flanks to surround them.

Numidian light cavalry, under the command of Hannibal.

Numidian light cavalry, under the command of Hannibal.

Once the Romans were encircled, they were destroyed. The smaller invading force owned the field with remarkably light casualties after defeating a force much greater than theirs.

Why is this relevant? Racism, particularly institutional racism, is not an issue that can be defeated head-on. Once the lines are set they are frozen. Everyone is hunkered down in a defensive position, ready for the attacks. It quickly dissolves into trench warfare, a nasty game of inches rather than yards. Each side becomes eager to break through at any cost, using terrible weapons like poisonous gas and artillery shells to obliterate the other side.

No one can win such a battle. It slogs on indefinitely, frustratingly, horribly.

Consider Hannibal’s cavalry for a moment. They were lightly armed and able to move quickly. They weren’t killing machines, they were tactical pieces which took the ground necessary to disable the command and control of the enemy. They got to the heart of the matter, disabled it, and made an encirclement possible.

How does this apply to the issue at hand?

Many hands make lighter work. Many different hands make the work a triumph.

Many hands make lighter work. Many different hands make the work a triumph.

There are two centers of control in the battle against institutional racism. They are racism and the institutions, most critically the police themselves. Each must be engaged by flanking cavalry that removes them from the field before the main issue itself can be engaged. Where the attack appears to come at the line, this is primarily a diversion. It is an engagement to draw them out and take the lines away from the dug-in defenses – but not to win in isolation.

How do we engage the centers of control?

Racism is the hardest, for sure, but it can and must be engaged. It will take understanding, love, patience, and humor to get at the heart of racism. It will also take time, as some people will never change. But the key is to engage it in a way that disarms the majority of people who have racist thoughts but are empathetic enough to realize it is wrong. They need tools to cope and an invitation to stand proud rather than hunker down defensively.

The police are another matter. When confronting authority it is critical to not harden them into an attitude where they feel a need to strike out and defend themselves. They have the means to do it violently, and the results will be catastrophic. Instead, they must be disarmed – literally and figuratively. Police are asked to do far too much – to act as therapists, community healers, pastors, and use force when necessary. They are over-worked and under-paid – and often clearly lack the training or the personalities to do all the things they are asked to do. Their stress and often PTSD are disregarded as “part of the job”.

Scene from the McDuffie Riot in Miami, 1980

Scene from the McDuffie Riot in Miami, 1980

The key with police is to understand how lousy their job is and how they can be better supported to be the very best that the community needs. They need support – both on the job and for their own health. They need empowered communities where institutions of all kinds work together to solve problems and not wait until it’s a tragedy that requires force. They must be largely demilitarized and called on to use their hearts more than their guns. And yes, they must be accountable for their actions.

The police, like any authority, are drawn out by engaging them and challenging them to be their very best.

These flanking maneuvers will take time, of course. The engagement of police must start right away and proper support for them has to start immediately. They don’t want to be the “bad guys” and we can and must call on them to be better. It will take money and it will take new institutions which support them properly with people who are trained to take on some of the community jobs which have come down to police.

The engagement at the front lines will offer the contrast. Do you want to have a battle in the streets, with everyone’s life on the line constantly, or do you want another way out?

It's hard to see the endgame, especially when it's not all back & white.

It’s hard to see the endgame, especially when it’s not all back & white.

But it is with these cavalry, lightly armed but nimble on the field, that this battle will be won. The twin command centers of this serious problem, racism and institutional siege mentality, have to be disarmed. Then, and only then, can the main body be encircled and the whole problem taken to its conclusion.

Action like this sometimes seems as cold as the study of ancient wars decided long ago. Young people in particular want the passion of engagement, of “sticking it to them”. That’s especially true for those who legitimately feel they are fighting for their lives. But that is not how this or any other complex issue is won.

We must learn from Hannibal. The size of the power and force we are up against is not particularly important. What matters is the use of the right tactics – engagement at the real, disarming, and encircling.

The future is theirs. Let's make it bright!

The future is theirs. Let’s make it bright!

How do we end institutional racism? Everyone has a role to play. Some will be the cavalry which takes on racism, disarming it. Some will be the ones who reform policing and how communities are organized, empowered, and reformed. Some will be on the front lines doing what they can in the middle of the mix.

But without all of these tactics working together in a broad strategy this will simply be another one of those issues that is completely entrenched and intractable. More lives will be lost and the future of our nation as one people, free and united, will be squandered. We will all be diminished, regardless of race, as the tired old nonsense of racism continues to poison just about every aspect of our daily and civic lives.

There is a role for everyone, but there is a role for real leadership and real organization to make this happen. Until we have our Hannibal, however, we must all do our part. The way forward is clear – we simply have to step back and realize what it is we must do.

15 thoughts on “Ending Institutional Racism

  1. Erik, I don’t know if you get Bounce TV, but they have an add to raise funds to educate the police about deescalation tactics. That should really be supported.

    • Yes, that is the key. Someone has to be the ones who turn down the volume and give everyone time to think. That someone has to be the ones in charge, the ones with the badges and guns.
      I will look that up, thanks!

    • Thanks! But this is about tactics, not strategy. 🙂 Seriously, the two meld together in a complex battlefield. The strategy is one of encapsulation, the tactics are flanking. That may be a bit too subtle a point to matter, though.

  2. Is it meaningful that your example is about Africans beating Europeans? 🙂 I agree that racism is killing us but I am not sure it is the most important issue we face. Certainly in the top five though and you have a good approach here. I think it’s important that white people understand that the police are a problem for whatever reason and you list a lot of them but this isn’t about race at some point. When the police are out of control they kill white people too. There are many examples on the net. There is no reason this should be about race but like you said everything goes there and that is just wrong.

    • It is, indeed! Good catch! I decided to not emphasize that point. But yes, Africans beat Europeans on their own turf. 🙂

      I decided to de-emphasize race generally in this piece. That was a strange decision, but I want my readers to focus as broadly as possible on the problem. Race has a way of narrowing the focus. If I was talking to a group of people I would start with race and pan out harder.

      But yes, the two problems with institutional racism are institutions and racism. They can be separated – and must be for us to tackle their different needs in their own way. Command of the field allows that separation, so command and maneuverability are the first key steps, IMHO.

  3. You’ve got to be taught
    To hate and fear,
    You’ve got to be taught
    From year to year,
    It’s got to be drummed
    In your dear little ear
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.
    You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
    Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
    And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.
    You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
    Before you are six or seven or eight,
    To hate all the people your relatives hate,
    You’ve got to be carefully taught!

  4. There is a lot of attention being paid to education. Education of quality for students who fall into economically weak and disadvantaged categories. “If their education can be improved, they will be able to get jobs, and their status across many dimensions will improve.” I agree this is a big part of the path. But also, as “You’ve got to be taught” shows us, education for the people who can’t help teaching hate, who poison their children and their communities with fear, is surely a necessary condition for the other arm of education to succeed.

  5. Pingback: Over the Lines | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

  6. Erik, I don’t want to Spam your blog, but this is important…

    My name is C. Erskine Brown, and I would like to share the most horrifying story you will ever read about modern day racism.

    Consistently garnering five stars, A Cry Among Men – The Novel, is being touted as one of the “Best reads of 2016,”… “brilliantly written fiction adroitly framed around the events of today.” 

    Since its debut, A Cry Among Men has captivated and deeply impacted readers. As a passionate, deep thinker on the subject of racism, I strongly encourage you to read it. Our country must raise the level of discourse on a problem that so many are wide-eyed and vocal about while others have chosen to turn a blind eye.

    Thank you,


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