Please listen, white Facebook friends: This is what you need to understand about race and the police

Our conversation about race is stuck. Let me explain the frustration, what we can do, and what I'd like you to know

By Musa al-Gharbi
Published June 1, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)
  (Reuters/Eric Thayer)
(Reuters/Eric Thayer)

In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death and the uprising which followed in Baltimore, President Obama acknowledged the need to reform police practices and accountability, but insisted that the real problem faced by the black community in Baltimore, and around the country, is not the police—but a system of institutionalized racism, socio-economic polarization, and a public which has refused to confront and address these disparities.

This assessment is absolutely correct. The issues facing the black community are systemic, reinforced over the course of generations. At the same time, however, the President and others who express similar sentiments, seem to misunderstand the reason police are in the crosshairs of activists:

Institutionalized racism

Relative to other groups who arrived in America, black people remained at an immense disadvantage as a result of slavery, neoslavery, and then Jim Crow and segregation. Exclusion from many sectors of the formal economy dramatically inhibited the ability of blacks to build wealth. Meanwhile, the political marginalization of blacks allowed whites to continue these exploitative policies more-or-less uncontested until the very recent present.

For instance, 2.5 million blacks volunteered for service in World War II—about half of whom were accepted into combat. They fought in segregated units, for a society that viewed them as subhuman, and they paid a terrible price—as they have in virtually every war in U.S. history. However, after the war many received GI Bill benefits which raised their economic position relative to white people to perhaps the highest level ever achieved previously or since.

But they returned home to an apartheid state, and housing policies from the '50s through the '80s prevented the wealth of blacks from growing or being transferred across generations at the rates of whites. And even the relatively small amounts blacks managed to painstakingly accumulate and maintain in the intervening time was wiped out by the 2008 financial crisis: a full 50 percent of the wealth relative to whites disappeared in a flash. Black families currently make about 60 percent as much income as white families (which is, of course, a problem on its own), but only have about 5 percent of the wealth of white families.

This calamity was in large part due to predatory programs which explicitly targeted blacks, encouraging them to refinance their homes for short-term cash to weather the crisis—and with sub-prime loans, even if they qualified for better ones. As a result, when the housing market imploded and interest-rates skyrocketed, black families more than any other group were forced to forfeit their property, and found themselves once again living in poor urban settings.

These housing disparities have profound ripple effects. For instance, funding and distribution of school resources is heavily dependent on property taxes in many areas. Because blacks tend to own substantially less property (and less valuable property) than whites—their schools were and remain often radically inferior: underfunded, understaffed, with insufficient resources for extra-curricular activities, vocational training, advanced placement courses, technological assets—or even basic school supplies, up-to-date textbooks or needed renovations and maintenance.

As neighborhoods are gentrified, schools improve. But blacks rarely reap these benefits: often the increased property costs, cost-of-living inflation, and other factors displace even longstanding residents into poor suburban areas—in the process tearing apart critical social networks which help people cope with poverty, and diffusing black voting power.

Imbalances in criminal justice system exacerbate these trends.

The new Jim Crow

Blacks are overrepresented in the system in large part because they are stopped and searched at much higher rates than other groups, and charged more frequently by the police (a trend which begins in school and continues through adulthood). But President Obama is right to point out that the problems with the justice system transcend the police, to include prosecutors, judges, prison administrators, and penal codes.

It is oft-noted that the United States has the largest per-capita prison population on planet earth—overwhelmingly for having committed low-level and non-violent offenses. Less discussed, but equally important, is that the entire process is more-or-less non-adversarial; the supposed presumption of innocence is a joke. Prosecutors win 95 percent of their cases, 90 percent of them without having to go to trial at all. One would be hard-pressed to find higher success rates in overtly totalitarian states—but the number actually creeps ever closer to 100 percent the poorer or darker a defendant happens to be. Blacks are prosecuted more viciously, and sentenced more severely than any other societal group. To understand the scale of the crisis: there are currently higher numbers of blacks in prison, jail, probation or parole than the number of African slaves in the lead-up to the Civil War.

These criminal records dramatically inhibit employment possibilities. After serving time, many find it nearly impossible to make ends meet in the formal economy, resulting recidivism.  This leaves many black communities hollowed out of male figures. The responsibility disproportionately falls to black mothers to be the primary or sole-breadwinners, often by working extremely long hours in low-wage jobs (or multiple jobs)—even if they can get government assistance to augment their pay. Satisfying these immediate survival imperatives often comes at the expense of, for instance, pursuing training or education to get better careers. And it exacts a harsh toll on children as well: powerfully and adversely affecting health, development, educational, and employment outcomes for the next generation, and giving rise to pernicious self-reinforcing cycles.

