America doesn’t just have a police problem: It has a morality problem

police lights

It’s happened again. This time in Minneapolis, a city with a progressive ambiance. A black man dies under the knee of a white cop. In an episode reminiscent of the death of Eric Garner in New York in 2014, George Floyd had a cop’s knee pressed on his neck for more than eight minutes as he cried out that he could not breathe. To be black in America is a potential death sentence.

With enough public pressure and some luck, maybe, just maybe, justice will be done. It was a good step that all four officers were arrested and charged. But there is no certainty here. Some police seem to have a sensibility that they are beyond accountability, protected by their union and by a “blue wall” which places loyalty to one other ahead of their duty to society and to just conduct.

I am the clergy leader of a Humanist congregation in New Jersey, the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County. In our religion to be human is to be worthy of respect and care. It may be true that we have a police problem in this country — but an underlying current behind that is we have a morality problem.

No doubt how police are trained is an issue. Mayor Jacob Frey said the technique the officer used was against regulations. It’s also worth noting that the officer in question had 18 previous complaints against him.

But beyond this case, there is the much larger context that propels these violations to happen.

The largest is the endurance of racism that pervades American society. It’s a persistent disease reflective of a lack of respect for our fellow man and woman. I must admit that ten years ago with the emergence of multiculturalism and the influence of the cultural left, I did allow myself to believe that America was on its way to overcome its ugly legacy of racism and bigotry. I never believed that the election of Barack Obama signified that we had become a “post-racial” society. But I did believe that we were moving in the right direction. I was wrong.

Divisions across all lines, most ominously racial lines, have become characteristic of American society and have grown malignantly strident. Hatred has become too comfortable, and violence rooted in hatred too common. The resurgence of white supremacy is the potent fuel ready to be ignited into racial violence.

Yes, we need to rigorously investigate every incident of the police killing black men. We need to reform police practices. But I fear that until the persistence of racism and hatred in the American fabric is radically mitigated, police killings will inevitably continue.

American society is at a great watershed. We can either move in the direction of continued divisiveness, tribalism, distrust, intolerance, fear and hatred. Or, we can move our society in the direction of greater inclusiveness, of an enlightened cosmopolitanism in which we can exercise our local allegiances if we choose, but at the same time open ourselves up to embrace those outside our immediate community in a spirit of respect for the other, an appreciation for difference and an abiding commitment to justice and equality for all.

This cannot be the responsibility of the black community.

Martin Luther King realized that if he was going to overcome Jim Crow, he needed the support of whites, who, of course, did not share the black experience, but were sympathetic to the cause and the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Today we are faced with an analogous challenge, but perhaps one that it is even more daunting.

It may be easier to change laws than to change attitudes, but change them we must if the killing is going to stop and we can preserve a society worth having.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus first had to descend to the underworld before he could rise again to fulfill his destiny. Perhaps we too will emerge from the hell we are currently experiencing to encounter a new dawn.

Dr. Joseph Chuman is the clergy leader for Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County in New Jersey. He is also professor of Human Rights at Columbia University.

Tags Barack Obama deaths in police custody Discrimination Eric Garner George Floyd Hatred Humanism police use of force Racism

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