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AAA Calls for Systemic Change in U.S. Public Safety
Again. It has happened again … and again …and again. A black man shot down by a police officer. Tuesday in Baton Rouge, Wednesday in St. Paul. Five officers killed and seven others wounded in Dallas. The American Anthropological Association (AAA), indeed the entire nation, once again expresses outrage, horror and sadness at the events that have taken place.
It is now time to convert conversations on race and racism to action. The cycle of violence must end. Some reforms have been made; some opportunities for further reforms have been missed. We could put trigger locks on all 300 million guns in America, body cameras on every police officer, and conduct afternoon civic forums around the country. It would not be enough. Even with the publicity and activism of the past two years, police shootings are not declining; they are on the rise. According to The Washington Post, 491 people were shot by police in the first six months of 2016, up from 465 during the first six months of last year.
A structural and system-wide shift needs to take place within society and, especially, within our nation’s public safety agencies.
To their credit, in some cases, public safety officials have come forward to declare the killings as “senseless, absolutely unnecessary, and avoidable." However, the words chosen by North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, who called Walter Scott’s shooting there in 2015 a “bad decision” by the officer, are of particular concern to us. It isn’t a question of individual choice; it is a matter of the structures within which police operate that constrain those choices, and that lead to the probability of tragic outcomes. A routine traffic stop that escalates into an officer-involved shooting and the death of a black man rests on a worldview that has been cultivated. Making the safe choice the easy choice for the public safety officer can also be cultivated as a matter of systemic change.
Racial hatred need not exist. Through more than a century of anthropological research on race and culture, we now understand that human behavior is learned, conditioned into infants beginning at birth, and subject to modification. Through AAA’s public education initiative RACE: Are We So Different?, which has been seen by more than 1 million people in 40 cities (and currently on display in St. Paul), anthropology puts the spotlight on how to go from distrust, hatred and fear to understanding, appreciation and respect, values that the American Anthropological Association upholds.
These shootings must stop. AAA joins all Americans in saying, “we’ve had enough!”
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Founded in 1902, the American Anthropological Association, with 10,000 members, is the world’s largest professional organization of anthropologists. The Association is dedicated to advancing human understanding and tackling the world’s most pressing problems.