Power differences make communication challenging, especially when members of disparate groups are talking. True communication requires two parties willing to listen. Power makes understanding more difficult during that speaking-listening interaction. Meaning varies depending on the relative power of the participants, so misunderstandings frequently occur. The underlying negotiation of power alters people’s messages as they speak. It’s confusing to say the least.
A White male teacher who says, “Let me give you some advice…” to a young African American female student, is saying something different from what the student would be saying if she said the same words to him. Age, race, occupation, wealth, and many other factors affect our perception of power. Those in power–in this culture it’s often White men–are ignorant of this power dynamic. When you have the power, you are less likely to notice it. That’s privilege. The powerful often argue that things like the words in the law should be applied equally to everyone, not fully realizing that the words and laws were created by the people in power. Because they are privileged, they fail to understand that these words have different meanings when spoken to groups with less power.
I twice lived in Zanesville, Ohio. That was something I could not have imagined would happen after living there the first time around. The first time, back in 1983, I took a job as a manager of a bookstore. I was climbing the corporate retail ladder, such as it was. After a few other jobs, moves, and the passage of eight years, I returned to Zanesville to take a job at a university learning center.
I have always loved the news. As a teenager, I read the local paper just about every day. I also watched C-SPAN as a young adult. I became a magazine junkie when I could afford it, and I still read lots of magazines today. The newspaper in Zanesville, Ohio, the Zanesville Times Recorder, was not quite on a par with the New York Times. The front page story was often about a car accident, with a photo of one of unfortunate automobiles taken by a reported named Brian Gadd. I still remember his name. Even though the paper had its flaws, I read it every day. I was chosen to be a member of a Readers’ Advisory Board, working with the editor and half a dozen others to improve the paper’s quality. I remember reading the police reports. Domestic violence at that time in Muskingum County was commonplace. What was interesting is that charges were rarely pressed against the husbands. You see, the males in those days had all the power. The jobs, money, bank accounts, car titles, etc. were all male prerogatives. The wives, who may have wanted out of violent marriages, had nowhere to go and no means to get there. The culture in Zanesville supported the view that the husbands were the breadwinners and the wives were the caretakers. When domestic violence was reported, if the violence was not too extreme, the police would tell the husbands to settle down and quit drinking. The police would tell the wives to stay away from the husbands for a while. Preserving the marriage was of paramount importance, especially since practically speaking, the wives’ other options were nonexistent. The husbands had all the power and the wives paid the price if they stayed or left. Double-bind. What we say, how we think, and what we do are all effected by the power embedded in our relationships. Please note, the presumption of power is not always a bad thing. For example, one of the problems that occurs when power differences are minimized in a team is that the group members have to spend much more time negotiating instead of acting. It’s a problem faced by co-ops.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time, at more than one university, involved in discussions, where power differences were minimal, resulting in an awful lot of time being spent talking about things of minor importance. No-one was given or granted the power to close the discussion or move on to more important agenda items. Talk can be powerful, but the value of talk dissipates as the problems that need to be addressed grow. The point of these trivial discussions, I suspect, was to establish the relative power of individuals. Individuals could negotiate their power by raising objection after objection, simply to defend their position or prove they were smart enough to counter someone else’s position. The driving force of these discussions was not to engage everyone in solutions that would benefit the group. The individual goals took precedent. In a word, the discussions were driven by ego.
Why is power a concept worth considering? Let’s look at one more example. The nature of power being afforded to certain groups allows White males to walk down most city streets, day or night, and not be harassed by people in the law-abiding neighborhoods or by the police. No one would likely say a word to them. The males would not even think about whether or not to take this stroll. But, if females walked alone down the same street, they may be harassed. Their lack of perceived power makes them vulnerable. Even educated, wealthy men may say things to females on this stroll that they would not want their equally powerful peers to hear. Unlike the males, the females have to give this kind of stroll some thought. If they traveled at night, they may plan a route that would avoid others, they may dress a certain way, they may ask a friend to come along, or they may carry mace. If they ended up in trouble, people may ask them what they were doing out in that neighborhood at that time of night. No one would ask the male the same thing. It’s a matter of the perception of power. The law states that people should have the freedom to act without fear on public property. We are supposed to have equal protection under the law, but we don’t because some people have less power than others. Power in this sense, is much more a matter of the perception of power than it is a question of who could really defend themselves.
