Race relations at this perilous moment

Policing and racially biased justice are not merely by-products of a racially divided society but have been the bedrock of race relations.

Gerald Jaynes is a professor of economics and African American studies at Yale. This essay is adapted in part from his Columbus Day Lecture to the North American Studies Program at the University of Bonn, Germany, in 2009.

Illustration by Patrick Welsh

Illustration by Patrick Welsh

Gerald Jaynes View full image

Many millions of people have viewed the video showing the sadistic killing of African American George Floyd. The sickening disregard of Mr. Floyd’s pleas, and the subsequent splurge of police officers demonstrating incompetence at performing the difficult task of crowd control in a professional manner, reveal the out-of-control strain of violence permeating our police departments to the entire world.

With the exception of a subpopulation of recalcitrant antiblack racists and some conservatives holding fast to unnuanced calls for law and order by any means necessary, Americans believe the killing is indicative of systemic racism in police departments, not merely some isolated incident. Following the Floyd killing, substantial increases in the percentage of Americans polled believed there is a systemic policing problem in the nation.

For me, a student of race relations since my first day of kindergarten when, looking around the room, I discovered everyone else was white, the horrendous spectacle of police brutality was not surprising. I admit surprise, however, at the unbelievable arrogance displayed by the sociopath masquerading as a knight in blue. Apparently confident his badge and the American system of criminal justice empowered him to savagely kill black men, he pressed on. Despite onlooking potential witnesses pleading with him to stop and a high likelihood he was starring in someone’s video, he pressed on. And who at this point is sure the perpetrator judged wrongly? A successful legal ploy by his attorneys to change the trial jurisdiction to some suburban-rural area with likely jury pools stacked with whites holding one or both of the beliefs mentioned earlier, and he may yet escape justice. Have you heard of Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland?

The immediate catalyst for the massive numbers of protesters worldwide was George Floyd’s murder. The continuing demonstrations also receive sustenance from the fact that policing and criminal justice are the most visible manifestations of the systemic racism and classism still permeating our society. Racist and class-biased beliefs about behavior have stretched our criminal justice system far beyond its capacity to deliver either public safety or justice. Policing, prosecution, and incarceration are the social policies Americans use by default to solve complex problems stemming from the poverty caused by below-living wages and inadequate education, health care, and housing for broad swaths of our population. Half a century of deteriorating wages for the bottom third of the American population wrought the crack cocaine plague in inner cities during the late ’80s and early ’90s, then the opioid epidemic now scourging rural communities throughout the 13 states that make up Appalachia.

The response of our political institutions to rising joblessness and underpaid men and women crowding city streets and rural bars was a rash of laws criminalizing behaviors of despair wrought by economic malaise. Our solution to increases in domestic violence and public intoxication: arrest someone. Natural consequences of high unemployment, such as petty entrepreneurial activity by unlicensed street vendors, invite even more arrests; low-wage “deadbeat fathers” behind on child support, and people too poor to pay fines for minor misdemeanors like parking tickets fill debtors’ prisons. Criminalization of behaviors that could be addressed in better ways exploded incarceration rates. Attacking the roots of these social welfare problems by reallocating some tax revenues away from overextended police to social welfare professionals is what most activists and public intellectuals mean by the slogan “defund the police.” The Floyd killing has ignited a dialogue over the need for police reform and the state of race relations. It is appropriate to contextualize what may become a historical turning point in the nation’s shameful experience of race relations.

A Dickensian world
Today’s United States has replicated a nineteenth-century Dickensian world, but with a racial twist. Because the criminalization of behaviors deviating from middle-class ideals targets behaviors driven by low wages or refusals to meekly submit to sub-living-wage conditions altogether, its brunt is borne by lower-working-class blacks and browns in cities, and lower-working-class whites, blacks, and browns in rural areas.

The collapse of living wages appeared most dramatically and earliest among workers in the innermost neighborhoods of large cities. Observing the behavioral responses of lower-income blacks and browns to economic malaise from the late 1960s through the 1990s, political institutions, blindered by race and color, responded to growing inequality by emphasizing personal deficits or blaming “dysfunctional” subcultures. By this century, the dearth of living-wage jobs had spread to working-class whites who inherited the inadequate social systems set up with minorities in mind.

In response, recent presidential elections have engaged more lower-working-class Americans desperate for systemic change. Two successive elections of the first African American president attracted a rainbow coalition of supporters that excited both naïve and cynical proclamations that American racism was dead. Social policies constructed for a different racial landscape failed to staunch the deteriorating conditions of lower-working-class life. A political and economic system relentlessly distributing larger slices of economic pie to the most well-off ignored the pain and anxieties of a once economically privileged white working class. Working-class whites who had voted twice for Obama drove the electoral backlash, jumping ship in 2016 to coalesce with traditional Republicans and the racist wing of the white working class to elect a president appealing to white nativist sentiments while promising a resurgence of manufacturing jobs. 

