Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson: The Problem Isn’t Black People

America has done a pretty good job of getting the middle class to fear poor black guys instead of rich white men.

Consider Mike Brown Exhibit, oh I don’t know, 1,000,001.

Because that’s a rough guesstimate the number of African-American men currently enmeshed in the gears of the US penal system, incarcerated in prisons, held in jails , on probation, or on parole or, in sum, as the Pew Charitable Trust put it in 2009, “under correctional control.” 

Correctional control rates are highly concentrated by race and geography: 1 in 11 black adults (9.2 percent) versus 1 in 27 Hispanic adults (3.7 percent) and 1 in 45 white adults (2.2 percent); 1 in 18 men (5.5 percent) versus 1 in 89 women (1.1 percent).  The rates can be extremely high in certain neighborhoods.  In one block-group of Detroit's East Side, for example, 1 in 7 adult men (14.3 percent) is under correctional control. 

The black adult male population aged 18 to 64 roughs out at about 12 million x 9.2%, well you get the picture.

More recent data for incarceration rates are at the U.S. government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Total 478
Male 904 White 466 Black 2,805 Hispanic 1,134 Other 963
Female 65 White 51 Black 113 Hispanic 66 Other 90

In other words, black male adults are six times more likely to be in prison than the population as a whole, three times more than the average for the male population.  More than one third of the state and federal prison population (540,000+ out of about 1.5 million) is black.

As to whether this is an unfortunate coincidence born of particular patterns of misbehavior among African Americans, I have my doubts.

Fact is, to characterize this issue as fundamentally one of racism—though excellent and important work has done on the persistence of racism and its role in selective enforcement and incarceration, particularly in the area of drug laws--may, in my opinion, actually miss the point.

Maybe it reflects the use of race-biased law enforcement to reinforce the narrative that America’s problem is Mr. African-American Adult Male…

…while the problem—and the solution—may actually be somewhere else.

My personal suspicion is that the US political and social system has a vested interest in black alienation.  

Maybe it is good politics to abuse African Americans, goad and provoke them, escalate the fear and anger on both sides, force an angry reaction and respond with a fear-laden counterreaction, so an economically disadvantaged community has its hands full staying out of jail and not getting shot, and isn’t thinking about forming common cause with other disadvantaged or less-advantaged groups to stick it to the rich guy in the next election.

In other words, it’s not Fear of a Black Voting Bloc; it’s Fear of a Unified Lower & Middle Class Voting Bloc.

And alienation cuts both ways.

Other groups are more concerned with the undeniable and understandable anger in the black community, and worrying about its consequences for them—and looking out for Number 1--than they are in finding common ground.

One of the most interesting transitions occurred in the 1990s, as far as I can remember.  Old fashioned Democratic liberalism and its doppelganger, noblesse oblige white shoe Republicanism, fell by the wayside.  I associated old liberalism with the idea that problems existed in society, and it was up to an enlightened electorate to remedy them using the interventionist power of the government as channeled and constrained by the constitution.  Silly me.

What came after, with the collapse of communism, I guess, and its perceived challenge to the Western formula for social justice, was the idea of neo-liberalism, that there was a near-perfect set of constitutional, electoral, and economic mechanisms, and interference with those mechanisms is what caused the problems.  So it was up to disadvantaged groups to use the machinery properly, and up to the society to enforce the criminal and political rules that kept the bad, the greedy, and misguided from gumming up the works.  System’s workin’ but some people ain’t working hard enough.  That’s the problem.

If my model’s right, black political agency was attacked pretty much the same way that the union power was destroyed, by demonizing its demands as false entitlement and denigrating its needs as a call for privilege that degraded the overall functioning and fairness of the system. 
In other words, it’s up to America’s most marginalized, underprivileged, and over-incarcerated minority to solve its problems before we can talk about shared problems.  In other words, never gonna happen.  And for some people, that’s just fine.

Not just the hyper rich.

For Mr. White Middle Class Americans, pressure’s off.  Just sit back and let the miracle of liberal free market democracy work while the cops keep the troublemakers bottled up.  We’ll cut your taxes and put more cops on the streets.  Hell, I’ll take that deal.  Hell, I took that deal.

But the problems—the alienation—seems to be getting worse instead of better.

So it doesn’t seem surprising that the system might have a vested interest in encouraging and escalating black alienation, so it makes sense that local police are shooting and killing young black men, women, and children.

As to whether this was a conscious plan or some ineluctable alchemy of class and race relations, well, I guess I’ll leave that to the philosophers for a while.

But for the time being, I guess the message is Black Lives Matter More Than White Privilege.  That includes Mike Brown’s life…and my privileges. 

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