Laurent Dubreuil begins his essay on identity politics [“Nonconforming,” Essay, September] with a peevish rant against the notion of identifying first-generation college students as a cohort on campus who might need some extra accommodations. As a former first-generation student myself, I can attest to the fact that it does take some adjustment to walk into an environment in which the majority of one’s professors and peers benefit from a legacy of higher education in their families and the wealth and stability associated with the educated class.
Like Dubreuil’s, my family was hardly destitute, but they couldn’t afford to pay for me to go to college, so I paid for it myself. All through college and graduate school I cooked meals and reshelved library books for my better-off classmates. I discovered, and started to read, the books and magazines many of my peers had taken for granted on their parents’ coffee tables. I had a lot of catching up to do. During the school breaks my classmates spent in Fort Lauderdale or Aspen, I stayed on campus and worked. I made do with secondhand clothes, hoping they’d remain presentable for another semester. In those days nobody talked about first-generation students. All those late nights studying in my dorm room after finishing a shift at some restaurant, I had no idea whether any of my classmates shared my struggles, whether anyone had ever successfully done what I aspired to do. I was too embarrassed to ask.
My efforts to adjust and to fit in required focus and energy that could have been better spent on my education. And yet I am white, and there is nothing in my dialect today to suggest that I come from a Southern, working-class family. I learned to act as if I belonged. For students whose skin color, or accent, or nationality singles them out, the sense of dislocation that haunted me back then must be a constant and inescapable pressure.
Notice that I write “must be.” That’s because, regardless of my own experience, I recognize that I can’t know what it feels like to be someone else. So I have to make a decision: I can dictate to others what they’re allowed to feel, or I can allow others to set the terms of their own feelings. Dubreuil, apparently, opts for the former.
The Thinning Blue Line
The opening scene of Kevin Baker’s column [“Which Side Are You On?,” Easy Chair, September] captures a truth that every cop knows: police work is life-threatening. In my career as a New York City police officer, I saw partners and peers ambushed, shot, and wounded in all manner of scenarios. Any traffic stop, family dispute, or other seemingly mundane incident can turn deadly in a moment, often requiring an officer to make an instantaneous decision about whether to use potentially deadly force. Critics of the police find it easy to pick apart these decisions after the fact. This is one of the realities of the job.
During my time in the NYPD, we stopped referring to ourselves as a “police force,” and instead as a “service.” At the time, this seemed like a minor semantic issue, but it signaled a larger paradigm shift. The message to officers was that force was not the main function of policing. The use of force should never be taken lightly, and it demands accountability. The vast majority of officers are prudent in this respect, but there are always outliers. Police unions can be faulted for their support of miscreant members, but this is characteristic of unions more generally. Similarly, the so-called blue wall of silence is not unique to policing; almost every profession has its equivalent.
Consequently, we cannot expect the police to police themselves. We must rely on management and their superiors—mayors, governors, attorneys general, and district attorneys—to insist on full compliance with the law. Politicians must neither cave to the police unions’ every demand nor bend to the political headwinds of the day. It is a high-wire act, but a necessary one.
And police officers should not petulantly refuse to do their jobs because they feel they aren’t afforded sufficient respect. I know how they feel, because that is exactly how I felt when I was patrolling the streets of Brooklyn some fifty years ago. Nevertheless, I continued to do my job. My sincere message to police officers, from someone who has walked in their shoes, is to perform their sworn duty to the best of their ability with temperance, integrity, and compassion, or look for another line of work.