Can we talk about the Black Elephant in the Room? If we are really going to get to the bottom of the race issue, we’re going to have to talk about it rather than just protest and point fingers, right? All of the rhetoric about racism, white privilege, systemic bigotry and such may be missing the point. Do police really treat young black men differently than other young men, and if so, why? Is there malice involved or experiential logic? Is the argument literally as basic as black and white?

My theory is that there is a reason, other than bigotry, that causes police — and everyone else, really — to look at certain young black men differently than most other young men. It is a logical view for police, since it is based on years of dealing with this segment of society, day after day after day. This segment is very criminally prolific and dangerous. It has been known to deal, on a daily basis, in drugs, weapons, prostitution, rape, extortion and murder. We all know the Black Elephant in the Room.

Everyone in the world is aware of the BEITR because rap and hip-hop musicians, clothing designers and manufacturers, and celebrities jump on the zeitgeist of this movement to promote and profit from the image. The image is one of danger, vitality, daring and iconoclastic outcast. It’s the bad boy with a gun, at the heart of every stupid blaxploitation movie.

Black gangsterism has nothing in common with law-abiding black men and women other than skin color, yet there is a propensity among law-abiders (black and white) to dress and speak like this group because of the zeitgeist. Before his fall from grace, Bill Cosby once exhorted his younger brethren that if they wanted to find legitimate employment, they needed to finish school, speak English and pull their pants up. Though Cosby had issues of his own, he would not be joining the ranks of the populists, and his exhortation would be neither heeded nor appreciated.

Think about being a city police officer and getting called to another drive-by shooting where the description of the shooter matches the description of the last 10 drive-by shooting calls you’ve been called to. You know the description. I don’t have to describe it in detail. It’s the description of a black gangster. Enough said. The black gangster has made his appearance iconic. Everyone knows it and feels some trepidation when in close proximity to it. That’s part of the experience. Think about being that same police officer and dealing with one violent call after another where the description remains the same.

I’m not going to suggest that the police shoot young black men dressed like gangsters more often than young white men out of fear, but there is a certain logical discretion allowed for someone who matches the description of a group that is typically armed, dangerous and completely at odds with law enforcement officers. Of course, it’s more than just the gangster appearance. It’s an attitude of blatant defiance, in-your-face profanity and an open willingness to use violence as a means to an end. This attitude, coupled with the gangster look, is very easy for police to identify when dealt with on a daily basis.

Black gangsters kill young black men at a rate of at least 40 to 1, when compared with the police, yet we don’t discuss that phenomenon. The black community seems to shield them from responsibility, because they are the troubled cousin that everyone in the family feels some responsibility for and some connection to. The police intercede and save the lives of more young black men from rival gangs than anyone — and get no credit for it.

When we discuss how police deal with young black men vs. white, we don’t consider the city police officer’s experience with black gangsters. Is it logical that a city police officer treat a young man dressed and acting out like a gangster exactly the same as he would treat a young white man dressed like a “prepster”? Logic tells you that the police would use more caution with the gangsterish black man based on experience. Is that prejudice? Probably. Is it judicious? Probably.

That’s not to suggest that there is “open season” on young black gangbangers. It’s an experiential consciousness among city police officers, white and black, that is logical and probably ingrained over time as a survival instinct. Training police to treat the black gangster the same as the white prepster — while sounding very hip, loving and peaceful — is counterintuitive for the cop and might just get him killed. Treating the white gangbanger the same as the black gangbanger is common sense among cops.

To confront the issue of young black men being shot by police, we are going to have to discuss and confront the black elephant in the room.


Richard Greelis, an author living in Bloomington, is a retired police detective and teacher.