What Sam Harris Taught Me About Police Brutality

Isaiah McCall

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“All we have between us and the total breakdown of civilization is a series of successful conversations. If we can’t reason with each other, there is no path forward but violence.” — Sam Harris

Sam Harris’s podcast: “#207: Can We Pull Back From The Brink?” challenges the listener unlike any other show I’ve ever heard. In this salient episode, the American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist disseminated the facts on police brutality.

Instead of laying out subjective conclusions or arguments to solve police brutality, Harris asked well-informed, contentious questions.

“On the most important topics, there now seems to be fury, sanctimony, and bad faith,” said Harris.

“We appear to be driving ourselves crazy, incapable of coming into contact with reality; unable to distinguish fact from fiction, and then becoming destabilized by confirmation bias and lashing out on that basis.”

As a scientist, Harris tells the listener dispassionate facts that he believes every American citizen should reflect upon. And as a philosopher, he’s savvy enough to give appropriate context for said facts.

Caution! You will likely be offended by Harris’s questions (as an open-minded person myself, many questions alarmed me at first). Harris doesn’t draw concrete conclusions to solve police brutality but instead asks pertinent questions based on facts.

With that said, here are four major takeaways from what might be the most important podcast of the year.

1. Tough, Controversial Questions

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Harris spent the first half of the episode laying into the “inept leadership” from Donald Trump regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and police brutality. He then opened up about George Floyd’s murder and how we are in desperate need of police reform. But then he asked the toughest questions I’ve ever heard a podcast host ask a listener:

  • “Do we have reason to believe that if Floyd had been white, that he wouldn’t have died in a similar way?”
  • “Do the dozen or so other videos of black men being killed by cops prove, or even suggest that there is an epidemic of police violence directed especially at black men; and that this violence is motivated by racism?”
  • “Does the killing of George Floyd prove that we have a problem of racism in the United States?”

The answer is yes — a resounding yes, at least one would think. Harris himself says to even pose these questions the way he did, is viewed as obscene.

Yet he tells the listener that if you take a few minutes to look at the data on crime and police violence, you’ll find the answer is no in every case (with one very important caveat being that black people are more likely to be roughed up by the police than any other race).

1000people are killed by cops each year according to Statista. There are 50-to-60 million police encounters a year and 10 million arrests; so the chances of being killed by cops are 1-in-10,000 as Harris points out.

“It’s almost certainly the case that of these 1000 officer caused deaths each year, some are entirely justified. It may be even true that most are entirely justified,” says Harris. “Some are unjustified, and some are harder to judge. That will be true next year and the year after that.”

When hearing that number “1000,” I immediately jumped to the conclusion that they were all unjustified deaths. In reality, and as Harris points out, many of these police-killings are out of self-defense.

A 1985 Supreme Court Ruling sets the guidelines for when cops can use deadly force. Officers can “legally shoot to kill or use other deadly force only when the subject of force presents an imminent danger of death or serious injury to the officer or others,” according to those guidelines.

That said, “1000” still feels like a large number. Why aren’t cops trained to shoot to incapacitate, or to injure? Why must they shoot to kill?

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In an interview with Nola, FBI Special Agent John Huber shed some light on why this is the case.

“We don’t shoot to kill; we shoot to stop,” Huber said. “Wounding someone in the leg or another less-lethal body part will not stop the person from potentially inflicting serious injury or death on an officer or another member of the public. Thus police are trained to aim for the torso or the middle of a person’s body.”

In that same interview, Huber explained that police officers are aware of the consequences of shooting someone, even if it is justified. Cops often ask themselves if this shooting is worth the infamy, media attention, a potential lawsuit or imprisonment, and the reputation of their job, according to Huber. And all of this happens during a split-second decision.

“Everyone has the right to self-defense. Police officers do, too,” Huber said. “When a police officer wakes up in the morning, they want to go home. They don’t want to get into a shooting.”

A recent Washington Post headline read: “Protests spread over police shootings. Police promised reforms. Every year, they still shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people.”

Somehow the headline isn’t as juicy if it was amended to say: “…still shoot and kill nearly 1000 people, some are in self-defense and save innocent lives, others are unjustified.”

This is where a conversation would be critical in making significant progress in police reform:

  • Should police be trained to shoot less? Or for injury and incapacitation? Keep in mind this is a country where American citizens own nearly 400 million guns.
  • Should the laws be amended to hold police more accountable for shootings?

The real question is, of these 1000 cases how many are black? And how many where racism played a crucial factor? Here’s the breakdown from Statista Research Department:

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  • 25 percent of arrested killed are black
  • 25 percent of arrested killed are Hispanic/other
  • 50 percent of arrested killed are white

The disparity might alarm some (it did for me at least) as the black community only makes up 13 percent of the US population yet represents 25 percent of police killings. Sam Harris realizes this and asks us to consider a few more facts in his podcast.

