Let’s be clear: for various reasons a large swath of Americans support institutionalized racism, both actively and passively. And in light of the pivotal role the police have played, and continue to play, in preserving the systems, institutions and dynamics which undergird racial inequality in the U.S.--powerful backlash against Black Lives Matter was to be expected, as was a corresponding countermovement supporting the authorities from Bill O'Reilly and others.
That moment has now arrived.
There have been concerted efforts to tie the killing of Harris County Deputy Darren Goforth to Black Lives Matter; this despite the fact that the alleged shooter has not revealed any motive, and there is absolutely no evidence that he was affiliated with, or drew inspiration from, BLM (other than his skin color). Nonetheless, many are claiming that the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore have given rise to a climate of hostility towards law enforcement in which these crimes are more likely.
Even if it were true that policing has grown more difficult or dangerous in the wake of Black Lives Matter, it would be absurd to blame the movement for this. The problem is rampant abuse of authority and public trust by law enforcement, not that citizens have grown more vigilant against it. And the solution would be to reform these institutions and practices in order to address the causes of unrest, and for that matter, crime.
But it turns out that the narrative is completely false: thus far, police fatalities actually declined by 17% in 2015 over the previous year—commensurate with a steep downward trend that has been ongoing since the early '80s. The No. 1 cause of death for cops is actually vehicular crashes (responsible for 40% of police fatalities), rather than shootings (responsible for 28% of police fatalities). But what is particularly stunning about these numbers is that police deaths in 2015 have fallen despite the fact that the overall number of murders is up significantly. The trend is unmistakable: be it relative to the number of casualties last year or the broader social dynamics of this year, policing has grown less dangerous in 2015.
A total of 27 law enforcement officers were shot to death in the line of duty so far in 2015. Meanwhile, during this same period, the police have killed 762 civilians with their guns—overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately minorities--more than 1 in 10 of which were unarmed. That is, for every 1 police officer shot to death in the line of duty, cops shot 28 civilians; police are nearly 3 times more likely to kill an unarmed civilian than a civilian is to shoot a cop. About 1 out of every 13 lethal shootings in 2015 have been carried out by police.
In fact, given that there are 1.13 million full-time law enforcement officers in in the U.S., their overall homicide rate (3.4 per 100,000) is actually substantially lower than that of African Americans (17.5 per 100,000). Put another way, on average it is more than five times as dangerous to be black in America than to be a cop.
The data is clear: there is no war on police. To the extent that Black Lives Matter is responsible for the number of police casualties in 2015, given that policing has actually grown relatively safer this year, it seems as though law enforcement should be thanking, rather than condemning, the movement.
But of course, just because a narrative has no factual basis does not prevent it from being effective…or dangerous. It is clear that many are buying into the propaganda being manufactured to discredit BLM—and as we head into the election cycle the rhetoric, and the stakes, will only grow more dire. How Black Lives Matter navigates the upcoming 2016 race will have profound implications for the future of the movement and the reforms it seeks realize.
The Tyranny of the Mob
2016 is shaping up to be a particularly populist election cycle, and both parties have been seeking to politicize Black Lives Matter in order to motivate their respective bases.
Republican presidential candidates have been extremely critical of the movement—perhaps none moreso than Ben Carson, whose political career has been largely premised on saying everything that his overwhelmingly white constituency wants to hear.
A common conservative meme is that the very title “Black Lives Matter” is parochial or even black-supremacist. Pundits insist that the movement should either expand into “All Lives Matter” (that is, they should stop focusing on the problem of race) or else be deemed and treated as a hate group for resisting white supremacy.
But of course, the favorite retort from Republicans to BLM is that the real threat to black Americans isn’t cops, but “black on black” violence—which they claim activists are ignoring or deflecting from in order to expropriate blame to others.
There are many glaring holes in this narrative, starting with the fact that activists are not denying “black on black” crime, nor are they neglecting it. In fact, one of the purposes of BLM is to reduce these killings as well: the cause of violence among African Americans isn’t our “blackness,” but instead, living in areas concentrated poverty (where most of these crimes occur). And again, it is difficult to overstate the significance of law enforcement and the justice system in perpetuating these conditions. Hence the importance of focusing on the police, courts and jails for reducing violence against blacks--by all parties.
Nonetheless, Republicans seem to be gearing up for a possible “law and order” campaign a la Nixon, Reagan or Bush I in order to rile up their voter base. And perhaps no one is more eager for this than the Democrats.