All of these negative trajectories are calcified by occasional overt racism, but far more prevalently by insidious unconscious biases which play a major role in how others perceive and interact with blacks—affecting prospects and outcomes across the board: from education to employment, from healthcare to business transactions.

Of course, President Obama is always willing (and perhaps too eager) to remind us that socio-cultural factors within black communities play a significant role in our plight as well. However, these cultural trends are easy to misconstrue or overstate, in large part because they are intimately related to the aforementioned structural issues. For instance, growing up in a society in which one is constantly viewed with suspicion, hostility, or as being otherwise inferior  can be very damaging; these portrayals are often internalized by blacks, motivating self-destructive behaviors.

Of course, as WEB DuBois insisted, it is critical for blacks not to think of themselves as victims, to play the role of victim, or allow themselves to be victimized further. Black communities must be proactive, accepting responsibility to do the best we can with the opportunities and resources available—regardless as to how unfair their distribution may have been, or continues to be.

And so we do.

None of this is news to those most affected by the aforementioned realities. We understand that the problems are systemic. And we are not trying to hold police accountable for the system itself, but for the pivotal role they play in that system.

Who is being served? Who is being protected?

The reforms needed to address these disparities will be difficult, costly, and painful for many who, therefore, have powerful vested interests in maintaining the status quo. It is the task of activists to demonstrate this is not an option—a feat which requires coercion. However, the police were instituted precisely to ensure that marginalized classes remain unable to effectively cultivate and wield this leverage:

Founded in the mid-to-late 19th century, a time of rising social inequality and unrest, their purpose was to protect affluent white property-owners from the poor, immigrants, and minorities; they were a firewall preventing elites from having to face the consequences or confront the costs of the systems they had put in place.  Law enforcement is not paid to distinguish between just and unjust laws; their role is simply to ensure compliance--a position which is antithetical to civil disobedience. If blacks want to realize the systemic social changes that President Obama is calling for, the path forward is through the police.

It always has been.

Remember: it was cops who enforced Jim Crow voter intimidation and exclusion policies; law enforcement condoned and took part in most lynchings; police facilitated or took part in mob attacks and riots by whites against minorities, and in minority communities; conversely, they put down black uprisings--containing revolts to poor neighborhoods to ensure that African Americans would be the primary victims of any rioting in order to discourage future episodes (in much the same way they continue to heap incredible fines on dissidents for taking part in social uprisings). And of course, it was police who ensured the solvency of America’s formal apartheid system while it remained legal to do so.

To this day, police forces tend to be disproportionately white; in most of America’s major metropolitan areas, these officers do not live in or even close to the communities they are policing. Reflective of this disconnect, overt racism remains a real and systemic problem in police departments, augmented by implicit biases through which black men are perceived to be more dangerous, animalistic and unpredictable than others—perceptions which, again, can even come to influence blacks as a result of police culture:  half of the cops indicted in the death of Freddie Gray were African-American; it was a black cop that left Walter Scott to die without administering first aid, and then allegedly helped Michael Slager falsify records to the contrary after he shot Scott in the back eight times.  Black law enforcement officers are sometimes themselves the victims of this racial profiling—even to the point of being killed by white officers after being mistaken for criminals (on the basis of what?).

All of these trends were exacerbated in the aftermath of the “War on Terror,” with police departments being increasingly staffed by combat veterans, using military weapons and equipment, and deploying warfare tactics—even to the point of creating police black sites and carrying out torture on suspects to illicit confessions. Police are able to rationalize this behavior because they view these communities as hostile territories populated with enemy combatants. Their goal is then to create order in the spaces they occupy, and to prevent contagion into the broader society—a pre-emptive war, as it were.

And to top it all off, because cities are reluctant to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for law enforcement, officers are often assigned citation quotas upon which their jobs depend. This would be troubling enough on its own—but more disturbing is the fact that most of the petty crimes these cops issue tickets for are just a prevalent across the societal spectrum. And yet police departments overwhelmingly choose to extort funds primarily from the poor, minorities and other vulnerable populations who can least afford it, often with profound and disastrous consequences which would not be present for others. It’s hard to believe this is an accident: the police have their own stake in the status-quo, with perverse financial incentives to protect police funding and staffing, balance city budgets, and maintain the prison-industrial complex by criminalizing “the wretched of the Earth.”

And then they punish vulnerable populations who resist by refusing to meaningfully pursue or deter violent or other major crimes either—as though the only options people can choose from are totalitarian over-policing or no cops at all—a dichotomy which, of course, is not offered to wealthier and whiter communities. It’s another reprehensible attempt to browbeat the poor and minorities into submission; but this is not going away.

If we can change the law enforcement business model, it will shake up everything reliant thereupon. And that, Mr. President, is why we’re focused on the police.

Musa al-Gharbi

Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University. Readers can connect to his research and social media via his website:

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