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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Black and blue

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Larry Smith

Last week the Minority Police Officers Association (MPOA) held a press conference at which it announced its support for a badge that commemorates the service and sacrifice that Black officers have given to Indianapolis. The badges, which can be worn during Black History Month, are decorated with the traditional African color combination of red, black, and green. (Unfortunately, there was a delay in ordering the badges, so they won’t arrive in time to be worn this month.)

Predictably, the badges have garnered backlash. While there is likely not a one-to-one correlation, I am very willing to wager that most of the people who are upset about them are not the people who are angered by racial discrimination against Blacks. Of course, this issue speaks to the broader cultural phenomenon of animosity directed toward any celebration of Black achievement or culture. For example, we are in the midst of the annual ritual of widespread indignation regarding Black History Month. Opponents will recite something along the lines of, “Why isn’t there a White History Month?”

In my more than 50 years of life, I have never heard African Americans complain about other ethnic, racial, or cultural groups celebrating their heritage. Each year, St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, Hanukkah, Christkindlmarkt, Greek Fest, and a host of other celebrations take place without a peep from Black folks. In fact, we often enthusiastically partake therein. Acting in accordance with the Bible, we “rejoice with those who rejoice”. Sadly, African Americans are the only group of Americans who are routinely called “racist” for celebrating our heritage. That charge has not and will not deter us from doing so.

This steadfastness applies to the aforementioned badges. Blacks have always had a tough time serving in what is now the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD). The department has a long and well-documented history of racial discrimination, ranging from failure to hire Black officers, to passing them over for promotions, to harassment and even violence at the hands of white officers. (Tragically, the department’s history regarding Black civilians is much worse.) To be sure, I recognize that there has been substantial improvement during the past few decades, but there remains much work to do.

On a macro level, the discontent regarding the Black heritage badges is just one of many caveats to “back the blue” sloganeering. Where is such support when Black police officers share their experiences with racism inside and outside the department? The badge – or “shield” – is not a force field that protects them from being singled out because of their race. On the one hand, these officers deal with being called racial slurs by white citizens; on the other, they are often viewed with skepticism or even suspicion by Black citizens. The “thin blue line” can often feel like an excessively fragile thread for officers of color.

In any case, critics charge that the badges in question are “divisive” – which is code for “this makes me step outside my safe space”. Virtually any important issue is inherently divisive. For example, consider abortion. Whether one is staunchly pro-life or immovably pro-choice, abortion is divisive. Yet, I have yet to meet anyone who changes his or her stance on that issue because it is uncomfortable. If one is willing to abandon his or her principles because something is “divisive”, that person wasn’t actually committed to whatever cause they profess to believe in.

Further, the fact that there is an MPOA indicates that there are racial divisions within the police force. I have known at least two dozen Black officers over the years. Some of them are family members, some are dear friends, and some are acquaintances. None of them has experienced exactly the same journey in law enforcement. Yet, I would be hard-pressed to name even one who hasn’t faced racism while in uniform. If the people who are so offended by the Black History Month badges were as committed to combatting racism as they are to opposing the badges, the need for them would be eliminated.  

I am reminded of the soulful lament that the great Louis Armstrong uttered with palpable pathos: “What did I do to be so black and blue?” I am hopeful that the Black officers who are duty-bound to protect and serve rarely have to ask themselves that question.

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