While this time feels different, I do not believe the #GeorgeFloydProtests will lead to lasting change in American criminal justice. I’d be delighted to be proved wrong, but I think the degree of unrest is driven by factors other than a groundswell of popular support.
- Four years of divisive rhetoric from conservative leadership.
- In a health pandemic, people don’t have to go to the office tomorrow (if they have a job at all).
- This wasn’t sparked by just one video. There were one of three within a week, each one awful in its own way (Ahmaud Arbery and Amy Cooper).
Those three sparks have combined to drive these protests, the largest of my lifetime. But even these will pass with only moderate change as long as a key societal distortion (explained later) remains.
It is a given that black Americans are subject to a different system of justice and law enforcement in the United States. That should go without saying, but I’m going to illustrate it from a different perspective.
Leveraging White Privilege
I got into trouble as a teenager, and at 18 years old I managed to rack up a couple felonies and earn a suspended sentence of three years in prison. I went on supervised probation, which required me to report to a probation officer every month for five years. During that time, avoiding prison became my overarching goal in life. It was more important than anything else and drove many decisions during what became formative years.
I was basically scared straight. I even quit smoking marijuana, since my probation officer would subject me to surprise drug tests. While I had transformed my lifestyle away from the delinquency of my teenage years, I recognized one vulnerability that could send me to prison: a DUI for drunk driving. Unlike a dirty piss test or misdemeanor, a DUI would not end up with a warning or closer supervision. A DUI would mean at least some prison, if not the full sentence.
I wasn’t going to roll the dice. I needed to tilt the odds in my favor.
By the age of 20, I figured out that if you’re white in the black parts of town, you will almost never get pulled over. The key is that it can’t be the 100%-black parts of town. On the north side, for example, they’ll pull white guys over on suspicion of buying drugs. A white girl might have a boyfriend in the area, but white guys would generally only be in those neighborhoods to buy drugs.
The sweet spot are the neighborhoods that are 70% to 80% black. For a white guy in a nondescript car to get pulled over in those neighborhoods, I used to joke, you’d have to be shooting a gun out the window.
I lived on the other side of the racial line for years, and I never got pulled over. Not drunk, not sober, not once. In time, I realized I liked living in those parts of town. To be clear, it’s more than freedom from police harassment. It’s freedom from any accountability. It’s freedom from even normal law enforcement (up to a point … you can’t shoot guns out of car windows, for example). And it’s cheap.
I completed my probation with zero violations. No DUI, no nothing. I made that move to the other side of town back in 2000, long before “white privilege” was a common term. I wasn’t just conscious of white privilege, I deliberately leveraged it to my advantage.
Interesting sidenote: a family member recently remarked that living in Latin America was natural for me because I was long accustomed to being a racial minority everywhere I went.
We’ve only scratched the surface of politically incorrect, but why should anybody listen to what I have to say?
I’ve seen a few rants go viral, from Killer Mike and Kevin Hart for example. People who agree share them on social media and implore their followers to WATCH THIS NOW and such, but that just doesn’t work. The people who are moved by those speeches are the wrong target market. You’re preaching to the choir. You’re pleasuring yourself manually and swallowing the issue.
Preaching to the choir is no different than Trumpian politics, albeit from a progressive position. While it worked in 2016, energizing the base and ignoring the center will face its true test in 2020. And as president, Trump has not been effective in implementing policy that won’t be undone via executive order when the White House changes hands.
If you want to affect lasting change, you have to win the center. And to do that, you have to tweak your message to the moderate audience.
Do I know what message will work? Maybe not. But I saw a protester with a sign that said something to the effect of, “Silence is Racial Violence.” Obviously that’s not literally true, but it was effective. It got me thinking. While I won’t be attending any protests, maybe it’s time not to remain silent.
This will not be preaching to the choir, o sea un auto-placer. I’ll share what I think might move the center of this debate. I’d judge my message to have merit if it triggers both reactionaries and progressives. That’s how I’ll know I hit the sweet spot in the middle.
