As a white male living in affluent Connecticut, I've struggled with how to write about the barbaric murder of George Floyd. But it was another white Scot – philosopher turned economist Adam Smith – who first pointed out that the psychological underpinning of both morality and justice is the human capacity for empathy. In Robert Burns' words, it's the ability to 'to see oursels as ithers see us' and comprehend how others see themselves that provides much of the foundation for civil society.
With that thought as my guide, I've tried to understand how Minneapolis policemen Derek Chauvin could slowly asphyxiate George Floyd, fully aware that he was being recorded by onlookers. How someone sworn to 'serve and protect' could murder a submissive and unarmed man.
My conclusion is that what we saw in Floyd's death was the fatal combination of two distinct empathy gaps. The first, and the harder to solve, is America's persistent racism against African Americans. Racism is complex and multi-faceted, but the salient issue in the death of George Floyd was identified by author Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book-length letter to his son, Between the World and Me
. He explains with savage clarity how racism against African Americans is both a psychological and physical phenomenon. That the black body is disposable in America, whether being consumed and discarded in the production of cotton and tobacco, or lynched from the nearest tree for daring to glance at a white woman. That from the shackles of middle-passage slave ships to a knee on a neck in Minneapolis, 'in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body'.
Obama had Martin Luther King's quote that 'the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice' embroidered on his Oval Office rug, but Coates rejoinder is that, for many black men of his generation, the 'moral arc bent toward chaos and concluded in a box'. The horrifying but empirical reality is that black lives don't matter for far too many white Americans, and that in Coates words and Chauvin's deed, racism still 'dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, and breaks teeth'. Regardless of wealth or social status, the sobering truth is that the most dangerous situation an African American male can find themselves in is often an unstructured interaction with law enforcement.
It's been Floyd's death that has sparked national protests, but the murder of Ahmaud Arbery is an even clearer illustration of this deep-seated power dynamic. Arbery was hunted and shot by three armed white men as he jogged through the small Georgia town in which he lived. Their defence was that they were making a citizen's arrest and they shot Arbery 'because he wouldn't follow a few basic commands'. But as video evidence emerged, the narrative became terribly familiar; it was a vigilante lynching for the crime of being black. Therefore, it was hardly surprising when it was revealed last week in court that Arbery's killer stood over his bleeding body and spat out the words 'fucking nigger'.
Unlike COVID-19, there will never be a vaccine for this dehumanising and predatory attitude towards black Americans. It's a multi-generational infection and social distancing was the answer of elected segregationists for a century after the Civil War. Rather than us progressing towards empathy and understanding, there's instead the viral video of a dog walker in Central Park whose natural response to interacting with a black man was to weaponise her white femininity through a hysterical 911 call that could easily have resulted in his death at the hands of the police.
There's plenty of neuroscience that racism comes naturally to humans. In-group bias can easily be manufactured in social experiments, even when the divisions are arbitrary; just ask any neutral who has been to an Old Firm game. When those divisions are marked by skin colour in a country built for centuries on the subjugated labour of that group, and where that group only achieved equality under the law less than 60 years ago, you create what can often seem like an unbridgeable empathy gap. But we need to keep trying, even though it can seem like a labour of Sisyphus.
Like any intentional behavioural modification, combatting racism requires vigilance and commitment. In the words of Atlanta rapper Mike Render, after protest comes the need to 'plot, plan, strategise, organise, and mobilise'. We need to reinvigorate the civil rights movement and tackle the complex web of education, social justice, healthcare and economic issues that underpin both racist attitudes and black-on-black violence. Basketball legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, likens American racism to the smoke and dust particles in the air of a burning building; a danger that is only visible when you let the light in. So, the long slow arc of racial justice will only bend via moral epidemiology and a relentless political will to shine a light on racist attitudes and keep addressing them till the empathy gap is closed.
But the second lesson from Minneapolis, and from countless protest videos, is how empathy has also been eradicated from American policing at both an institutional and personal level. The widespread use of tear gas and rubber bullets on predominantly non-violent protestors shows an unwillingness to differentiate the looting minority from thousands of law-abiding marchers. Rather than communicate and negotiate, many police departments chose to escalate and showcase the very capacity for official violence that the crowds were protesting.
