The sociological perspective of conflict theory comes into play when learning about recent acts of White police brutality on Black youth and young adults. From a sociological perspective, conflict theory helps to explain how those with power in society have an influence on the weakest members of society. Through political action and social hierarchies, those groups that have power work to maintain power through a means of conflict, because consensus would jeopardize the power of those in charge, and those individuals may lose important resources if these hierarchies were to change.
Chirbas, Smith, and Ortiz (2016) wrote about the fatal shooting of Tyre King, a 13-year old boy who was shot by police officers in Columbus, Ohio. According to the article, the child pulled a gun from his waistband when the officers tried to arrest the child and another male. As a result, the police officer shot Tyre King multiple times. After the fact, the weapon was recovered from the scene of the event, and it was determined to be a BB gun with a laser attached. According to the article, police were called because a group of people were demanding money, and one of them had a gun. Witnesses, and the caller, reported that Black male had a gun pulled on a white male who was on the street. The victim of the robbery said that the alleged “holdup” was over $10. According to the news article, the officers followed the men into the alley and tried to take one into custody when one pulled a gun from his waistband. The role of social psychology conflict theory comes into play when this incident is considered in the context of the race of Tyre King. Tyre King was an African American male, and the recent incidents in the news have highlighted the conflicts between African Americans and White police officers. The officer involved in the Tyre King incident was White, and Tyre King was a Black male. Tyre King died at the hospital after the event occurred. A follow-up news article written by Felton (2016), expanded upon the details of the robbery and the shooting. In this article, an interview with Tyre’s friend indicated that the child wanted to rob someone of money. The friend was with Tyre at the time and indicated that the police told them to get down, and when they got down, his friend Trye got up and ran, and this is when the police shot him.
Social conflict theory (Oberschall, 1978) is a social theory that argues that social classes and groups interact with the notion of conflict in mind versus consensus. From this point of view, social class, and inequalities between the classes emerge as a result of conflict and contradictions. This is based on the idea that there are scarce resources within the society and groups must compete to gain privilege, power, and social status. These competitions can result in changes to policies, educational reforms, and institutional reforms which can further change access to these privileges and resources. When considering the case of Tyre King, some may argue that this is a case of police brutality, others may argue that the actions of the White officer were justified, and others may say that the media and the police somehow “bend” the news in order to maintain the power of White people within society. Each of these perspectives may very well be correct according to social conflict theory. From a social conflict perspective, someone who views this as a case of police brutality may say that the police officer could have very well known that this was a toy gun, or this person may comment on the fact that it appears the child attempted to run from police, rather than directly threatening the officer. The person who holds this view may view this as an exemplar of social conflict theory, wherein the White police officer felt threatened by the Black child and felt that in order to maintain power and justice in society and as a police officer, he needed to shoot the child to “set an example” for other Black children. Those who do not agree with social conflict theory may believe that the police officer was justified in shooting the child since the child had a gun and attempted to flee from police. These individuals may be quite offended that some news articles described Tyre as a child. These individuals may believe that he committed a crime regardless of his age, and they may believe that by calling him a child, the media is trying to gain sympathy for Tyre and to further stir conflict between the Black community and White police officers. While both sides may be equally valid without full evidence of motives or intentions, it is easy to see how social conflict theory could play a role in this incident and in other incidents in which there was police brutality or conflict between Black victims and White police officers.
In sum, social conflict theory is a powerful sociological perspective which states that social class differences are highly maintained in society by means of continual conflict between social classes. This theory states that in order for societal structure to be maintained, there needs to be conflict as opposed to collaboration. When this theory is viewed in the context of recent media reports of police brutality and Black victim versus White police officer violence, one may say that these events are an example of social conflict theory in action.
- Chirbas, K., Smith, A., & Ortiz, E. (2016). Tyre King, 13, fatally shot by police in Columbus, Ohio.
- Oberschall, A. (1978). Theories of social conflict. Annual Review of Sociology, 4, 291-315.