The national outrage over the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and other black men by the police and the failure of authorities to indict the police officers responsible is best understood by understanding what “race” means in the U.S. at this time. Consider the following ideas.
‘Race’ itself is a fiction, one that has no basis in biology or any long-standing, consistent usage in human culture… The myth of race is, at its heart, about power relations…
Jacqueline Jones, A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America 2013.
No biologist has ever been able to provide a satisfactory definition of “race”—that is, a definition that includes all members of a given race and excludes all others…The only logical conclusion is that people are members of different races because they have been assigned to them.”
Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, 1995.
The relevance of these ideas to the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others by the police is crucial. Racial “assignments” and the very meaning of race itself are undergoing a significant change from what they were in the 1960s and 1970s during the great Civil Rights Movement days. In this essay I will elaborate on these ideas and their implications for the growing movement to end police violence.
In the wake of the shooting death of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson and the choking death of an unarmed black man named Eric Garner by New York City police officers as he gasped “I can’t breathe,” we are witnessing or participating in a wave of protests across the U.S. and even around the world. These protests have intensified after the police officers involved were absolved by Grand Jury hearings and other cases of black killings by police have come to light. For example, Tamir Rice a 12 year old Cleveland boy was shot by police while playing with a BB gun in a park near his house; John Crawford was gunned down by police inside a Walmart store in Ohio as he made his way to the checkout counter with a BB gun he intended to purchase; Ezel Ford of Los Angeles was shot to death as he scuffled with police during a stop and frisk encounter; Dante Parker of Victorville, California died after he was shot with a taser multiple times after being mistaken for a robbery suspect; Darrien Hunt of Salt Lake City was shot to death in a shopping mall in Salt Lake City, Utah for wearing a Japanese costume and brandishing a Samurai-style sword. And the list goes on.
As protests ramp up, many more cases of police shootings of young black men have come to light. A study by the public interest group, Pro Publica contends that between 2010 and 2014, Black men were 21 times more likely to be killed by police that whites. And a study by The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an activist group that investigates police brutality cases, concludes that a Black person is killed by a police officer, security guard or vigilante every 28 hours.
The anger that is presently boiling over around the recent cases of Brown and Garner has been simmering beneath the surface for some time. And it is touching people – especially youth – in communities around the U.S. as well as around the world. Demonstrators chant: “Hands up—Don’t Shoot!”;“I Can’t Breathe”; “Black Lives Matter.” There are “die-ins” on roads and in rail stations; the barricading of roads and highways; walkouts by high school students and even Congressional staffers; and occasionally these actions have been accompanied by vandalism, firebombing, looting and violent confrontations with police.
These actions have brought to the surface divisions within the country concerning the conduct of police and demonstrators. There is certainly a strong racial divide, but also between liberals and conservatives; divisions within liberal and conservative camps; divisions between young and old; and divisions among protesters themselves over the relative militancy of tactics and the racial make-up of a burgeoning anti-police violence movement. There was outrage among certain sports enthusiasts over the Los Angeles Rams football players running onto the field with their hands up. But major professional athletes as well as high school athletes have taken up the L.A. Rams players’ lead including professional basketball players like Derek Rose and LeBron James who wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in the warm ups before their games.
Predictably many have tended to minimize the issues by blaming demonstrations on “outside agitators,” a time honored head-in-the-sand approach to life if there ever was one. On the more liberal end of this form of denial is the notion that the problem could not really be race because, as the election of Barack Obama demonstrates, we are living in a “post-racial” society.
Then there are a variety of variations of a “blame game” that turns the recent killings on blacks themselves. For example, high profile neo conservative Dinesh D’Souza posted a picture on Facebook of black men wearing T-shirts which said “stop killing us.” His comment:
Racism is not the main problem facing blacks in the U.S. – their own dysfunctional culture is…Black men who have ‘less margin for error’ should blame black criminals who give the whole group a bad name…In an age of race quotas and affirmative action, the irony of rational discrimination is that it far more frequently helps blacks than hurts them.
A variation of this theme can be found in the ideas and actions of followers of liberal Black sociologist William Julius Wilson who, like D’Souza, has argued that Federal programs actually bring on greater poverty by reinforcing social isolation and the development of a “tangle of pathology in the inner city”. This includes violent crime, mother-only households, welfare dependency, out of wedlock births and teenage pregnancies. Wilson labeled this surplus Black population the “underclass”. His ideas heavily influenced President William Clinton as he destroyed public housing and the social welfare safety net programs in the nineties.