What White People Don’t Say in Public
As I said, it is a given that black Americans are treated differently by law enforcement and the justice system. The few Americans who would deny that are white nationalists and dye-in-the-wool reactionaries. They are not the target audience, and there aren’t enough of them to block change.
The target audience is not just white, but all non-black races who know there is injustice but won’t get off the fence of indifference because of a different concern: fear of black crime.
Black neighborhoods are dangerous in a way that no other ethnic neighborhoods are. People won’t say it in public, but they do not believe that crime is caused by poverty alone. Of course poverty and crime are correlated, but the poorest areas in America are not always the highest-crime areas. In fact, one of those poorest neighborhoods is in one of America’s safest cities.
That means that something else is going on. In other words, you can predict crime in a city based on some other metric. And if you look at the cities with the highest crime rates, it’s clear: large populations of black Americans.
Why does the number of black Americans predict crime more than poverty does? Black America has a uniquely strong outlaw culture. All races have an outlaw culture, but black American outlaws have an outsize impact comparatively. Black outlaws scare the shit out of the rest of America, and they inspire outlaws around the world who adopt black American outlaws’ music and dress.
The outlaw factor in black America cannot be explained by poverty alone. There is something else at play, something cultural. Maybe the nature of crime in black America is entirely white people’s fault, and can be traced back to centuries of oppression. I don’t know, but that argument will not move the center. It hasn’t so far.
I’m not stating any deep insight here. Black neighborhoods have high crime. What’s the point?
Some American cities already have crime rates that are comparable to Latin American cities. It’s a quirk unique to the United States: a developed country with cities that lead the world in violence. So from many Americans’ point of view, they’d be delighted to have a more equitable system, but not if it means higher crime.
I’m writing this from St. Louis, which is a little ahead of the country on the racial injustice movement. Black Lives Matter started in the wake of the death of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests. Local elections saw a class of racial justice policymakers win office.
Crime hasn’t spiked, but it isn’t down. It has only inched up, but a wave of children killed in crossfire rattled the city. I think the electoral trend toward racial justice was set to recede in favor of law and order. The national movement may be a lifeline for politicians like St. Louis prosecutor Kim Gardner. Her reelection in particular would have been doomed otherwise.
When you see reactionaries like Trump or Tom Cotton espouse law and order, they are appealing (whether they know it or not) to the center’s fear of black crime. And there have been reports of white nationalists inciting riots. They know exactly who they need to convince, and of what they need to convince them.
To reduce racial inequality in criminal justice, the centrists must believe that a systematic restraint on law enforcement won’t result in higher crime. Until that happens, we’ll see incremental improvements at best.
If progressives do not address this concern among the center, in their defense, it would be in part because the center doesn’t communicate this. They don’t say it. It’s not politically correct, it’s impolite, it’s a no-win situation.
But I’ve said it. Call me what you will, but you can’t call me dishonest or insincere. To be clear, I know the vast majority of black Americans are not outlaws, but that they are treated as such. I would like to see a fair criminal justice system in America, so publishing this is my paying the price for the injustice I took advantage of years ago.
What is the Ask?
“Aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices.”– Barack Obama
While any meaningful change must appeal to the center, it also has to be clear what action should be taken. I am not sure what these protests want. Specifics have not been articulated.
Is it no more racist cops? What does that look like? How do you know which ones are racist?
And what if you get that? Given the racial injustice is systemic, that sounds like firing a lot of police. What if you end up firing 20% of police in the most troubled cities? What happens on Day 2? Do you inadvertently feed a reactionary storm if you fire a disproportionate number of police who are war veterans (given they are the most aggressive)?
Joe Biden has called for a national police oversight board in his first 100 days as president. That is specific and easy for the center to accept. It’s a small win and a good start. But how much will that change life on the ground for black Americans?