With Friends Like These…
The 2016 race is shaping up to be surprisingly close due to the unfavorability of likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton among likely swing voters. As a result, the DNC is eager to conjure a Republican boogeyman to drive blacks to the polls: African Americans amount to 25% of the Democratic base but have demonstrated anemic support for the party’s leading candidates (relative to the enthusiasm for Barack Obama).
In light of the aforementioned Republican hostility towards Black Lives Matter, it may be tempting to think that the movement should align itself with the DNC in order to help mobilize the black vote on their behalf. But actually, this sort of mentality is precisely the problem: Regardless of how well BLM advocates on behalf of the DNC there is no reason to think racial inequality would be a top policy priority for Hillary Clinton.
For one, there are many Democratic voters who sympathize with Republican portrayals of BLM, and accordingly, Democratic lawmakers who are hesitant to fully embrace the movement. But even if the Democrats were authentically united around, and committed to, pushing the BLM agenda, they would still have to overcome the overwhelming Republican majority in the House—not to mention the GOP’s dominance in most state legislatures and governorships throughout the country. And to the extent that BLM is overtly aligned with the Democratic Party, their proposed reforms would be met with even greater Republican hostility than they already face. Realistically, Clinton is not going to spend all of her political capital trying to push reforms through under those circumstances, especially as she’ll likely be trying to rally public support around regime change in Syria—an intervention she has been championing for the better part of four years.
More broadly, since the end of the Johnson Administration, unwavering support among blacks for the DNC has not yielded much. Carter contented himself primarily with preserving the gains made under Johnson, rather than advancing the cause in any substantive way. The next Democratic President, Bill Clinton, would champion the same “law and order” policies of Nixon and Reagan in an attempt to consolidate white blue-collar voters, particularly in the South (while Hillary Clinton actively lobbied for these bills). Clinton would go successfully win the White House (twice), but the consequences for African Americans were horrific.
Even Barack Obama, our first black President, said little (and did even less) to address racial inequality until the 11th hour of his tenure—after having lost both chambers of Congress and possessing little political leverage or capital to make substantive changes. Instead, he has put forward some executive orders which, while admittedly useful, are non-binding on, and imminently reversible by, the next Administration. And throughout, he has dedicated almost as much time and energy valorizing and defending law enforcement and other agents of the criminal justice system, while lecturing blacks about their own supposed cultural deficiencies.
And this is really all the black community has to show for its alliance with the Democratic Party over the nearly 50 years since the end of the Johnson Administration—despite how critical African Americans have been to the success of the party. We deserve better, and we can do better.
Political, But Not Partisan
The reason there has been so little progress on racial inequality is because one party (the RNC) has written off black voters as unwinnable, while the other (the DNC) takes us for granted because we seem to have no alternative. This allows both parties to safely ignore issues affecting the black community in order to focus most of their efforts on so-called “swing” voters.
If black people want to be taken seriously, our vote needs to be seen as “up for grabs.” We need to challenge and encourage both parties to compete for our support--because while blacks may only amount to 12% of the population, we can easily become a spoiler for Democrats or a kingmaker for Republicans. If we demonstrated greater consciousness of our political capital and a real willingness to exercise this power if our demands are not met, the RNC would not be trying to suppress the black vote, but to turn it. And Democrats would thereby be forced to earn the allegiance of African Americans rather than just coasting as our de facto least-worst option. It would a much healthier dynamic for all involved—particularly black people.
Accordingly, BLM is absolutely right to confront Hillary Clinton, to be suspicious of Bernie Sanders, to resist party affiliation and withhold endorsing a presidential candidate in 2016. But we can take it a step further:
Now that Black Lives Matter has released a policy platform detailing concrete reforms, we should declare to politicians, public servants and other stakeholders that if they are working to make substantive progress on these issues, to tangibly realize our agenda through the legislative or bureaucratic process, then they have our vote and we have their back.
It doesn’t matter if they are liberal or conservative, Democratic, Republican or Independent. It doesn’t matter if they are seeking to reform law enforcement and the criminal justice system because they are primarily concerned with blacks, Latinos, Muslims, or impoverished whites. It doesn’t matter if they are focused on preserving the integrity of the system, redressing moral wrongs, or simply winning elections. If they are moving the meter on these issues, we are for it.
At the same time, the movement should be clear that if policymakers try to co-opt our message but don’t meaningfully follow up on their commitments, we will hold them to account for that too. Black Lives Matter has rightfully proclaimed that it doesn’t need or want empty pledges of solidarity or other forms of token support from cynical politicians. What we want, what we need, is to save black lives and to improve the quality of those lives.
Don’t talk about it, be about it.