“Blacks are 13 percent of the population, but commit at least 50 percent of the murders and other violent crimes,” according to Harris and FBI data.

“If you have 13 percent of the population responsible for 50 percent of the murders, and in some cities committing two-thirds of all violent crime — what percent of police attention should it attract,” Harris asks. “I honestly don’t know, but I’m sure it’s not 13 percent. And given that the overwhelming majority of their victims are black, I’m pretty sure most black people wouldn’t set the dial at 13 percent either.”

Harris was alluding to black on black crime, a subject taboo even for black leaders to talk about as you’ll soon see.

2. Black on Black Crime

“The weekends the protests and riots were kicking off nationwide, when our entire country was tearing itself apart… 92 people were shot and 27 killed in Chicago alone.” — Sam Harris

Nationwide black people are six times more likely to get murdered than whites (and in some cities double that). And 93 percent of these murders are committed by members of the African American community.

“[For much of a generation] The story of crime in America is overwhelmingly the story of black on black crime,” says Harris.

As a young black man, this particular part of the podcast hurt to listen to. I’ve had racist encounters growing up — I’ve been followed in stores and asked to show my backpack to ensure I wasn’t stealing.

But whenever a family member or friend was a victim of a violent crime, it was from a member of my own race.

A cousin of mine was robbed at gunpoint at 6 am in their inner-city apartment. And my dad, who was a physical education teacher in Irvington, New Jersey was confronted by a Crip gang in the middle of a school day. Both cases were black-on-black crimes.

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This is why socially conscious black leaders like Kendrick Lamar consider the hood to be an institution as well; one where a black person is trapped due to crime and poverty.

“So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? When gang banging make me kill a ***** blacker than me? Hypocrite!” — Kendrick Lamar on “Blacker the Berry.”

Lamar received flak from fans and the media for the verse. So if one of the leading voices in hip-hop can’t express another viewpoint on the state of racial issues in this country — what chance does anyone outside the black community have? (But I digress)

Sam Harris, however, continued to establish the groundwork for a conversation to be had regarding the multi-faceted issue of the black struggle in America.

“This kind of violence (black on black) is far more representative of the kind of violence the black community needs to worry about,” says Harris. “Ironically it’s clear that one remedy for this violence would be effective policing.”

All of this said, how much black-on-black crime can be attributed to centuries of racism and America’s cardinal sins of slavery and Jim Crow?

How much can black-on-black crime be blamed due to Red Lining, or segregation, or the many principles and laws that have set black people back for centuries?

3. How Big a Part Does Institutional Racism Play in Black Crime?

“We have to ask: how much current wealth inequality is due to existing racism and existing policies that make it harder for black families to build wealth? The only way to get answers to those questions is have a dispassionate discussion about facts.” — Sam Harris

This country was built on racism and has benefited from it for more than 300 years. My ancestors didn’t ask to be dragged here, they certainly didn’t ask to build a here either.

But how much should America pay for its cardinal sin of slavery and racism? What would payment even look like? Personally I’d like to see improved education in the inner cities rather than a reparations check.

The biggest question, however, is how much racism is actually present in America today?

“There’s no question that boys who grow up with their fathers in prison start off life with a significant strike against them. Criminal justice reform is absolutely essential,” says Harris.

He continued: “Many black people, perhaps most have had interactions with cops, other people of power, and strangers that seem unambiguously racist. Sometimes it’s because they are in the presence of racism, and sometimes it only seems that way.”

When I was pulled over six-times, each encounter I had to reflect upon if it was something to do with my race. However, there’s also the case where racism didn’t play a factor at all. Maybe the cop was having a bad day, needed to fill a quota, or maybe he felt like giving me an attitude for any other reason a human being would give an attitude.

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Black people in this country have to ask themselves if racism played a factor in almost every rude or hostile situation, even if it’s not actually present. This is certainly a privilege white people have in this country — being able to judge situations on the content of each other's character, not race.

However, there are times when racism isn’t present in hostile encounters towards black people, hence one of Harris’s presuppositions:

“Do we have reason to believe that if Floyd had been white, that he wouldn’t have died in a similar way?”

Harris brings up the case of Tony Timpa, a white man who was killed by Dallas police officers due to negligence. These Dallas cops believed they were acting in accordance with police regulations, so they didn’t take Timpa seriously when he started to beg for air to breathe.

In fact, the cops joked as Timpa pleaded.

If Timpa had been black, racism likely would’ve been attributed as the reason. But Timpa was killed because the police were negligent, not because of malevolence or racial hostility.

Another fact pertinent to this topic is that black and Hispanic officers are actually more likely to shoot black and Hispanic citizens. Black citizens are two times more likely to be shot by a black cop and Hispanics are nine times more likely to be shot by Hispanic cops.

All of this is more evidence that America’s police force needs reform for reasons other than racism.

