GENE ROBERTSON: Police and people of color are all victims of stereotyping

Thursday, November 28, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:10 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 16, 2014

COLUMBIA — Policing is what some professionals do. It is not who they are as human beings.  

Being a person of color is who we are as human beings. It is not a profession.

The police can remove the uniforms and badges and assume the role of ordinary citizens. People of color cannot stop being people of color, no matter how hard some try.

Ascribing behaviors to either of these groups based upon stereotyping is not good for either group or for the community. There is a large range of behaviors available to both groups and to all of us in the community. We need to learn to understand individuals and our context before we can know what we can expect from each other. No one of us is simply anything. We are all complexly a combination of attributes that includes our frailties and assets.

Police officers are given legal and moral powers, which they can use or misuse in specific context. They are expected to be accountable to formal and informal systems in our community for their conduct. It is up to the community to hold them accountable.

People of color also have powers that we can choose to exploit or diffuse.

All of us have the power to define ourselves or others as a menace or contributor to society.

The community has the power to determine the behavior of groups by the way it defines, values, assists them and holds them accountable. The response by the community is integral to any group’s capacity to do well.

The police and the community are in a symbiotic relationship. We need others for our communities to function at a high level. If negative stereotypical behaviors are acted on, everyone loses. People of color are falsely accused. Police are not given assistance, and the community is uncomfortable and often pays more financially for safety and a desired quality of life.

We must find ways to interact positively to tear down the negative stereotypical walls and build bridges based upon positive interaction. Some cities require police to live in the areas they police. Others have developed programs to foster positive interaction between police and the community, such as police sponsored athletics and other community events. This kind of creativity also may serve as a recruitment activity to enlist people of color to become police of color.

The impact of stereotyping on these two groups is in no way the same. In general, the perception of police is that of a protector outside communities of color. People of color are too frequently painted with brushes of noncontributory to many communities, i.e.violent, lazy, ignorant, predatory, resource exhausting and unworthy of positive responses from the community, except in rare cases. Often times this negative stereotyping for people of color comes with lifelong economic, educational, health, legal and mental results that impact more than one generation.

Consequently, it is important to know if, when we interact with others, we are making judgments based on as much factual and rational knowledge as possible, or if we are dangerously stereotyping people whom we need to take the time to know.

William E. "Gene" Robertson is a Columbia resident and a professor emeritus at MU. He writes occasional columns for the Missourian.


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Michael Williams November 28, 2013 | 8:34 p.m.

Ah, yes.....stereotyping.

Here's two personal stories:

(1) I actually met Rose Nolen several years ago. I was walking on Walnut (dressed in a suit and tie, which I abhor btw) and she was standing alone on the corner, possibly waiting on a bus. Others were walking in the vicinity. This was back when she wrote for the Trib at a time I tended to enjoy, but not necessarily agree with, her columns and thoughts.

I slowly approached her and asked if she was indeed Rose Nolen. I wanted to meet a local celebrity. I smiled as I approached and met her eyes. She reacted by taking two steps back with alarmed eyes. She was clearly frightened. I stopped in my tracks, introduced myself, and said I enjoyed her columns. I smiled again, then walked on to my destination.

So what was going on here? Was she alarmed that a 50+ year old white guy approached her during the daylight hours with others around? Was it because I was white, or just a guy, or just an "unknown"?

If I had been black, would her reaction have been the same?

Beats me, but her subsequent columns in Missourian do not lead me to an encouraging interpretation.

(2) We were in Hannibal, MO a few years ago, sitting down at a diner for lunch. There were only 4 folks in the diner, the two of us (caucasian) and two black gentlemen sitting together. The waitress approached us and the best I can say about her was she was just plain rude. I observed her with the two black gentlemen and...yep...exactly the same rudeness.

To this day I do not know what the two black gentlemen thought. To them, was she rude....or racist? To us, she was entitled to the label "rude". To them....I don't know.

But, the situations were identical.

I can easily see where preconceived notions can influence the resulting label..........

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 29, 2013 | 6:06 a.m.


Since to my knowledge we have never met in person, is it possible that your VISAGE may have startled or distressed Rose?

I have a long history of frightening both Hispanic and Anglo kiddies. :) El Vampiro (requires no translation).

My actual Spanish nickname is "tecolote," another creature that operates at night but is somewhat more benign. The name appears as a part of my email address.

(Report Comment)

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