Others have avoided the angry rebuke from demonstrators by a retreat to various legalisms. Some focus their attention on minor reforms of police practice such as body cameras and “community policing” techniques that promote dialogue between Black communities and the police. Some believe that a better understanding of the job police have to do and of the laws that govern them would avoid the noisy and disruptive demonstrations. I, along with my teen age granddaughter were recently lectured to by a young law school graduate that our objections to the grand jury refusals to return indictments in the Brown and Garner cases reveal that we don’t understand that laws on use of force are clear and it is a shame that these laws are not taught at the high school level.
For myself, I find great hope in the actions of the demonstrators. And I am horrified by revelations of not only the killings but of the scope of police violence against Black people that are being revealed daily. Yet, none of the responses to the demonstrations against police violence that I have outlined above really explain the statistics on police violence against Black men. Nor do they explain the wide spread anger that is behind the demonstrations.
Jaqueline Jones’ book, A Dreadful Deceit, demonstrates that at different periods of U.S. history, the common sense meaning of race has been altered to serve the needs of those with political and economic power. She looks at six periods beginning with 17th Century Maryland when Africans were brought to the U.S. as slaves but were not considered a separate race, to 20th Century industrial and post-industrial Detroit where the struggle for equality by Black workers was focused on the industrial workplace. In each of the six periods, race and its significance for Black people and for the populace as a whole was construed differently. And I would contend that today the meaning and significance of race is changing once again.
In the latter part of the 1970s I was working in a factory in Chicago’s Southeast side and during my off hours I assisted a lawyer who operated a pro bono walk in legal clinic in the area called “The Workers’ Rights Center.” Since the 1950s Black workers had struggled to get the living wage jobs in the Northern industrial workplaces. At the Workers’ Rights Center, much of our work was to assist Black caucuses in the steel mills that were struggling to achieve equal pay for equal work and access to higher skill jobs while being a leading force in improving pay and working conditions for all workers. More often than not, they were fighting the union as well as the owners of the steel mills. Such struggles were going on in most industrial areas of the country. In Detroit, the focus was in the auto industry where there were militant plant occupations and wildcat strikes led by Black workers. At that time the main issue was equality within the unions and the factories. Wages were high enough for workers to feed and house their families and the availability of living wage jobs offered an entry point to employment for their children. But many workers were beginning to look beyond the immediate issues and question the capitalist system itself.
In my two most recent books, Global Decisions, Local Collisions and New World Disorder I document how the collapse of manufacturing and with it thousands of living-wage jobs were part of a major global shift in the way the capitalist system went about accumulating and distributing capital. In the 1970s at the beginning of a world-wide economic-political-social “crisis of value” elites concluded that the problems with the system were due to workers getting too great a share of profits. And through much of the 1980s and 1990s technological, political/institutional and ideological changes enabled factories in industrial parts of the world to relocate to regions with lower wages and less restrictions on working conditions. Today the steel mills of Southeast Chicago, which employed 20,000 workers in the 1970s, are gone. The Chicago area lost 250,000 living wage jobs in the 1980s and 1990s and this pattern was replicated throughout the country.
All of this resulted in the much-discussed growth of inequality in the U.S. and other industrial nations. But the “solution” to the global crisis of the 60s and 70s, imposed on working-class people, gave rise to another problem. Once living-wage jobs were eliminated by their export to other parts of the world, what was to be done with the surplus population of workers? For one thing these workers were needed as consumers. 2/3 of the U.S. economy, as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is the result of people buying stuff. In New World Disorder I explain how part of this problem was temporarily solved by turning debt into a “product” which made it possible to loan money to people who couldn’t possibly pay it back. Economically speaking we are suffering from the blowback from that part of the “solution” today. But there is a social blowback as well.
At the very time that the factories were being closed and their once living wage-jobs moved to low-wage parts of the world, the Civil Rights Movement had gained a degree of equality through more equal hiring practices, integrated schools and neighborhoods, political representation and entry into the professions. Many Black people had, as a result, been able to benefit by taking advantage of college level education and gain positions as lawyers, doctors, engineers, or join the ranks of Wall Street financiers. Others used their new educational advantages to gain public office at all levels of government including the President of the United States. Some of the civil rights gains enabled Blacks to be hired as law enforcement officers who were charged with policing those who were left out in the cold. Keeping the surplus workers, many of whom are Black, under control is the role of the police. This is the broader context of police violence in the U.S. today.
With the elimination of living-wage jobs, a significant number of Black workers, whose struggles in the 1960s and 1970s had won civil rights gains, were forced into debt – struggling from paycheck to paycheck in low-paying jobs to keep their heads above the water. Around the same time neighborhoods that had once been considered working class, were flooded with drugs and some of their desperate residents turned to crime that was dominated by the drug trade.
