Does “Reasonable” = Racist?

What can anthropology contribute to the critical conversation about race in America, following the welcome jury decision in the Derek Chauvin trial?

After they amassed and presented a week’s worth of technical details–medical, anatomical, temporal, legal–in the end, the prosecuting attorneys’ case against Derek Chauvin rested on a simple claim: A “reasonable” police officer would have removed his knee from George Floyd’s neck well before the excruciating 8 minutes and 46 seconds it took to kill him.


Miraculously, a jury of 12 peers unanimously agreed with that argument.

Every Black American (and probably every U.S. historian) knows how unlikely that verdict was. Indeed, on average, only one or two killings of a civilian out of a hundred by a police officer even goes to trial in the U.S. Why? Because, at base, the general assumption goes that a “reasonable” police officer would have acted the same way, given the challenging circumstances, so there’s no need to put him (or her) on trial.

And, until now, that argument–both its racist assumptions, and its racist implications–won out.

But what does it mean to invoke the “reasonable man [or woman]” as a model for a jury’s decision?

Back in 1955, the eminent social anthropologist, Max Gluckman, pointed out that the notion of the “reasonable man”–which lies beneath all Anglo-Saxon as well as many other systems of jurisprudence–is, at base, founded on cultural values.

He didn’t put it in quite that way. In analyzing the legal system of the Barotse or Lozi people of Zambia, he wrote:

“as Barotse judges define the reasonable man, they bring into their definitions many facets of Barotse life which are not ostensibly part of the law. These facets include a variety of social and personal prejudices. I believe the same process can be detected in the decisions of our own judges and juries.”

From: Max Gluckman, “The Reasonable Man in Barotse Law,” in Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa (New York: Free Press, 1963)

Those “prejudices”–which we might as well consider equivalent to “values”–dictate what members of particular societies consider what is, and is not, “reasonable.” Like most cultural values, these cultural models are neither universal nor unchanging.

Before the Derek Chauvin verdict, police departments across the U.S. judged it “reasonable” for 98-99 police officers out of 100 (likely, a white officer) to kill a civilian ( likely, a Black civilian), because of the particular context. Even in the rare cases that police officers killing civilians are formally charged, it is unlikely that the trial will result in a conviction–and, especially, a conviction of murder.

Last week, a jury in Minneapolis gave America a gift. Suddenly, the racist justification for (white) police officers easily killing (Black) civilians is no longer a basis for a “reasonable” decision.

As Black commentators have been pointing out since the moments after the verdict was handed down in court, it will take far more than one trial to change cultural values. For, in the end, cultural values are at stake–and such values do not change quickly or easily.

Yet, thanks to the past year of BLM events remaining front and center around the country (even the globe), racism is one cultural value that no longer holds primacy in the white American imagination. Now that the eyes of the nation were trained on the Minneapolis courtroom, there is no going back to assuming that a white officer killing a Black civilian is, automatically, “reasonable.”

We must, of course, keep pushing for accountability in all police killings. Even more importantly, we must keep pressing for structural change not only to put murderous police officers on trial, but to retrain all police officers in de-escalation tactics. Re-labeling them as “peace officers” or “safety officers”–emphasizing their potential for nurturing rather than violence–might be a good, discursive start. Incorporating mental health professionals and social workers into their departments–as the city of Santa Fe did last week with their new “Alternative Response Unit”–would be a great, more tactical start.

Meanwhile, I remain proud of my discipline. The late Max Gluckman fundamentally got it right when he argued that, ultimately, legal systems rest on cultural values.

But, community standards of “reasonableness” hold sway–until they don’t. If he’d been around to hear last week’s verdict, I’d like to imagine Gluckman breathing his own sigh of anthropological relief as he nodded approvingly.


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