Police Violence, Racial Justice and Class

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The racial justice protests of the summer of 2020 tied to four years of #Resistance, but more precisely to the unresolved Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests of 2014 – 2015 that preceded it. What both BLM movements accomplished was to elevate racial justice as a talking point without altering the distribution of power. Broader questions regarding the nature and purpose of the police were brought to the fore. But these were countered using the same analytical framework that was used to claim racial bias in police killing of citizens. The Progressive social science of the twentieth century successfully instantiated the idea of ‘black criminality’ that served the political purpose of legitimating race-based police repression.

When called upon to answer for New York City’s stop-and-frisk program, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered that black and brown youth were targeted because ‘that is where the crime is.’ This idea of racial disparity in criminality has a long, inglorious history in the U.S. Of current relevance is the twentieth century Progressive effort to explain social outcomes like ‘crime’ using racist premises. With more detail provided below, when race is used to organize arrest data in order to explain crime, then by construction, race ‘explains’ crime. However, the same is true when race is used to explain police killing of citizens. The answer one gets is a product of the structure of the question.

Graph: in the U.S., far more blacks than whites are poor, while far more whites than blacks are rich. The racial frame suggests that poor blacks have more in common with rich blacks than with poor whites. In fact, this is the frame used by BLM that produced much hand-wringing by white liberals, but nothing more in terms of redistributing political or economic power. If the New York Times is to believed, hand-wringing by white liberals evaporated as quickly as it emerged. This suggests that redistributing power is the only indicator of political progress that matters. Source: Statista.

Within a broader framework of social justice regarding police violence, twenty-six citizens of the U.S. are killed by the police for every one German citizen that is. The ratio of men to women killed by the police in the U.S. is 25:1. Those in the bottom income quintile are more than three times as likely to be killed by the police than those in the top. Where race shows up is that across the income distribution blacks are more likely to be killed by the police than whites. However, the 25:1 gender ratio means that far more white men are killed by the police than black women*. Explanations can be developed for this outcome. But the need for additional information illustrates the racist basis of claiming that race is determinative.

*(Assume the population-adjusted ratio of blacks to whites killed by the police is 3:1. Simplistically, but to an extent that isn’t likely to be undone with qualifying data, this provides a 25:3 ratio of white men to black women killed by the police).

The point here isn’t to claim that any of these is the one true answer, but rather that disparity is a flawed and reactionary way of considering social justice problems. Consider, if nationality alone is used to ‘explain’ police killing of citizens, the ‘problem’ is being American. If gender is used, the problem is being male. If Family Income is used, the problem is low family income. And if race is used, the problem is being black. As the graphs above and below illustrate, more blacks are poor than rich. Mathematically, even if racial disparity in police killing was ended, more blacks than whites would still be killed through their relative class position.

As with mass incarceration, the scale and scope of police killing of citizens in the U.S. is so far outside of analogous international experience that limiting the problem to racial difference is to leave out crucial information about the nature of this racial difference. Were racial parity within the U.S. achieved, American blacks would still be killed by the police at twenty-six times the rate of Germans and three times the rate of Canadians. And they would still be killed by the police at one-and-one-half-times the rate of white Americans. This is half the population adjusted ratio of blacks killed relative to whites because having lower income ‘explains’ half of the race-based difference in police violence.

As should be clear, considering other categories of disparity has nothing to do with the fey claim that ‘all lives matter.’ The use of race-based analyses throughout the twentieth century to legitimate policies of racial repression— including sending the police to violently repress communities of color under the rubric of ‘fighting crime,’ should beg the question of why it is now perceived as a basis for liberation politics? The fact that two iterations of Black Lives Matter came to prominence without redistributing power gives context to the question.

This doesn’t mean that race is irrelevant as a social discriminator or empty as social identity. In the U.S., it is quite potent as both. What is does mean is that when social-scientific claims like a relationship between gender and the police killing of citizens is put forward, it neither demonstrates a causal relationship between gender and police killings, nor does it give credence to ‘gender’ as an object in a scientific sense. Race as it is used in disparity analyses is implied to do both. Conversely, if other categories like class explain half of police killing of blacks in the U.S., race as a category (and class, gender) doesn’t represent what it is claimed to represent.

That the categorical conception of race neither proves that race is a thing, nor its relationship to social outcomes, is important to understand. Efforts to codify race as a thing were found in American Jim Crow laws and in the Nazi’s Nuremberg Laws. Briefly, is the child of one black parent and one white parent half-black or half-white? The difference matters when race is codified. Also, who / what are the archetypes of ‘black’ and ‘white’ needed map descent? Judaism is a religion that the Nazis codified as race. Was a non-racial Jew who practices Judaism a Jew or not according to Nazi law? These absurdities illustrate how dodgy race is as a concept.

A soft notion of race and / or gender identity denoting social belongingness as it is perceived by people is occasionally brought forward in contrast to the hard categorical identity of social science. The first paradox is group identity held by individuals. Group identity is by definition ‘externally’ determined within an individualist view if identity creation. Furthermore, the idea that identity is chosen runs counter the very idea that it is ‘real’ in the sense that it is socially determinative. Consider, for the police to target people by race, a questionnaire isn’t distributed asking people which groups they self-identify as belonging to.

Graph: while the nations chosen affect the relative difference in the population-adjusted number of police killing of citizens, one has to move to active war zones to find substantively higher numbers than the U.S. Interpretation is that the U.S. is an outlier in terms of police killings of citizens, irrespective of race. This doesn’t mean that race doesn’t matter. But it places racial difference in the context of much broader social dysfunction. Source: prisonpolicy.org.

