Portland Photo Distracts From the Real Problems of Race

(Photo: Doran)(Photo: Doran)

People of goodwill cannot alone overcome the structural violence of racism.

Devonte Hart’s photo with Police Sergeant Brett Barnum at a November 25, 2014, demonstration in Portland, Oregon has gone viral on social media, and stories about the hug have appeared on major news networks such as CNN, FOX, and ABC news.

Amid all the frustration and pain that has erupted since the announcement of the grand jury not to seek charges against Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, the image of an African-American youth, with tears in his eyes, giving a full body hug to a white police officer is, to many, a sign of hope. It seems to say to us that what matters, and what can ultimately overcome all our social ills, is a genuine connection between people, recognizing one other’s basic humanity and emotional vulnerability, and letting one other know that we can be there in the moment for the other.

Zimbardo demonstrated that even good individuals can inflict significant pain and suffering on people when they are put in institutional roles that emphasize dominance and subordination.

It is a touching moment, and Hart’s family seems to feel that it was a special moment for the young man. But all that is really beside the point of the Ferguson protests. The reactions around this photo threaten to derail the discussion about what our social ills really are. The issue is not that there are just a few racist police officers across the country; it is not that we need a reminder that there are, indeed, many good people who serve in law enforcement – it is not really about individuals at all. It is about institutional power, stereotypes and social roles.

There is an epidemic of police violence against people of color in the United States, with Native American and Black men being the primary victims. It is a problem fueled by a confluence of factors, including the militarization of law enforcement, an economy that has produced large numbers of restless young people without great hope in social mobility, and, most importantly, racist stereotypes of people of color as perpetrators of violent crime. These are not problems that can be fixed with a hug between good people or any one moment of pleasant interaction between people and state officials.

The work of Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment should teach us that these are not problems that can be fixed by making sure that the “good people” are socially recognized. In this infamous experiment, Zimbardo demonstrated that even good individuals can inflict significant pain and suffering on people when they are put in institutional roles that emphasize dominance and subordination as the primary modes of interaction.

Ordinary college students quickly became brutal to other students when they were told they could exercise power over them, along with the suggestion that they had institutional support to keep things quiet and orderly in their experimental jailhouse. Zimbardo later extended his analysis to explain why US soldiers were willing to engage in the torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

What we need – more than a few feel good moments – is a serious discussion about ongoing white supremacy amid fears of economic scarcity, the devaluation of nonwhite lives, especially those of young Black men, the increasing accumulation of firepower of the state for use against its own citizens, and a political sphere increasingly dominated by discussions about how to divest itself from programs of social opportunity.

The photo of Devonte is beautiful not only because it is testimony to his bravery and spirit, but because it records something rare and exceptional. It is a sad reminder that many Black and Brown young people will not be able to flourish tomorrow because the institutions we have around us were not built with their well-being in mind.