How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence
Article originally published at nonsite.org.
Some readers will know that I’ve contended that, despite its proponents’ assertions, antiracism is not a different sort of egalitarian alternative to a class politics but is a class politics itself: the politics of a strain of the professional-managerial class whose worldview and material interests are rooted within a political economy of race and ascriptive identity-group relations. Moreover, although it often comes with a garnish of disparaging but empty references to neoliberalism as a generic sign of bad things, antiracist politics is in fact the left wing of neoliberalism in that its sole metric of social justice is opposition to disparity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, an ideal that naturalizes the outcomes of capitalist market forces so long as they are equitable along racial (and other identitarian) lines. As I and my colleague Walter Benn Michaels have insisted repeatedly over the last decade, the burden of that ideal of social justice is that the society would be fair if 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female, 4% or whatever LGBTQ, etc. That is the neoliberal gospel of economic justice, articulated more than a half-century ago by Chicago neoclassical economist Gary Becker, as nondiscriminatory markets that reward individual “human capital” without regard to race or other invidious distinctions.
We intend to make a longer and more elaborate statement of this argument and its implications, which antiracist ideologues have consistently either ignored or attempted to dismiss through mischaracterization of the argument or ad hominem attack.1 For now, however, I want simply to draw attention to how insistence on reducing discussion of killings of civilians by police to a matter of racism clouds understanding of and possibilities for effective response to the deep sources of the phenomenon.
Available data (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/?tid=a_inl) indicate, to the surprise of no one who isn’t in willful denial, that in this country black people make up a percentage of those killed by police that is nearly double their share of the general American population. Latinos are killed by police, apparently, at a rate roughly equivalent to their incidence in the general population. Whites are killed by police at a rate between just under three-fourths (through the first half of 2016) and just under four-fifths (2015) of their share of the general population. That picture is a bit ambiguous because seven percent of those killed in 2015 and fourteen percent of those killed through June of 2016 were classified racially as either other or unknown. Nevertheless, the evidence of gross racial disparity is clear: among victims of homicide by police blacks are represented at twice their rate of the population; whites are killed at somewhat less than theirs. This disparity is the founding rationale for the branding exercise2 called #Black Lives Matter and endless contentions that imminent danger of death at the hands of arbitrary white authority has been a fundamental, definitive condition of blacks’ status in the United States since slavery or, for those who, like the Nation’s Kai Wright, prefer their derivative patter laced with the seeming heft of obscure dates, since 1793. In Wright’s assessment “From passage of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act forward, public-safety officers have been empowered to harass black bodies [sic] in the defense of private capital and the pursuit of public revenue.”3
This line of argument and complaint, as well as the demand for ritual declarations that “black lives matter,” rest on insistence that “racism”—structural, systemic, institutional, post-racial or however modified—must be understood as the cause and name of the injustice manifest in that disparity, which is thus by implication the singular or paramount injustice of the pattern of police killings.
But, when we step away from focus on racial disproportions, the glaring fact is that whites are roughly half or nearly half of all those killed annually by police. And the demand that we focus on the racial disparity is simultaneously a demand that we disattend from other possibly causal disparities. Zaid Jilani found, for example, that ninety-five percent of police killings occurred in neighborhoods with median family income of less than $100,00 and that the median family income in neighborhoods where police killed was $52,907.4 And, according to the Washington Post data, the states with the highest rates of police homicide per million of population are among the whitest in the country: New Mexico averages 6.71 police killings per million; Alaska 5.3 per million; South Dakota 4.69; Arizona and Wyoming 4.2, and Colorado 3.36. It could be possible that the high rates of police killings in those states are concentrated among their very small black populations—New Mexico 2.5%; Alaska 3.9%; South Dakota 1.9%; Arizona 4.6%, Wyoming 1.7%, and Colorado 4.5%. However, with the exception of Colorado—where blacks were 17% of the 29 people killed by police—that does not seem to be the case. Granted, in several of those states the total numbers of people killed by police were very small, in the low single digits. Still, no black people were among those killed by police in South Dakota, Wyoming, or Alaska. In New Mexico, there were no blacks among the 20 people killed by police in 2015, and in Arizona blacks made up just over 2% of the 42 victims of police killing.
