The new movement that has grown up in response to relentless police killings of mostly young Black Americans — and the exoneration of killer cops — is no exception.
The hopeful and promising aspects of this movement are significant. In a society where reflexive obedience to unjust power often seems chillingly close to the norm, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens have shown that there are lines authorities cannot cross without facing disruption from below. As protestors from coast to coast have proclaimed, U.S. police departments’ racially targeted “shoot to kill” habit must come to an end. Now. So must the over-the-top militarization of the domestic U.S. police, a problem demonstrated for the world with St. Louis County’s exaggerated military-style response to protests in Ferguson last August. And so must the endemic racial profiling and discriminatory surveillance, stop, frisk, and arrest patterns that create daily procedural context for violent police contact with Black Americans and for the wildly disproportionate hyper-incarceration and felony marking of Black men.
Along the way, something must be done about the extreme reluctance of local prosecutors and grand juries to indict police officers for using excessive and deadly violence against Black and other citizens. (Like so much else in the U.S. legal system, such verdicts mock the notion that the U.S. is a nation of equal justice in which citizens must always respect “the rule of law.”)
All of this and more is on the national political and media table thanks to the mass protests that have emerged in Ferguson and across the nation in response to the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the subsequent exoneration of their killers.
It has been gratifying to see young Black people and others in Ferguson and elsewhere defy U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for calm and purely peaceful protest. Obama’s imperial corporatist, and “race-neutral” presidency has brought few tangible gains for majority lower-and working-class Black America even as it has helped feed white illusions that racism no longer poses any serious barrier to Black equality and advancement in the U.S. The president has been incredibly reluctant to address the problem of persistent abysmal racial oppression in the U.S. He has in the White House continued his longstanding nasty and neoliberal habit of blaming poor and working class Black Americans for their disproportionate presence at the bottom of the steep U.S. socioeconomic pyramid.
What they Police
What might there be to worry about in this new movement? There are two things to watch out for, I think. The first concern is that the movement not end up being one for a kinder and gentler policing of American racial apartheid and inequality. The corrupt Civil Rights misleader, Obama shill, and corporate media personality Al Sharpton early on defined the essential matter at stake in Ferguson as “how we gonna police in the United States.” The issue is not minor. How cops do their jobs is a serious matter in an age of ever more militarized, high-tech policing. How those jobs are performed in and around Black communities is a particularly grave question during a time when a Black American (usually a young man) is killed by a (usually white) police officer, security guard or self-appointed vigilante on average once every 28 hours.
Still, just as important (though largely missing from the national coverage and commentary) is the fundamental question of what government authorities police in the US. What they police is, among other things, persistent harsh racial segregation and intimately related racial inequality so steep that the median wealth of white U.S. households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black U.S. households. The Black joblessness rate remains more than double that of whites — as usual. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports that an astonishing 40 percent of the nation’s Black children are growing up beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Roughly 1 in 5 Black and 1 in 7 Hispanic children live in “extreme poverty” — at less than half the poverty measure — compared to just more than 1 in 18 White, non-Hispanic children.
This radical race disparity both reflects and feeds a four decades long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking. More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law Professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record. Criminal marking is a deadly barrier to employment, housing, education, voting rights and more for the nation’s giant and very disproportionately Black army of “ex-offenders.” It makes “re-integration” next to impossible for many former prisoners, feeding a vicious circle of poverty, joblessness, family disintegration, jailing, and recidivism.
Race and Place
Contemporary U.S. policing is about keeping Blacks in their place in more ways than one. The New York City metropolitan area (home to the late Eric Garner) has a residential “dissimilarity index” (DI) of 84.3, meaning that more than four-fifths of the region’s more than 2 million Black Americans would have to move into another and more racially diverse census tract in order to be spread evenly with whites across geographic space. The St. Louis area (home to the late Michael Brown) has a DI of 78.
Such extreme segregation is a product of class and racial bias in the functioning of real estate markets and home lending and the unwillingness of many Caucasians to live in racially mixed communities. It is highly relevant to the nation’s savage racial disparities because place of dwelling is strongly connected to social and economic status and opportunity. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives. Housing markets don’t just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one’s children experience.”
By concentrating poor and working class Black people in a certain restricted number of geographical places, U.S. de facto race apartheid reinforce Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. That racialized concentration of poverty and its many ills (including crime, addiction, and family fragility) is deeply reinforced by the nation’s four-decade campaign of “racially disparate” (racist) mass imprisonment and felony branding, conducted under the cover of a “war on drugs.”
At the same time, persistent racial apartheid helps fuel white America’s savage ignorance about real Black experience — an ignorance fed also by racially biased media, political, and intellectual culture. As the radical black philosopher Charles W. Mills noted eleven years ago, “the framework of debate [over Blacks’ subordinate position in the US] is not neutral: it is biased by dominant white cognitive patterns of structured ignorance, an overt or hidden white normativity so that at the basic factual level, many claims of people of color will just seem absurd, radically incongruent with the sanitized picture white people have of U.S. history.” It doesn’t help, Mills observed, that “the physical segregation of white and nonwhite populations” creates “a segregation of experience” that reinforces “radically divergent pictures of the world. Typically white and typically black realities — in terms of everyday experience with government bureaucracies, the police, and the job market, housing, and so forth — are simply not the same.”
What the U.S. police police is persistent steep racial apartheid and related harsh racial inequality, invisibility, and ignorance reflected and reinforced by racist mass incarceration. The cause of justice requires much more than merely softening or otherwise improving how separate and unequal are enforced by local gendarmes.
“The Real Issue to be Faced”
A second thing to be on guard for is the capture of the movement-in-formation by bourgeois and identity-based activists and politicos for whom the struggle is entirely and solely about race (narrowly understood) and has nothing to do with broader and related issues of class power, military empire, and capitalist eco-cide. To let that happen would be a great misfortune. What the police and broader criminal justice system serve and protect, of course, is not just or only racism. The police state also functions to defend and advance broader and related structures of class inequality, capitalist (corporate, financial and “1%”) rule, and global empire. These interrelated oppression systems lay very much at the historical taproot of contemporary societal racism and depend to no small extent on racial disparity and division for their terrible and ever more environmentally catastrophic persistence.
Before the Obama administration sent in 51 FBI agents to help suppress protests in Ferguson and St. Louis County two weeks ago, its Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provided federal coordination for the police force dismantlement of the Occupy encampments that sprung up across the U.S. in the fall of 2011. When tens of thousands gathered to protest the global militarism of the U.S. and its NATO allies in Chicago in May of 2012, they were met by a giant, dystopian concentration of local, county, state, federal, and corporate gendarmes equipped with an astonishing array of repressive techniques and technologies. The DHS helped coordinate the remarkable display of hard suppressive power.
“The black revolution,” the great Civil Rights leader and democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote near the end of his life, “is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all of its interrelated flaws — racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society … and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” King left little doubt that the transformation required meant going beyond capitalism. Like the leading Black American Marxists W.E.B. DuBois, CLR James, and Oliver Cox, King saw white U.S. racism as a function of the profits system and class rule to no small degree. The popular struggle required today cannot stop at white or male or national privilege; it must proceed on to a confrontation with capital and class privilege.
In any event. Dr. King’s words deserve revisiting as activists work to make sure that the new Civil Rights movement sparked by the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner killings — and by the exonerations of their killers — doesn’t get co-opted into a struggle for little more than a kinder and gentler policing of contemporary race and class injustice.
Paul Street is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History(Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).