This Will Mean Real Change
I’m bearish on substantive change not only based on what I’ve seen in St. Louis politics, but primarily because of a key societal distortion: the most dangerous neighborhoods are mostly or all black, and policed by mostly white officers.
That scenario has to upend for substantive change to happen. Either the mostly black neighborhoods need to stop being the most dangerous, or the police in those areas need to be mostly black themselves.
Of all the links in this article, this is the most important to click through and explore: Police Department Race and Ethnicity Demographic Data
There are a few exceptions where the percentage of black officers in the police force matches the black share of the general population. There are even a few where blacks in the police force are over-represented. But in most cities (and especially those with the high-profile cases of brutality), you see an under-representation of black officers and an over-representation of white officers.
I don’t think it would matter what race is over-represented among police (in Newark, for example, mostly Hispanics police a mostly black city). Whenever you have a distortion like that, where one race is policing dangerous neighborhoods of another race, you’re going to see many of those officers mistreating all members of that race. It is human nature.
Having more black police will drive change not only in police departments, but also in black communities. When the black police are as over-represented compared to the general population as they are in the military is when I think you can bet on a more equitable criminal justice system in America.
Why does this keep happening? What can we do to ensure that every community has the police department it needs and deserves? What can I do?
We can’t honestly answer these questions in the divide and conquer, us vs. them, shift the blame and shirk the responsibility world we’re living in. People with power should go first—answer the questions, expand who’s “us” and shrink who’s “them,” accept some blame, and assume more responsibility. But the rest of us have to answer these questions too.– Bill Clinton
What can we learn from Peru?
This call for more black police was partly inspired by the transformation of Irish-American community from one of a delinquent, gangland reputation to an assimilated part of America. That started when they began to dominate the ranks of the police force in New York and beyond.
But it’s also inspired by Peru’s armed conflict with the Shining Path, the Marxist insurgency founded in Ayacucho. The guerrillas were recruited from and based in Quechua communities, while the crackdown was led by Creole security forces. It’s a similar situation, in which coastal white soldiers are policing Indians in the Andean highlands.
The security forces killed almost as many innocent Indians as the guerrillas did in a bloody stalemate that lasted years. And then one key move by jailed former President Alberto Fujimori proved to be the secret weapon, the final solution that ended the conflict almost immediately.
Fujimori’s genius was to pull back the Creole death squads, and give guns to the Indians caught in the middle. The Andean pueblos formed “rondas campesinas,” which were basically vigilante gangs but made up of local men in race, language and culture. Without the racial and cultural divide, the guerrillas had no safe harbor in the highlands.
What can we learn from Mexico?
Absent an upending of the law enforcement distortion, change will come only when we follow the Mexican model.
While the Shining Path was defeated, Peru remains much more like the United States in having deep racial divisions. Mexico, on the other hand, does not. Examples abound, but you would never hear a Peruvian use a term like “la raza” to describe his people. You would never see a Peruvian with the complexion of Cain Velasquez get a tattoo that says, “Brown Pride.” It would be curious to anybody that is not Mexican.
Throughout the 20th century, the PRI embarked on forging a national identity which fused Spanish and Aztec culture. While the United States has made gains in having black political leaders reaching the heights of power, or black business leaders dominating industry, black and white America do not have as much of a shared culture.
I would never notice this is if I hadn’t lived in Latin America. There are racial divisions in Peru and Colombia, but everybody watches soccer. Everybody cheers on the national team. There are full-blooded indigenous, blacks and whites, but the vast majority are somewhere in between.
In America, there are more dividing lines, particularly between white and black, and at the top is marriage and procreation. When it is more common for white and black to marry and have children, and there are just as many people who look like Patrick Mahomes or John Legend and there are fully white or fully black people, and Patrick Mahomes and John Legend aren’t necessarily seen as “black” given they are just as white as they are black, that is when criminal justice system will be fairer.
But that will take generations. Maybe centuries.