What is clear in those states, however, is that the great disproportion of those killed by police have been Latinos, Native Americans, and poor whites. So someone should tell Kai Wright et al to find another iconic date to pontificate about; that 1793 yarn has nothing to do with anything except feeding the narrative of endless collective racial suffering and triumphalist individual overcoming—“resilience”—popular among the black professional-managerial strata and their white friends (or are they just allies?) these days. What the pattern in those states with high rates of police killings suggests is what might have been the focal point of critical discussion of police violence all along, that it is the product of an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working class populations produced by revanchist capitalism. There is no need here to go into the evolution of this dangerous regime of policing—from bogus “broken windows” and “zero tolerance” theories of the sort that academics always seem to have at the ready to rationalize intensified application of bourgeois class power, to anti-terrorism hysteria and finally assertion of a common sense understanding that any cop has unassailable authority to override constitutional protections and to turn an expired inspection sticker or a refusal to respond to an arbitrary order or warrantless search into a capital offense. And the shrill insistence that we begin and end with the claim that blacks are victimized worst of all and give ritual obeisance to the liturgy of empty slogans is—for all the militant posturing by McKesson, Garza, Tometi, Cullors et al.—in substance a demand that we not pay attention to the deeper roots of the pattern of police violence in enforcement of the neoliberal regime of sharply regressive upward redistribution and its social entailments. It is also a demand that, in insisting that for all intents and purposes police violence must be seen as mainly, if not exclusively, a black thing, we cut ourselves off from the only basis for forging a political alliance that could effectively challenge it. All that could be possible as political intervention, therefore, is tinkering around with administration of neoliberal stress policing in the interest of pursuing racial parity in victimization and providing consultancies for experts in how much black lives matter.5
Another revealing datum regarding the imagery of an unbroken history of racist denigration of black “bodies” stretching back at least to 1619 as explanation of the current racial disparity in police killings is that, as Mike Males has shown, police killings of black men under 25 years of age declined 79% between 1968 and 2011, and 61% for men over 25 during that same period.6 Nor is that quite surprising. The victories won by the civil rights movement were real, as were the entailments of the Voting Rights Act. Things were generally worse with respect to everyday police terror in inner-city black neighborhoods than they are now. One of the few of the Black Panthers’ slogans that wasn’t simply empty hyperbole was their characterization of the role of police as an “occupying army” in black communities. (When I first saw The Battle of Algiers in the late 1960s, I felt an instant shock of recognition, a sense that I’d lived some of the film.) Racial transition in local government and deepening incorporation of minority political interests into local governing coalitions had a moderating effect on police brutality in black communities.7
My point is not in any way to make light of the gravity of the injustice or to diminish outrage about police violence. (I realize, however, that some will impute that intention to me; for them and all who would take the charge seriously, see note 1 below.) However, noting a decline—or substantial change in either direction for that matter—in the rate of police killings does underscore the inadequacy of reified, transhistorical abstractions like “racism” or “white supremacy” for making sense of the nature and sources of police abuse of black Americans. Racism and white supremacy don’t really explain how anything happens. They’re at best shorthand characterizations of more complex, or at least discrete, actions taken by people in social contexts; at worst, and, alas, more often in our political moment, they’re invoked as alternatives to explanation. In that sense they function, like the Nation of Islam’s Yacub story, as a devil theory: racism and white supremacy are represented as capable of making things happen in the world independently, i.e. magically. This is the fantasy expressed in formulations like racism is America’s “national disease” or “Original Sin”—which, incidentally, are elements of the liberal race relations ideology that took shape in postwar American political discourse precisely as articulations of a notion of racial equality that was separated from political economy and anchored in psychology and individualist notions of prejudice and intolerance.8
Nevertheless, putting to the side for a moment those ways in which causal invocations of racism and white supremacy are wrongheaded and inadequate and accepting for the sake of argument that the reified forces can do things in the world, if their manifest power can vary so significantly with social, political, and historical context, wouldn’t the objective of combating the injustice be better served by giving priority to examining the shifting and evolving contexts under which racism and white supremacy are more or less powerful or that condition the forms in which they appear rather than to demonstrating that those forces that purportedly cause inequality must be called racism or white supremacy in particular? One problem with the latter objective is that it is ultimately unrealizable. There is no definitive standard of what qualifies as racism; like terrorism or any other such abstraction, it is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, an illustration of the great cultural victory of the postwar civil rights struffle is that “racism” is negatively sanctioned in American society. No one with any hope of claim to political respectability—not even Maine governor Paul LePage, who leaves one struggling to imagine what he assumes would thus qualify as racist, (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/27/us/profane-phone-message-has-gov-paul-lepage-of-maine-in-hot-water-again.html?_r=0)—embraces it. In addition, advocates of antiracist politics argue that debate over the name that should be attached to the injustice is important because acknowledging the existence of racism/white supremacy as a causal agent is a necessary first step to overcoming its power. But that claim rests on shaky political ground. It is at bottom a call for expiation and moral rehabilitation as political action. In that sense Black Lives Matter is like its rhetorical grandparent, Black Power; it is a slogan that has condensed significant affective resonance but is without programmatic or strategic content. Also like Black Power, in response to criticisms of its lack of concrete content, BLM activists generated a 10 Point Plan—http://www.puckermob.com/lifestyle/black-lives-matter-just-delivered-their-10-point-manifesto-and-this-is-what-they-want, in part clearly to address criticisms that they had no affirmative agenda beyond demands that the slogan be validated and the names of selected victims of police killing be invoked. This was followed more recently by an expanded document featuring roughly sixty items called “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice”—https://policy.m4bl.org.
Some, perhaps many, of the items propounded in the initial 10 Point Plan are fine as a statement of reforms that could make things better in the area of criminal justice policy and practice. Many, if not most, of those assembled under the rubric “Vision for Black Lives” are empty sloganeering and politically wrongheaded and/or unattainable and counterproductive. However, the problem is not a shortage of potentially effective reforms that could be implemented. The problem is much more a political and strategic one. And the focus on racial disparity both obscures the nature and extent of the political and strategic challenges we face and in two ways undercuts our ability to mount a potentially effective challenge: 1) As my colleague, Marie Gottschalk, has demonstrated in her most important book, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics(Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 2016),9 the carceral apparatus in its many manifestations, including stress policing as well as the many discrete nodes that constitute the regime of mass incarceration, has emerged from and is reproduced by quite diverse, bipartisan, and evolving complexes of interests, some of which form only in response to the arrangements generated and institutionalized by other interests. Constituencies for different elements of the carceral state do not necessarily overlap, and their interests in maintaining it, or their favored components of it, can be material, ideological, political, or alternating or simultaneous combinations of the three. Challenging that immensely fortified and self-reproducing institutional and industrial structure will require a deep political strategy, one that must eventually rise to a challenge of the foundational premises of the regime of market-driven public policy and increasing direction of the state’s functions at every level toward supporting accelerating regressive transfer and managing its social consequences through policing. 2) It should be clear by now that the focus on racial disparity accepts the premise of neoliberal social justice that the problem of inequality is not its magnitude or intensity in general but whether or not it is distributed in a racially equitable way. To the extent that that is the animating principle of a left politics, it is a politics that lies entirely within neoliberalism’s logic.