But what has been striking is not only the poor judgement of those in command, but also the lack of restraint of many of the officers involved and their capacity to dehumanise the protestors. When Buffalo police pushed a 75-year-old white man to the ground last week, it wasn't just the brutality that was shocking, but also the way multiple officers simply walked around him as he lay with blood pouring from his ear. To understand this complete lack of empathy, we need to ask why Derek Chauvin felt empowered to publicly murder George Floyd.
The brutality we've witnessed on America's streets over the last two weeks is a direct consequence of many police departments trying to develop a 'warrior cop' mentality. For several years, the Minneapolis police department trained its officers in 'killology', a law enforcement philosophy that emphasises the need to be ready to take a human life at any moment, just like a soldier on a battlefield.
An organisation called 'The Force Science Institute' has trained tens of thousands of American police that they need to be far more aggressive than their common sense would dictate by showing them 'fear porn' videos of officers being killed in the line of duty. This training conditions police to be in constant fear for their lives, even during routine traffic stops. Yet the data shows that the 48 American police officers feloniously killed in 2019 was identical to the number a decade before. When Minneapolis Mayor, Jacob Frey, defunded the 'killology' training in the wake of the shooting of Philando Castile, the local police union offered to fund it themselves, claiming it was 'not about killing but about survival'.
Alongside this militarisation of police attitudes there's also been a militarisation of their equipment. Started under President Clinton, the Defence Department's 1033 programme donates surplus military equipment to America's police departments, and that's why even small-town forces now have intimidating armoured cars. President Obama tried to limit those transfers, but Trump quickly reversed those restrictions as part of his fetishisation of all things GI Joe related. This militarisation of America's police has been fatal. Recent research suggests that when a police force acquires ex-military equipment, civilian deaths in their jurisdiction increase by 130%.
The other contributing factor in Chauvin's behaviour was a sense of invulnerability. Painstaking county by county research conducted by Professor Phillip Stinson shows Chauvin's belief that he was untouchable to be well founded. In the decade from 2005 to 2015 – even though on average 1,000 per year were killed by police – not a single officer in America was convicted of murder. In the last five years, despite the publicity surrounding numerous cases like that of George Floyd, the conviction rate has only risen to one per year.
Following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri in 2014, there was widespread adoption of police body cams in the hope that greater transparency would create greater accountability. But the efficacy of the warrior training and the resilience of the aggression it creates was demonstrated by a 2017 study of over 2,000 officers in Washington DC. That research showed no statistical difference in the use of force between those who wore body cams and those who didn't, although clearly the footage can be vital evidence in any civilian complaint.
So, what we've witnessed in Minneapolis and in countless American cities is the deadly combination of heavily armed police trained in a 'kill or be killed' philosophy who are also confident that they are above the law, regardless of the evidence against them.
Unlike the broader issue of racism, better policing should be a tractable problem. The research-backed #8Can'tWait initiative advocates for eight specific police reforms, including banning all chokeholds and mandating officers to intervene to stop the use of excessive force by colleagues; either of which would have saved the life of George Floyd. The research suggests that when police departments implement all eight reforms, the impact can be a 70% drop in civilian deaths. But importantly, the research also shows that in cities that have already restricted the use of force by police, the police end up safer as well because of de-escalation, refuting the scaremongering of the 'warrior cop' advocates.
Police reform needs to be dealt with bottom-up rather than top-down (although the Democrats have just introduced a rare Federal police bill into Congress). There are nearly 18,000 police departments in America and they are all accountable to locally elected officials. History suggests that, even when trust has been destroyed between the police and the communities they serve, it can be rebuilt. For example, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was emblematic of the sectarian divide in North Ireland, yet the reformed PSNI now enjoys broad cross-community support. While many protestors are now demanding that police departments be defunded, most aren't advocating anarchy, but instead the type of fundamental reform that starts with a blank sheet of paper and develops a policing approach that truly 'protects and serves' the entire community.
I hope this time it is different, and that George Floyd's name isn't just another addition to the list of hashtags that did nothing to prevent the recent tragedies. That America can look at itself in the mirror and decide to change the narrative. As lockdowns are lifted and America gets back to normal, hopefully the new normal includes a recognition from the White House to police precincts to suburban Georgia streets that black lives do matter. But even if you don't believe that they do, regardless of who you are, the new normal needs to be an America in which you will always be held accountable if you act on those racist beliefs.