Ending racism in policing begins with the Red Tent


I was talking to Jose at work the other day about the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the lack of indictments on the police officers who killed them. We both are appalled how it went down. While I’ve experience abuse of power at the hands of the police just a few times, Jose has had many negative, unprovoked, experiences in which the prejudice of the officer was the cause for the encounter and the tone of the exchange. As we talked I tried to make the point that while the officers are responsible for their actions the blame also is also on our culture and the police system that trained them. In part, they only did what they were raised to believe and trained to do.

Now Janeen and I have started watching “The Red Tent” a Lifetime TV mini-series. In the first 10 minutes of the show I realized we cannot solve the problems of racial injustice in policing until we correct the racial lies in Hollywood. This mini-series, based on the novel by Anita Diamant, follows the life of the biblical character Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah and the sister of Joseph. It was well done with an interesting plot – with one notable exception: this is a middle-eastern Palestinian nomadic family, yet racially they have very different characteristics:

  • The “Good Guys” Jacob and Joseph are blue eyed, with sandy-brown hair and peachy-pink skin – and the only ones at that.
  • The “Bad Guys” Levi and Shalem (Simeon), who are jealous of Joseph, plot to kill Dinah’s family and sell Joseph into slavery – have dark eyes, black hair, and light blown skin.
  • The “slaves” are all person of African descent or mixed (even though at this time slaves were usually from a neighboring tribe or clan who were conquered or sold for debt.

This is not just a problem with The Red Tent, the recently released movie “Exodus, Gods and Kings” is based on a story set in Africa, yet the only black people I found in the character list (over half-way down) were a fire-pit guard, Moses’ general, and some “lower-class” civilians. Remember how Star Trek used to have black characters that had no name, and were certain to get killed when they “beamed down”. It’s a well documented TV Trope; “Black Dude Dies First”

Television and Movies only reflect the values that most Americans find acceptable, and for the most part they create shows to make money. Casting decisions are not only based on the talent of the actors but on how the majority of the viewers will perceive that person. Producers know they have a limited time to communicate to the audience the personality and character of the actor; racial stereotypes, even subtle cues provide a short-cut to character development in film making.

I say all this to say the problem with police killing un-armed black males is not just a few bad police (even though that is part of it) nor is it a broken justice system (which needs to be fixed) it is not even the training police receive (which could be done better).

No, the truth is if police from NYC or Ferguson or even Minneapolis were transported to Jacobs’ camp with the Red Tent, they would immediately know who the good guys and the criminals are, just by looking for the blue eyes. But it’s not just the police; it is us, white American society. It is rooted in racial myths that have become damning realities that continue to this day. We cannot fix the policing issues until we undo the subtle myths we believe about who are the “good guys” and “bad guys” – Why? Because once we think we know who the bad guy is we can be quicker to pull the trigger and slower to feel compassion.