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That said, racism is still present in this country and much of it lingers from the historic, systemic policy enforced for centuries. But we won’t come any closer to solving this problem if we continue to condemn racism where it doesn’t exist as Harris points out.

“Nothing I’m about to say denies that we should condemn racism whether interpersonal or institutional,” says Harris. “But as a society, we simply can’t afford to find and condemn racism where it doesn’t exist. And we should be increasingly aware of the costs of doing that.”

“The more progress we make on issues of race, the less racism there will be to find, and the more likely we’ll find ourselves merely chasing after its ghost. This isn’t 1920, and this isn’t 1960, we had a two-term black president, we have black congressman and women, black mayors and chiefs of police. These black people in power are proof of progress.”

4. Your Capacity to be Offended by Conversation and Facts Can’t Matter

If you care about justice, and you absolutely should, you should care about facts and the ability to discuss them openly. Justice requires contact with reality, it simply isn’t the case, it cannot be the case that the most pressing claims of our sense of justice need come by those who claim to be most offended by conversation itself. — Sam Harris

The racial situation in America is far more complicated than the media or social media makes it out to be. There’s no one villain in this current moment; there’s systemic racism, black-on-black crime, racist cops, bad cops, corporate stereotyping, and misinformation in the media, to name a few.

And in that same light, there are people, videlicet social media influencers, and those on the far left who are calling everything racist; or labeling basic human rights and behaviors as coming from a place of “white privilege.”

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Minneapolis City Council President, Lisa Bender told CNN that fears of dismantling local police forces come from a “place of privilege.”

“What if in the middle of the night my home is broken into. Who do I call?” CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota asked Bender after the city council president laid out her vision for a post-police city.

“I hear that loud and clear from a lot of my neighbors, and I know — and myself, too, and I know that that comes from a place of privilege,” Bender responded.

Since then, Bender has retracted her statement. But the fact that we’re at a point where someone breaking into your house is considered “a place of privilege,” by an elected official no less, shows how off the rails this current situation is becoming.

“We’re seeing prominent people in government, in the media, Hollywood, and in sports speak act as though the breakdown of civil society and society itself is a form of progress and any desire for law enforcement itself is racial oppression,” said Sam Harris.

“You cannot say that if someone is breaking into your house and you're terrified, and you want a police force, that your fear is a symptom of white privilege. That’s where democratic politics goes to die.”

Black people have every right to blame our struggle on the racism this country was built on. In that same right, however, personal agency has to be addressed.

Black-on-black crime cannot be thrown into the ever-growing bucket of racism. Especially while the media portrays police and systemic racism as the sole reason for black struggle, and instills a victim mentality when we could be empowered at this moment.

We need messages of empowerment, personal responsibility, and education, the same way Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Huey Newton, Frederick Douglas, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X taught.

Instead in this pivotal moment for race relations, I see people scream “f$#@ cops” to their faces, or try to rationalize crime and looting as “social protest.”

The MLK Jr. quote about “riots being the language of the unheard” has been going around for weeks now. But what about his 1967 speech: “The Other America:”

“…riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

King finished that speech with one more poignant line:

“And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”

There are only two options in this current climate: have a conversation with the people we demonize, the ones we consider “the other,” and try to reach agreements on how to solve the issue of racism and police brutality;

Or tear it all down violently, because it hasn’t worked and it won’t ever work. Defund and abolish the police, cancel anyone who disagrees with us and never listen to any facts we disagree with; digging deeper into what we already believe.

The latter sounds like a more entertaining movie, but a horrific reality. Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglas even Malcolm X towards the end of his life realized we can all coexist in this country. We don’t need to fear the “other,” and as Sam Harris so aptly puts it, there’s only one “other” we do need to fear.

“I’ll tell you the fear of the other that does seem warranted. It’s the other who has rendered themselves incapable of dialogue, it’s the other who will not listen to reason and has no interest in facts. Who can’t join a conversation that converges on the truth because they know in advance what the truth must be,” says Harris.

We should fear the other who thinks dogmatism and cognitive bias aren’t something to be corrected for because they are the very foundations of their epistemology…We’re all capable of becoming this person if only for hours and minutes at a time — we have to continually correct for this.” — Sam Harris
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Despite the length of this article, this was only a snippet of “Making Sense with Sam Harris #207 — Can We Pull Back From The Brink?” No matter your race, political point of view, or education level, the podcast is a must-listen. Other topics Harris touched upon:

  • Terrible laws such as the no-knock drug raids which resulted in the death of Breonna Taylor
  • The media making political pornography of police brutality
  • Police morale being low — no one will likely want to be a cop from younger generations anymore
  • Black American economist and Harvard professor Roland Fryer’s shocking results regarding racism and police brutality
  • The black culture’s history and promotion of resisting arrest

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USA Today Reporter and Ultramarathoner. I write about Cryptocurrency, Fitness Hacks, and Greek Philosophy. Also a diehard Trekkie | mccallisaiah@gmail.com

Jersey City, NJ
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