Low Trust America – Cops and Protestors in a Low Trust Equilibrium

What happened in Minneapolis is a trust disaster. Due to the legacy of racism, black Americans don’t trust legal officials. Indeed, only 17% of black Americans say *most people* can be trusted, in contrast with 46% of whites. I would also bet that white cops trust black Americans relatively little, though getting good survey data on this would be next to impossible. From studying trust, my sense is that police distrust leads some police officers to use excessive force, either out of fear or disdain for untrusted blacks.

Excessive force arguably leads black Americans to resent police action more, and trust the police even less. Accordingly, mutual distrust is a social equilibrium in inner cities, and this tense environment creates the powder-keg social contexts we’ve seen all over the country. That is what it’s like living in a low trust society – conflict can erupt at any time.

Now for some speculation. My guess is that low trust equilibrium was disrupted in the past because black Americans had more high status leaders who believed in non-violence, or at least who believed in non-violence more strongly than most people. The willingness of black protestors to avoid violence even in situations when it would be justified was a way of signaling honesty, integrity, and conviction. That made them harder to dismiss and ignore, and so harder to distrust. That’s not to say they weren’t mistrusted! But it was one way to extricate a community from a low trust equilibrium.

This is totally unfair to oppressed groups, but given how I think about building trust, it seems to me a more effective strategy than more violent protesting.

You build trust by playing cooperate when others expect you to defect; and if you are prepared to be non-violence in more cases than people expect, and at great cost to yourself, you can help extricate your community from a low trust equilibrium. But I worry we have lost the moral basis for deeply committed non-violence.

Unlike fifty years ago, we don’t have many national leaders who believe in systematic non-violence, or at least who are known for holding that position. Somehow older generations have not passed on a strong belief in non-violence to younger people.

I don’t know why this is. But my suspicion is that it is hard to motivate radical non-violence outside of religious belief systems where one thinks that evil people will ultimately get what they deserve, either through divine or karmic punishment. You can get radical non-violence more easily from Christianity or Buddhism or Hinduism than you can from secular doctrines because those who suffer from being non-violent can psychologically compensate themselves. For they believe that punishment and vengeance are the job or someone or something else. People will get what they deserve, but not from me!

Last year I wrote a reference piece on Christian anarchism, which led me to read a lot of Christian arguments for pacifism. They were better than I thought, so I’ve been moving in a pacifist direction. But if it weren’t for Jesus’ teachings and behavior, I’m not sure I’d be very convinced that radical non-violence was the way to go. It helps me to know that, in the end, justice will be done.

Of course, other reforms can help restore trust, especially giving police incentive to behave in a more trustworthy fashion. But a strong religion-level commitment to non-violence may help too.


  • Guy Crain Posted June 3, 2020 12:33 pm

    Hi Kevin,

    Would you mind linking your piece on Christian anarchism?

    • Kevin Posted June 4, 2020 1:08 pm

      Email me for a copy. Happy to share it that way.

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  • Jim H. Posted June 4, 2020 10:35 am

    This is an important point. The notion of satyagraha was at the heart of Gandhi’s, King’s, and Mandela’s lifes’ works. It was disciplined and organized. This level of commitment seems lacking somehow in the passion of the current moment. I posted a piece about this on my blog here: http://wisdomofthewest.blogspot.com/2020/06/lets-get-this-right.html?m=0

    • George Posted June 5, 2020 11:44 am

      Jim, it may have something to do with the fact that the second of those two people (the American example) was the subject of all manner of threats and harassment by the police and federal government and then was assassinated in public.

  • George Posted June 5, 2020 11:37 am

    Kevin, during the civil rights era police killed and protected the killers of scores of peaceful black protesters and black leaders. It’s not terribly surprising that strict non-violence is less popular a generation later.

  • WFTD Posted July 1, 2020 11:16 pm

    “Unlike fifty years ago, we don’t have many national leaders who believe in systematic non-violence, or at least who are known for holding that position. Somehow older generations have not passed on a strong belief in non-violence to younger people.

    “I don’t know why this is.”

    I’m not sure the extent to which older generations were actually more committed to non-violence–there was a lot of political violence (arguably more political violence) during the sixties and seventies:


    But in any case, the rhetoric has certainly shifted, and my explanation of that is the same as my explanation of the fact that the rhetoric about free speech has shifted–the activist Left was not as culturally powerful in the sixties as it is now and clamored for free speech and non-violence from its (relative) underdog position. Now that it’s culturally ascendant, it’s happy to censor its enemies and justify a degree of violence against them.

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