Police are called upon to enforce the law and are expected to enforce the law equally. But, as we have seen, when confronted with suspects from minority groups, in particular Black males, some officers have misused their authority. The sad part is that in most of these cases, the tragedies that occurred need not have happened. The problem is more complicated than just having the police and suspects talking effectively and listening to each other because power is embedded in what they say.
I am not an expert in police-community relations. I do not have a good answers to the problems that are plaguing the nation at this time. But, I do suspect that perceptions of power are involved. I’ve had a number of discussions over the past few years that have included police officers and other authority figures. These discussions have also involved people who don’t trust the police and people who have been stopped by police for no other reason than the color of their skin. I also served on a couple of community-based committees trying to address broader issues of race relations in the city of Atlanta. I have read a few articles on the matter as well, and I have some experience in the field of training. But, I am not an expert on the topic. Given my limited degree of insight, I will offer some thoughts on how to get started analyzing what’s wrong and suggest a direction to consider taking at this sensitive time.
First, police, as I understand it, are trained to begin by focusing their attention on controlling the situation when they arrive at a scene. They are trained to assert their authority (power). This seems logical in a way. We need people who, under the right circumstances, are able to take charge, give clear directions, and prevent dangerous situations from escalating. But, officers need to be respected in order to gain control. However, power is often negotiated. The police expect people to listen and obey. The question is what happens when that authority is disputed, i.e., when people don’t listen or obey, when power is not granted. Some police officers, it seems, think that there are three groups of people: law enforcement personnel, citizens, and bad guys. Once a person is labeled a “bad guy,” some officers believe that whatever bad things happen to them is well deserved. When a challenge to their authority results in the “bad guy” label, it can lead to an increased use of force to get control of the situation which causes a more direct questioning of the officer’s authority. Escalation results, anger ensues, and (at times) someone gets seriously hurt. We wonder, how did a traffic stop result in someone getting shot? It makes no sense when you look at the beginning and end of the scenario. But power differences are in play. Some people do not know how to handle power well nor do they know how to communicate in a way that defuses situations rather than escalating them, especially when their own power and privilege are questioned. It’s not just about prejudice although that plays a big part in the power dynamic. It’s also about quick thinking, communication skills, and emotional intelligence. We don’t all have the ability to stay calm under pressure, to use the least amount of force necessary, to work with people who have little respect for us, and to manage situations when people are not listening. These are uncommon skills. Few of us are brave enough to take a job where the job itself involves putting our lives at risk. In addition, many of us do not really care enough about others to try to help them. But, people with these values and skills are the kind of people police departments have to recruit and train.
On the other side of the communal fence, many of my students have said that they would not report a crime they witnessed. They have learned not to get involved. Part of this reticence may be fear of retaliation, but my sense is that it is mostly due to a lack of trust. The communities these students come from do not believe that the police really want to help them. If they help the police, they risk getting caught up in a system where they have little power. Their friends and neighbors would look down on them. I can sympathize with this view. When I was in grade school and high school, the last thing I could imagine myself doing would be to “rat out” a fellow student. Not my business. The teachers were seen as authority figures who were not on my side. No trust and too little concern for my fellow students, unfortunately.
For us to make progress towards solutions to the problems of violence in our communities, though, it has to become everyone’s business. The police will have to give up some of their authority and still feel safe because the community has the officers’ backs. The community will have to learn to trust the police and the justice system more. Lack of trust is a huge problem; the solutions begin with honest dialogue, not calls for greater force, putting more people in jails, or keeping people in jails longer. We’ve been there and done that. Nor do solutions start with a call for violent protests. I really don’t want to try to “make America great again” by returning to the days of rage of the 60s.
We live in a time of discord. Changes are coming. These changes may be for better or worse. We are pledged to live together, so let’s begin a dialogue without the feeling for the need to control, blame, or criticize. The dialogue must begin by listening and trying to understand. This dialogue has to be followed by actions that address the problems we find in our communities and build the trust that will enable people to work together.
We find ourselves on a journey into the unknown. The path ahead is a road of great beauty, but great danger as well. The United States has enough wealth and power to lead the world toward a bright future, but America could go quickly off track and run off a cliff if it fails to honestly and openly address the challenges it faces by engaging the people in dialogue. The ability to dialogue is the great strength of a democracy. Power in a democracy has to be diffuse so that people can really talk with one another, trust each other, bind together, and work together, celebrating our differences to bring about a slowly earned common good.