So, why are policing and criminal justice central to the systemic racial bias exacerbating solutions to America’s social problems? First, understand policing and racially biased justice are not merely by-products of a racially divided society but have been the bedrock of race relations since seventeenth-century Virginians began formulating laws that controlled the poor while simultaneously differentiating punishments for African Americans. Afterwards, slave patrols composed of working-class whites dispatched to control the movement of slaves were replaced by sheriff departments enforcing Jim Crow in rural counties. And a major function of urban police nationwide was to maintain segregation and white supremacy by patrolling communities of color by literally keeping residents in their place.
Today, whatever the true motivations of their proponents, so called “broken windows” law-enforcement policies (exemplified by stop-and-frisk tactics) that invariably target both minority neighborhoods and minorities deemed out of place in white or diversified settings perform the same function as policing during the Jim Crow era. Because this traditional police function maintains order by cleansing middle-class spaces of lower-income people, unthinkingly, many whites see nothing wrong with the racial profiling that accompanies a policy like stop-and-frisk that enrages and disillusions minorities. Other whites knowingly approve the function of the practices.

Ironically, the spate of viral video incidents with whites calling 911 on black Americans doing mundane activities is a telling indication of two disparate conditions describing today’s racial landscape, the large African American middle class, and the continuing presence of strong negative attitudes toward blacks by a minority of whites. Large percentages of African Americans enjoy incomes that allow them to participate in social spaces where persons of color were once extremely rare. But many whites simply don’t want “their” spaces diversified, and others feel uncomfortable when certain spaces (e.g., residence areas) are threatened with diversity because they harbor stereotypical attitudes shaping the conclusion that a black encountered unexpectedly is up to no good. The 911 calls are twenty-first-century versions of whites demanding blacks show them a slave pass showing some white owner vouches for their being there. Hence all the YouTube videos with whites demanding that some black resident they do not know “show me proof you live here.” Unsurprisingly, police community relations have achieved the dubious distinction of being the area of worst race relations in the nation.

Why we need radical reform of policing relates to the racially charged policy responses to working-class economic malaise discussed above and can be illustrated through a personal experience comparing policing practices of 50 years ago to militarized departments today. At age 21, accompanied by three black males, I exited a liquor store located at an island intersection of several streets in Joliet, Illinois. Our mood was shattered by the sudden appearance of a flotilla of police cars. Sirens blasting, they descended upon us from several directions, and a small army of cops leaped from the cars with raised pistols, rifles, and shotguns. “Hands up, face against the wall, and don’t move,” commanded an officer. Stunned by the surreal turn of events, within seconds, I was face down against hard concrete, my hands cuffed so tightly behind my back my wrists felt like they were being sawed by a jagged blade. His adrenaline high, the officer pressing the cold shotgun barrel against my head shook from nervous anticipation and fear. I thought, “Have I survived a year in Vietnam just to die face down in a gutter not even knowing why?”

Fortunately, no shots were fired. The incident was merely a hair-raising introduction to the realities of black manhood during the late twentieth century.

Our apprehension was rough but professional, and unlike some other times I was stopped, it proved not to be due to racial profiling. Arriving at police headquarters, surprisingly, we were quickly uncuffed and seated in the station’s common waiting room, not holding cells. Within an hour (without explanation or an apology), we were free to leave. I approached the desk sergeant and asked, “Why were we detained?” Saying nothing, he handed me a sheet of paper, an all-points bulletin. Several African American men, brandishing guns, had robbed a supermarket in Plainfield, Illinois, the previous day. One of the roads intersecting the liquor store site of our apprehension was Plainfield Road. The suspects had sped away in a 1961 white Ford Thunderbird, we rode in a 1960 white Ford Thunderbird. They were described as armed and dangerous black males in their early 20s, with short haircuts, and wearing dark topcoats. It was winter about 30 minutes south of Chicago. Pretty much every adult male was wearing a dark coat, we were all in our early twenties, and, still an active US soldier, I sported a short haircut.

Relieved to not spend a night in lockdown, we left the station thankful for the police department’s efficiency. Apparently, they had searched the car, found it properly registered, with no weapons, no undue amounts of cash, or contraband. No one had outstanding warrants or previous arrests (glad I listened to my parents’ remonstrations about keeping the right company), and each was either employed or in college. Evidently, the police had quickly decided, despite appearances, we did not really fit the description of likely armed robbers. However, outwardly we did fit the description. A previous arrest of any kind among group members, a weapon or contraband in the car, and the unreliability of so-called eyewitnesses staring at gun barrels held by strangers, and who knows where the case might have ended, not to mention the explosive possibilities during the immediate detention on the street.

