Why Don’t They Call The Police?

Standpoint theorists argue that certain standpoints in society are more conducive than others to (at least) certain kinds of knowledge; and that some standpoints will make it very hard to obtain certain sorts of knowledge.  Generally, the focus is on the way that less privileged people have access to knowledge that more privileged people find it incredibly difficult to get.  This is all extremely abstract, so concrete illustrations are useful.Several months ago, in the Dunbar Village projects, in Florida, a woman was raped by 10 men and forced to perform oral sex on her son, and both were temporarily blinded with bleach, over the course of 3 hours.  The walls were paper thin. The question was asked over and over:  why didn’t anyone call the police?   How could anyone be so morally corrupt that they just don’t care? But this question is based on the presupposition that the only reason for not calling the police is a lack of concern.  Here are some thoughts that undermine this, and that are very unlikely to occur to those of us who haven’t been black and extremely poor.

Do you really think that calling would have done anything when people call for help all the time, and it takes police and ER crews some times up to two or three hours to show up if they show up at all? A young boy here in detroit called 911 because his mother was dying and the 911 receptionist hung up on him. Hung up on him even when his gasping and wheezing mother got on the phone and pleaded for help. Why? because he was from the ghetto part of town and the 911 folks have a policy that includes not having to take the calls from that part of town seriously. 

  • Today I was listening to NPR’s Justice Talking, which was doing a program on New Orleans. They interviewed Ursula Price, from Safe Streets/Strong Communities. She told the story of a black mother of three who called the police because of domestic violence taking place next door to her. The police came, but instead of doing anything about the domestic violence they arrested her for a five-year-old traffic violation and put her in jail.
  • Just a few days ago we learned that the black woman who had just been imprisoned, beaten, and raped for a week by had been arrested for writing bad checks.  Her name came to the police’s attention through the horrific crime of which she was the victim, so they arrested her.

It seems completely and utterly baffling to those of us who are white and reasonably well-off that those who are poor and black might fail to call the police when there are crimes taking place. But if we listen to what those from these communities say, we learn that there are lots of very good reasons that a poor black person might not call the police.  What seems completely incomprehensible from one standpoint is readily understandable from another.  The fact that we can learn from each other this way is partly responsible for the fact that a lot of standpoint theory has mutated recently into a call for diversity and dialogue in knowledge-seeking.

  • And on a less intellectual note:  what appalling police priorities. 

13 thoughts on “Why Don’t They Call The Police?

  1. Jesus Fucking Christ All Mighty!!! If I had been a neighbour, I would have called the entire building, asking them to bring beisbol bats, spades, kitchen knifes and anything they could possibly find!

    Then everyone thinks that racism is gone because there’s a black woman in the White House.

  2. Even if the minorities have learned to mistrust the police, Brownfemipower’s rationalization seems perverse and even insulting.

    “Hey, our neighbor is being gang raped; I’d call for help, but they hung up on me last time.”

    Isn’t that plainly ridiculous? Brownfemipower may think that she empathizes with minority sensibilities, but to me she seems to have caricatured them.

  3. Pepper Bread,

    I think you are right that a way of thinking is insultingly bad, but I think you’ve misunderstood Brownfemipower’s point.

    She isn’t arguing from a single case to a general policy of not calling the police. That’s would be pretty bad. Rather, at least as I read her, she’s relating a telling example of what poor minorities encounter all the time. If you look at her language, it is clear that she takes the example to be typical, I think.

  4. Yes. I take BFP’s point to be one about the effects of systematic neglect by the police. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that for some people in some circumstances, calling the police would cease to seem worth doing. In fact, with enough systematic neglect evidence would strongly be against the thought that the police would help– and it would be irrational to think that they might.

  5. I have an article on the question of oppositional secrets in Hypatia 2005. I address whether it is simply a moral conflict or an epistemological conflict.

  6. Not just happening in poor black communities in the USA. I know someone (white, middle-class, living in a nice area) who was followed home from the bar where she works and raped in her house on Christmas Eve. When the police arrived, they found a small amount of cannabis lying on the table, and arrested her for possession.

  7. What a horrible story, Monkey. And somehow it isn’t at all reassuring to know that such cases are not only the result of US race and class biases!

  8. Wow. In the first place it isn’t just a race issue, it is an issue of the middle class (of all races) intentionally ignoring anything that does not contribute to their lives. The police NEVER come to the projects, believe me, I lived in them for 34 years, the white middle class cares about noone but their own group. It is only a question of where you live and how much money you have, and how much you contribute to the oppression of the poor. It isn’t that the person in teh next apartment didn’t care, many factors come into play such as being used to hearing things like that every single day of your life, you no longer notice, then there is the fact that no middle class police person (of any color) wants poor people to be safe, remember this is a capitalist country where people are blamed for being poor even when they are necessarily forced into poverty by the middle class, then there is the fact that is she called, she would also get hurt, we don’t have the luxury of protection in this country, that is a luxury given only to those with money.
    The intentional epistemic ignorance that pervades the middle class necessarily results in harming others for the sake of keeping what they have.
    Even if you get to academia there is so much segregation that is based on SES that it is very hard to get anywhere.
    Housing segregation also plays into this, if housing wasn’t segregated by social class things of this nature wouldn’t ever happen.
    As usual the people who cause this won’t be held responsible, they can just enjoy all their luxuries such as heat, food, medicine, safety, protection, ad nauseum.

  9. …I’ll use your example in my english 120 essay tomorrow, hope you don’t mind.

  10. Great post, Jender. I found it when I was looking for a follow up story on another old post that came up today.

    So it’s called Standpoint Theory. I will definitely be looking into some more of that. Even though I’m still only in about 40% agreement with MacKinnon’s statements here, I’m still looking forward to reading more of her work too.

    My deepest sympathies for the victims. Most people never really recover after an attack like that. I hope they were at least given every opportunity humanly possible to aid their healing.

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