07/03/2012 12:05 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2012

Are White Cops Racist?

I hadn't thought a lot about this question because the answer seemed obvious. Sure, some white cops are racist, but most are not. The same answer applies to other professions, including mine. While I've been around journalists who've stereotyped minorities, it's happened rarely. So generalizing would be a mistake.

Then a reader recently posted thoughtful comments about alleged racism by Chicago cops and I began to rethink the issue. The post responded to an article I wrote about a Texas death penalty case. I have since corresponded extensively with the reader and know his identity. He is a white, Irish, lifetime South Sider who asked to be known as "Mac."

"I have a question/comment that has confounded me for years," Mac's post began. "I know dozens of cops. Some are plainly not good guys. Most are family men that generally live as decent human beings. ALL are racists, or at least speak using racial slurs (is there a difference?)" he wrote.

"The universal comment for refuting their own racist usage is, of course, the 'you have no idea' defense," Mac continued. "Actually, I do have an idea. I know these officers are subjected to awful, hateful conditions [in the] course of performing their jobs. It's not as if I've never been to the hood (though a lot of people probably never have.)"

"What I struggle with... Are the guys I know who are generally decent really not decent, or is that just the vernacular of being on the job?"

It's a troubling question. From personal experience, some of my best sources for reporting about injustice have been white cops. One is William Pedersen, who investigated violent crimes under the command of Jon Burge, currently incarcerated for perjury and obstruction of justice in Chicago's notorious police torture scandal. The torture victims were black; the torturers were white.

I asked Pedersen, now a private investigator who worked for me on the case of Stanley Wrice (a black youth tortured by two of Burge's officers), about "the vernacular of being on the job." Pedersen said it was unusual for fellow officers to use the n-word, and when it happened, it typically resulted from job-related stress. "Too many times we'd see blacks do the most inhumane things to other blacks," he told me. "When a black child was beaten to a pulp by her parents, it was hard for cops not to call them names" -- what Mac called the "you have no idea 'defense.'"

Pedersen renounces police brutality and racism, saying the vast majority of officers he worked with were "good guys."

So perhaps the question "Are White Cops Racist?" has nuanced answers. At one level, some cops use racially loaded language when reacting on duty to intensely emotional situations. That is unacceptable, but spontaneous and not necessarily betraying racist beliefs. I would call this "blue racism."

At a deeper level, some white cops toss around racial slurs when they're simply hanging out, revealing a disturbing culture of racism. Deeper still is the use of physical force, including torture, to act out fundamentally racist attitudes.

But at the core -- the level Mac struggles most with -- is whether racist police officers can be "decent" human beings.

In reflecting on this issue, I was reminded of an incident I observed in court last month. The occasion was a hearing in the case of Howard Morgan, the black motorist who was shot 28 times by four white officers and survived, only to be convicted of attempted murder of the officers. The case has generated heated racial animosity, as I have reported.

Rev. Jesse Jackson testified at the hearing on behalf of Morgan. After Rev. Jackson left the witness stand, he strode directly to two white uniformed officers sitting opposite Morgan's supporters. The men exchanged firm handshakes. I would like to think this gesture reflected a human bond that transcends skin color. It stems from a tradition that embraces the innermost decency of every person while rejecting the indecency of racist expressions.

Mac is not so sure. "If the decent ones really aren't decent... if [racist] language translates to racial oppression... then this city, these communities, are totally screwed for a long time coming," he concluded bluntly.

Is Mac right? And what about racism by minority cops, who now comprise 46 percent of the force? Has racism by cops touched your life? Most important, as Mac asked later in an email: "How does this situation get better?"

The only incorrect answer is silence.