In 1971, President Nixon initiated a “War on Drugs.” This war was greatly expanded domestically by President Reagan between 1981-1986. Reagan’s war turned out to be a war on Black America and culminated with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This act allocated $1.7 billion to enforce drug laws. But most importantly the act introduced a series of minimum sentences for the possession of different drugs. The harshest minimums were placed on possession of drugs most prevalent in Black communities.
The result was a rapid rise in mass incarceration rates beginning in the 1980s that corresponded with the rapid rise in mass factory closures. Between 1981 and 2010 admissions to prisons relative to the size of the population went up by 63%. This increase was mostly due to Blacks going to prison. The rate for people classified as white remained the same. Black people who are 13% of the population of the U.S. now comprise 40% of the prison population. Most of this is due to drug offenses.
Many of those who had been “assigned” in the 1960s to the Black race could not be accommodated into the ranks of the professions, politicians or holders of living-wage jobs in the 1980s and 1990s. They were excluded from the new “American dream” that had been made possible by the Civil Rights Movement struggles. Instead, they were reduced to poverty, debt and/or prison in the 1980s. The children of workers who lost their living-wage factory jobs in the 1980s are even worse off. Some of them and their children in turn, have resorted to gangs and the drug trade. They are regularly cycled between prison and a labor market that can only offer jobs with wages at or below the poverty line. Those trying to avoid this cycle live from paycheck to paycheck never knowing whether the hours and pay at the retail and fast food jobs that are available will feed, house and cloth them and their families. All Black people who are struggling to make ends meet are now the target of police surveillance, harassment and sometimes violence.
Yet, unlike the previous period when even professional people of African heritage were denied basic rights afforded to all who were classified as white, today’s racial categories are changing. The civil rights gains of the 60s and 70s offer the illusion of a post-racial society in which a Black person can become Attorney General or President of the United States. That is an illusion because, at the same time, a large segment of those who are struggling to make ends meet continue to be classified as Black and many of the racist attitudes of the prior era persist and are directed toward them.
Any social system must, in order to survive, reproduce itself as a system and enable the people who live within the system to reproduce themselves. In the 60s and 70s social conflict arose in response to the inability of the global capitalist system to meet this minimum requirement. The “solution” that the first President Bush termed a “new world order” was not only built on a base of debt, but also on the exclusion and isolation of many workers who could not be accommodated in this new world order. And the old categories of racial exclusion provided a temporary fix by excluding those classified as Black. The contradictions in this process are now coming to the surface, turning the new world order into a new world disorder. And part of this disorder involves trying to keep a lid on the unrest generated by social exclusion.
The role of the police in any society is to serve and protect the system under the guise of serving and protecting its people. Therefore the heart of the issue of police violence against Black people is not the behavior of individual police officers but policing itself. A core of people who have been assigned to the “Black race” are no longer needed in our new world disorder. The police are charged with keeping this core of people under control by cycling many of them between prison and dead end labor markets. Their tools include a “war on drugs,” profiling, stop and frisk tactics and in too many cases “use of force” laws. Body cameras and “community policing” will not alter that fact. The problem of today’s form of policing originates in the “solution” to the crisis of our capitalist system that emerged in the late 1960s. It was a “solution” that tossed many into a deep cycle of poverty and stored some of the excess population in the nation’s prisons.
The way forward, therefore, must lie in deep systemic change rather than simply reforms of police practices or calling for better behavior on the part of those who are victimized by today’s form of capitalism. The starting point for that change must be an insistence on the part of protesters who are rightfully outraged by police violence against Black people, that meeting basic human needs must be the purpose of our society. This means that nutritious food, housing, clothing, education and health care must be the right of all.
Solely targeting specific police actions in protests is not particularly useful and leaves social justice movements vulnerable to the sort of backlash we are seeing in reaction to the killing of two police officers in New York by a mentally ill man claiming that he was taking revenge for the killing of Eric Garner. Police violence against Black people must, of course, be protested. But emphasis needs to be placed on how the role of policing in today’s new world disorder gives rise to increased police violence against Black people. For example, some seeking a minimum of $15 per hour in the fast food and retail sector jobs have joined the protests against police violence. This is a very important and positive development. A similar approach could be taken by those resisting housing evictions. The same is true of work around prison conditions, Wall Street practices, the activities of the World Bank and the International Monetary fund, protests over trade agreements and environmental abuse. Rather than focus on racist attitudes of specific police officers, such an approach brings out the systemic roots of police violence. Connecting the dots between the decades-long attack on workers and today’s forms of police violence against Black people can lead to a greater understanding that racial assignments are an expression of power relations and that our goal is to change those relations.
January 1, 2015