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Police Violence and the Idea of Race

A lasting legacy of the progressive movement in America is that discussion of race tends to be framed in the language of pseudo-science. ‘America’s mayor’ and aspiring autocrat Rudy Giuliani provided a fresh example with his ‘black-on-black violence’ comments following the failure of a Grand Jury to indict ex-Ferguson, Missouri cop Darren Wilson for the murder of black teenager Mike Brown. Under the guise of analytical rigor, of isolating and quantifying ‘the problem,’ Mr. Giuliani reconstructed his racialized premise in statistical form to put it forward as ‘fact.’ In detriment to both the broader truth and social justice, the superficial plausibility of such toxically circumscribed ‘facts’ apparently finds quarter with a large swath of the American public.

The meme of black-on-black violence attempts to isolate what is unquestionably a social catastrophe behind an idea of ‘race’ that carries with it four hundred years of engineered difference. Lest its assertion outside of this history make sense, American men, both white and black, are nine times more likely than American woman to murder (Graph (1) below). White Americans are twice as likely to murder as Canadians and three to five times as likely as Europeans and Japanese. Race is reconstituted as ‘fact’ through the social process of reconstitution, not from ‘nature’ as racial statistics infer. U.S. foreign policy aside, by the European and Japanese ‘facts’ that are his own measure Rudy Giuliani, as a white American male, is by far the most likely person in the room to murder in those countries.

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Graph (1) above: nine out of ten murderers in the U.S. in 2010, both black and white, were male. Most of those murdered, both white and black, were male. When framed as a fact of nature gender is a primary determinant of propensity to murder. However, males in other ‘developed’ countries are far less likely to murder than are Americans, both white and black. This strongly suggests a social basis for social failures like violence. Source: FBI.

The U.S. has the most heavily armed and militarized police in the ‘developed’ world along with the highest incarceration rates, the longest prison sentences and the highest rates of violence, including murder. The militarization of the police is posed as opposition to violence under the improbable premise that occupying armies serve the interests of the occupied. Within the existing social order the challenge with gendering violence, which is just as ‘logical’ as racializing it, is that it invites external comparisons. And doing so would target all men in what remains a largely patriarchal society. Raising the issue of class would illuminate the economic nature of violence and risk making visible the ‘passive’ violence that makes and keeps people poor. Racializing it attaches a well-imposed social ontology to circumscription of internal ‘opposition’ for political gain.

Why is it that a white American male like Rudy Giuliani is so much more likely to murder than his European and Japanese counterparts? A nation founded in genocide and slavery that acts in the present as the greatest purveyor of violence on the planet seems a promising place to start. When class is considered the likelihood of Mr. Giuliani committing murder directly falls as that of his using the mechanisms of class privilege to do so rises. As the former Mayor of New York, Mr. Giuliani had ‘the seventh biggest army in the world,’ the NYPD, to ‘keep the social order.’ Given his racialization of ‘the problem,’ why wouldn’t the NYPD, and the Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago and Ferguson police departments act as occupying armies?

urierace2

Graph (2) above: the murder rate in Chicago ties very closely to poverty and rates of unemployment. Rich, largely white, neighborhoods have low murder rates and poor, largely black neighborhoods have high murder rates. The question of causality finds some explanation in the targeting of poor, largely black and Hispanic, neighborhoods by predatory mortgage lenders (Wall Street) in the 1990s and early 2000s. The rise in poverty, unemployment and rates of violence track the subprime mortgage bust neighborhood by neighborhood. Left scale is the murder rate and right scale is the unemployment rate. Source: Chicago Department of Public Health.

The violence present in poor communities ties directly to a broader context of social violence. This social violence finds form in strategies of immiseration like predatory lending, mass incarceration and in selectively placing American labor in ‘competition’ with workers overseas who earn pennies an hour. Between blacks and whites relative measures of economic well-being haven’t changed that much in the last forty years. These differences defy ‘natural’ theories of economic distribution through their persistence and their associated subtexts of social violence. The oft made contention that violence is a personal, as opposed to social, failure looks past this context of social violence— white Americans don’t ‘have’ to be violent relative to their European and the Japanese counterparts, do they? It’s a personal choice, right?

