Ta-Nehisi Coates helpfully differentiates between power and authority.
African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority. The dominant feature in the relationship between African Americans and their country is plunder, and plunder has made police authority an impossibility, and police power a necessity. The skepticism of Officer Darren Wilson’s account in the shooting of Michael Brown, for instance, emerges out of lack of police authority—which is to say it comes from a belief that the police are as likely to lie as any other citizen. When African American parents give their children “The Talk,” they do not urge them to make no sudden movements in the presence of police out of a profound respect for the democratic ideal, but out of the knowledge that police can, and will, kill them.
Those – like me – who aren’t regularly plundered by this country (see this video for examples of what plunder as cultural appropriations can look like) can follow Coates’ reasoning, but there are good reasons why we struggle to actually believe it.
But for most Americans, the police—and the criminal-justice system—are figures of authority. The badge does not merely represent rule via lethal force, but rule through consent and legitimacy rooted in nobility. This is why whenever a liberal politician offers even the mildest criticism of the police, they must add that “the majority of officers are good, noble people.” Taken at face value this is not much of a defense—like a restaurant claiming that on most nights, there really are no rats in the dining room. But interpreted less literally the line is not meant to defend police officers, but to communicate the message that the speaker is not questioning police authority, which is to say the authority of our justice system, which is to say—in a democracy—the authority of the people themselves.
I’ve felt this strongly over the past few months, the need to qualify any criticism about unjust policing. There is such a strong pull to limit an unjust situation to its primary actors – a rouge cop, for example – in order to preserve the authority of the overall system. Austin Channing has observed this tendency and points out the regular practice of “balancing” after any criticism of authority: it “becomes necessary to also admit that there are problems in the black community- black on black crime, fatherlessness, poverty, etc…” But she’s not having it:
It is not that I am unwilling to talk about these other devastations that plague some communities of color. In fact, I welcome conversation about these realities. But you should know in advance that I don’t relegate the conversation on race to shootings and incarceration rates. Racism is far too effective, conniving, and complete to define only these. So lets talk about poverty, but lets do so without forgetting about slavery, jim crow, redlining, white flight, contract sales, and the extraction of wealth from generations at the hands of government, courts, real estate agents and landlords.
This is our challenge. It’s nearly impossible, within a society where the majority experiences respectful authority and many others experience oppressive power, to respond to injustice in a manner that will seem balanced to everyone. Thankfully, balance is not the goal for Christians, including we who are cozy with corrupt authority. No, the goal is truth. And if Jesus is any sort of precedent, in our pursuit of truth we’ll reject false authority and find our place on the receiving end of corrupt power. We’ll be in very good company.