The KKK, the Progressive social scientists, and BLM all assert that racial difference is real in the sense that it is socially determinative. The KKK claims that it (the KKK) is on the side of racial hierarchy, the social scientists claimed that it determined social outcomes, and BLM claims it as the determinant of police violence. But again, when more categories are added, wildly different interpretations begin to emerge. When ‘nation’ is added, it is evident that there is something about the U.S. that produces levels of magnitude more deadly police violence than other nations have. Race is down the categorical list as an explanation for this difference amongst nations.

Adding back that in absolute numbers, most of the Americans killed by the police are white cuts two ways. In the first, and dominant, case made by modern Progressives, it is racial disparity that defines the social injustice assigned to police killing of citizens. In the second, the international view, racial difference recedes as explanation compared with the scale of Americans killed by the police. Within the disparity framework, justice is found through equity. But this leaves the larger question of why the police in the U.S. 1) are killing people of all races and 2) in the relatively large numbers that they are?

Graph: the frame of race flattens class relations such that race is the only relevant differentiator by design. In fact, given that the rich substantially control American political economy, they have an economic interest in exploiting the poor. In my neighborhood, black landlords have replaced white landlords without changing the amount of money taken away in rent. This illustrates the method by which class trumps race in all of the economic realms that matter. Source: Statista.

The difference here is a categorical conception of social justice versus a universal conception. In the case of race, the narrow conception is fundamentally racist. The argument is that because of the intensity and persistence of racial inequity, solving it must be the place to begin if creating social equity is the goal. However, as the multiple categories that explain disparities in police violence suggest, any effort to create racial equity will soon involve class and gender. The idea that by addressing race as it relates to class and gender narrowly, these can be better addressed later, has it perfectly backwards.

To reiterate, two iterations of BLM protests changed ‘the conversation’ for a few months without redistributing power. Doing so is difficult, this isn’t meant as fey criticism. From the War on Poverty and Affirmative Action to the present, increasing economic segregation has perpetuated racial segregation. All-white neighborhoods with all white shops and all white schools are now peopled by bourgeois anti-racists. They can’t help it that blacks and Hispanics don’t earn enough to live in their neighborhoods, shop in their shops, or send their kids to white, majority woke, schools. Racist intent might be a subtext of economic exclusion, but it isn’t the point.

This leaves the people who live in rich, white neighborhoods— the woke contingent who run corporations and government, to agree to give some of their political and economic advantage to black, brown and poor white people either voluntarily or by government fiat. The source of this power is the corporate-state amalgam that distributes jobs. Allegedly qualified people already occupy these jobs. These allegedly qualified people would have to give up their jobs, either voluntarily or by state fiat. And the corporate-state amalgam that employs them would have to accept their replacements, either voluntarily or by government fiat. All of these are low probability outcomes.

This isn’t an effort to shift the focus from police violence to racial integration. To solve the disparity in police killing of citizens by race, economic class would have to be addressed because it ‘determines’ half of the racial bias in police killings. And the way that class would have to be addressed would be to change the class position of poor blacks with that of rich whites. This is the result of the disparity arithmetic at any rate. I humbly suggest that the whole reason why rich whites see racial difference as ‘the problem’ is that they imagine that they won’t have to give anything up to solve it. After all, they aren’t racist. They are woke.

Graph: police killing of citizens is ordered by class. What this means is that poor people are killed by the police at a much higher rate than the rich, regardless of race. In fact, class explains half or more of the disparity cited in race-based accounts of police violence. Source: Feldman / People’s Policy Project.

Social justice as a universal principle is the only workable way to solve this categorical dilemma. However, the Progressive social science of the twentieth century also had this as a goal, but categorical differences got in the way. Marxian class analysis gets around this problem through an historical process that explains the economic bases of categorical difference. The criticism that it flattens categorical differences like race and gender ignores that these are flat by design. Progressives and the KKK both agree about the primacy of race. Alternatively, a robust literature ties race to class through American history.

The current relation of Covid-19 deaths to race joins this race-first project. In the first, race is reified (made ‘real’) through its use as a descriptor. Implied is 1) there are physiological differences that differentiate people by race and 2) the differences in Covid-19 death rates ‘prove’ that blacks are physiologically distinct from whites. In fact, income ranks life expectancy irrespective of race. More whites are rich than blacks. And more blacks are poor than whites. Poverty carries with it co-morbidities like diabetes and heart disease that are a function of poor diet, high stress levels and inadequate health care.

The same patrician concern that was used for a century to ‘prove’ that blacks were the witting (‘culture’) or unwitting (physiologically distinct) architects of their own social repression lies behind singular racial explanations of police killings. Again, relative to Germany, being American produces many multiples of the racial difference in the likelihood of being killed by the police. On the one hand, this matters not one iota regarding the injustice of racially motivated killing by the police in the U.S. On the other, the narrow solution of racial equity in police killings serves as cover for the much larger problem of radical social dysfunction in the U.S.

This difference between police killings in Germany and the U.S. has no obvious racial or class explanation except inasmuch as race entered American history as a class relationship. As the graphs above suggest, to the extent that Family Income serves as a proxy for class, race remained a class relationship in 2020. While I find this persistence compelling as evidence of ongoing class warfare in the U.S., readers are pointed to the work of Gerald Horne, as well as to Adolph Reed and Touré Reed, for other views on the matter. Additionally, writers at wsws.org did a good job historicizing the New York Times’ 1619 Project here.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow raised the question of what happened to all of the white ‘allies’ from the BLM protests of 2020. It isn’t immediately clear why the people protesting are allies, or why the premise is that only blacks would benefit from racial justice. American race relations are a curse upon the nation, and have been for all of my life. Within the disparity framework, having the police kill more whites is just as logical as killing fewer blacks. Given the class distribution by race, raising the minimum wage would be the single largest step toward ‘ending racism’ available from officialdom. But it is no longer available from officialdom.

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