With recent experience in hand, the increases in poverty and unemployment of the last six years tie directly to the residual effects of predatory subprime lending in poor neighborhoods of color. Wall Street specifically targeted poor blacks and Hispanics with predatory loans. And the housing bust caused by it devastated black wealth and wrecked local economies. St. Louis, Missouri, of which Ferguson is a suburb, was at the center of racially targeted predatory lending. Wall Street may not have put a gun in anybody’s hand. But it created the context for active violence— making other people poor to make yourself rich, as Wall Street did, is an act of social violence. And while Rudy Giuliani’s fingerprints may not be found on any particular corpse, the NYPD’s are all over the place.

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Graph (3) above: amidst the storyline of ‘black progress’ is evidence that not all that much has changed in the last forty years. Trends in black unemployment can be seen as magnifications of white unemployment at much higher levels. As with white unemployment, black unemployment rises and falls with recessions and recoveries. What this illustrates is that when there are jobs blacks work. The myth of the ‘deserving’ poor could easily be put to the test with a government jobs program that took all comers. Note the rapid, outsized increase in black unemployment around 2008. As seen in Graph (2) above, high unemployment ties directly to high rates of violence. Source: Census Bureau.

For the uninitiated, an astonishingly facile economic ‘proof’ informs American elites on issues of race and economics. Theory has it that non-racist entrepreneurs will hire blacks and Hispanics at the lower wages that are the residual of American racial history until these wages equal those of ‘equally-qualified’ whites. They will do this, goes the theory, because businesses can profit by paying below market wages up to the point where the wage differential no longer exists. Between 1960 and 2010 the black college graduation rate climbed from three to nineteen percent. As Graph (4) below illustrates, the choice of conclusions given the evidence are that (1) the theory is nonsense or (2) that blacks, Hispanics, women and indigenous peoples are eternally less ‘qualified’ than whites.

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Graph (4) above: illustrated is per capita (per person) income for whites and blacks (in 2013 dollars). By this and most other measures whites have maintained a position of privilege over the last forty years. Because this privilege defies explanation within mainstream economics the tendency has been to blame blacks for the difference. The common, and misguided, contention that ‘a good education is the key to getting a good job’ infers that not having a ‘good education’ is the explanation for differences in income, wealth and levels of employment. However, with the destruction of black wealth and local economies through predatory lending by Wall Street as evidence, the ‘passive’ violence of systematic immiseration goes far in explaining the rapid rise in unemployment disproportionately affecting poor communities of color. Source: Census Bureau.

The analytical ‘caution’ that capitalism isn’t racist misses that political economy with a residual intersection of race and class, America, offers differentiated capacities for economic exploitation. Predatory loans, payday lenders, predatory bill collectors and persistent, high unemployment aren’t the facts of everyday social violence in the neighborhoods of the well-to-do. Had Mike Brown, Eric Garner and any number of other human beings not been murdered by the police these forces of passive violence would have paid them less, had them unemployed more often, charged them unfairly for house and car loans, subjected them to more active violence from community and police sources and had them die at an earlier age from inferior health care. This is the ‘public order’ that the police are in poor neighborhoods to protect.

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Graph (5) above: the term ‘passive violence’ likely seems rhetorical fancy through the Western prism of ‘personal responsibility.’ The extent to which systematic outcomes tend to be personalized speaks to the background truths that these outcomes make evident. In every state for which life expectancy rates were found whites live longer than blacks. The nation’s capital tellingly has the highest difference of 12.3 years. The systematic nature of the outcomes is evidence of passive violence. Source: Kaiser Family Foundation.

Narrow technical fixes to police violence like making cops wear cameras both improbably delimits the breadth of social dysfunction and accepts the role of the police as it is currently constituted. Violence is evidence of a state of social injustice. Police violence is an extension of this injustice. This may be easier to see in explicitly destroyed societies like Iraq, Afghanistan, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. There were economic motivations when the American ‘leadership’ destroyed each of these societies, just as there were / are economic motivations that destroyed poor communities of color in the U.S. Between economic violence, police violence and racially targeted mass incarceration, this totality is one slight shift in the public consciousness away from explicit social destruction.

Ending violence requires a much broader view of these states of injustice. Ending police violence seems a promising place to start. But without addressing the role that the police fill— that of occupying armies sent to maintain an unjust social order, how would this be achieved without ending the broader injustice? Framed differently, why is there legal immunity for economic predators like the Wall Street bankers behind subprime mortgages, payday lenders and for-profit prisons while heavily armed, quasi-military forces occupy the neighborhoods that Wall Street has savaged? The police exist to protect those in power from the rest of us. Without ending these broader injustices police violence isn’t going away. But making explicit the role of the police would help clarify the issues.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is forthcoming.

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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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