The late Latino rapper Big Pun, counseling black and brown youth about the dangers of a criminal career, warned, “every crime; fit the description.” Big Pun was acknowledging that a disproportionate amount of crime is committed by black and brown men. This indisputable fact underpins a great many police stops, some warranted, some unwarranted, because police disproportionately stop people of color without probable cause to do fishing expeditions. This leads to racial disparities in arrests far beyond racial disparities in serious law-breaking. Unwarranted stops create anger and negative attitudes toward cops, a dynamic that can lead to acerbic interactions and sometimes deadly consequences. The same dynamics occur in everyday intergroup interactions.

Years after the incident, I found myself asking, how might this harrowing interaction with police have gone down today? Why did those Joliet police officers of the late ’60s, who certainly had legitimate fears they were encountering armed and dangerous criminals, behave more professionally than the police involved in the recent homicides of unarmed African Americans? Have race relations, police tactics, and training deteriorated so much during the intervening decades, or was the Joliet Police force of 1968 simply superior? The tenor of US social policy during the past 50 years likely provides a better explanation. Sixty-eight was also a presidential election year with a contested campaign stressing “law and order.” Fruit of that cry for law and order was the “war on drugs” and the accelerating militarization of police tactics and strategy that this war occasioned during the past five decades. This war on drugs failed to eliminate drug trafficking. It did, however, help blow up our jail population disproportionately with nonviolent felons of color, made unemployable and recycled into overpoliced, impoverished communities. Residents of these communities perceive themselves under siege by police forces equipped and trained in military fashion to patrol large areas by car and to rapidly respond to events with “overwhelming force.”

Contemporary militarized police forces using federally funded military equipment and policing philosophies emphasizing vehicular patrol and speed of response are more efficient if we define efficiency in terms of greater numbers of arrests. Police officers using racial profiling to make their quotas are not all unrepentant racists, nor are most people sitting on juries. However, being fallible human beings, they carry negative racial attitudes. Reacting to the racially patterned statistics that bombard our airwaves and newsprint, like the 911 callers, their assessment of any unknown black male they encounter is “guilty until proven innocent.” Police officers taking the stand before jurors who know few minorities (and certainly few poor ones) on a really personal level sound both reasonable and credible when explaining how, because of fear for their personal safety, they used extreme force to subdue the threatening suspect. This defense of the police killing of George Floyd has already begun, as if any criminal behaviors he may have committed justify his public killing.

These military-style organizations (measuring productivity by number of arrests and stops, thus inflating crime statistics) attract too many macho and authoritarian applicants, more than would likely apply to police forces focused on decreasing crime by maintaining the peace and community welfare. In even moderately sized cities, police interacting with minorities are perceived as foreign invaders. Why? Invariably, the minorities live in segregated areas and the police come from elsewhere. In the Illinois town where I grew up (smaller than even Joliet), I harbored no ill feelings against police. The difference was the absence of segregation: there were too few blacks to segregate us. Every cop on the force had attended grade school or high school with someone in my mother’s extended family; dropping a name would immediately relax any situation. In a town with less than one percent black voters, my uncle (one of the town’s most illustrious former high school athletes) was elected commissioner of public safety in charge of the police during the early ’70s. It was different during many stays in Chicago. There, the ubiquitous residential and school segregation ensured police and community were strangers. Like the Chicagoans I knew, I never felt comfortable with their police officers. They were fierce-looking men who I imagined lived in all-white places like Cicero, a southwestern suburb on the route back home where, when driving through, my father always directed us to roll up the car windows and lock the doors.

A kind of Rorschach test
So what can you do about the state of race relations? Start by examining your own attitudes. Given the run of unwarranted or dubious police killings of African Americans publicized since the advent of cell phone cameras, if your immediate reaction to the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is to think “All Lives Matter” rather than the implicit meaning “Black Lives Matter Too,” you are likely part of the problem. If you find yourself drawn to political messages that reduce “Defund the Police” to a utopian demand to “Abolish the Police,” you need to reflect on your attitudes because you are still part of the problem.

Big Pun (the rapper with the eye of a social scientist) understood that minority-white relations affect crime rates, which then affect race relations in a vicious cycle. It is illegitimate to choose either race relations or crime rates as the causal culprit. Both must be dealt with simultaneously. Crime will not diminish nor race relations improve without better education and job conditions for working-class populations. Nor will either improve without substantial reform of policing and criminal justice practices. These results cannot be easily achieved. However, any national debate concerning race relations will lead nowhere if we do not refocus social policy. We fool ourselves if we think a harmonious diversified society treating everyone with respect is attainable alongside vast segregated neighborhoods and schools that sustain large group inequalities. A sincere discussion must address demilitarizing police forces (and, yes, defunding them in the sense of restructuring revenue flows to other approaches to public safety and welfare), decriminalizing minor nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors, and improving educational and employment opportunities for lower-income Americans. 

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