In a crisis moment, according to Milton Friedman’s old quip, “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” The enormous response to the police murder of George Floyd has shown that those “ideas lying around” are the politics of liberal antiracism.
Political elites such as Nancy Pelosi and evil corporations like Amazon have all proclaimed the banner of #BlackLivesMatter, while right-wingers like Mitt Romney have even taken to the streets to protest. On social media, users have flooded feeds with an endless stream of Samantha Power-infused demands for white people to “do something,” everything from having “difficult conversations” with not-so-woke relatives at the dinner table to supporting black-owned business through an app called Black Wall Street à la Nixon’s “black capitalism.”
Although this groundswell of support for racial justice may seem promising, there’s reason to be cautious. Despite its militant posturing, the liberal antiracist framework driving the fight against police brutality is insufficiently equipped to end it. Fundamentally, antiracism misdiagnoses the roots of the policing crisis. Its proposed solutions, then, can only mitigate the crisis’s severity at best and run the risk of rendering permanent its existence as a core feature of American injustice at worst. Lip service to racial justice from the political and corporate elite is less indicative of disingenuous establishment co-optation and more so of liberal antiracism’s compatibility with neoliberal inequality, what Cedric Johnson has identified as “ideological convergence of the militant racial liberalism of Black Lives Matter and the operational racial liberalism of capital.”
By identifying police brutality’s economic origins, only a framework that views intensive policing as a means of managing unequal class relations—ones with deep racial disparities, no doubt—can empower us to stop the endless state violence. The importance of getting this right cannot be overstated. When the protests are relentless and when the movement appears to have at least a modicum of power to win concessions on policing policy, we need to make sure that the “ideas lying around” are the right ones.
The Limits of Racial Disparities
Proponents of liberal antiracism cite the racial disparity in people killed by police as evidence that racism and white supremacy are the sources of police brutality. While white people are killed by police at about three-fourths their share of the national population, they point out, black people are killed at almost twice theirs, meaning that the latter are more than twice as likely to be killed by cops than the former. The problem is that implicitly advocating that each race to be killed in perfect proportion to its share of the national population—”the equivalent of demands for berths on a higher deck on a sinking ship,” as Touré Reed puts it—leaves room for a lot of dead people.
The narrow focus on disparity also conceals a salient fact about those killed by police: almost half of them are white, while blacks represent just less than a quarter. This doesn’t mean that we should start chanting, “all lives matter.” But it does suggest a strategic problem. A political framework that excludes a near majority of the affected population is likely not a winning strategy. If the main, or even only, problem with police brutality is that it’s racist, then “we cut ourselves off from the only basis for forging a political alliance that could effectively challenge it,” Adolph Reed Jr. writes.
That whites make up almost half of all those killed by police also undermines liberal antiracism’s diagnosis of the sources of police brutality. Michelle Alexander, author of the widely cited The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, accounts for white victims of hyper-incarceration and police violence by framing them as “collateral damage,” unintentional consequences of a fundamentally anti-black regime, adopting the U.S. warstate’s preferred term for dismissing civilian deaths in drone strikes. If only a small handful of white people were killed by police ever year, the collateral damage analogy might hold water. But when nearly half of all people killed by cops are white, it would behoove one to look beyond anti-blackness as the source of police killings.
Accordingly, some data suggest that class is a better predictor than race of who is killed by police. An informal study conducted by Zaid Jilani found that the median family income in neighborhoods where a police killing occurred over a five-month period was $53,000—several thousand less than the national average—and that 95 percent of those killings happened where median family income was below $100,000. Similarly, Dustin Guastella summarized another study as such:
a person in the poorest quintile of census tracts is 3.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than a person in the wealthiest quintile. Of all the police killings in the United States about 60% take place in census tracts falling in the two quintiles with the highest levels of poverty – despite these tracts accounting for only 39% of the population. A full 35% of all police killings occurred in the census tract quintile with the highest concentration of poverty.
It is the poorly employed surplus population in urban ghettos, deindustrialized small towns in the Midwest, and inner-ring suburbs bearing the brunt of police murder. “Black Lives Matter activists posit universal black injury where, in fact, the violence of the carceral state is experienced more broadly across the working class,” Cedric Johnson writes. Cops aren’t killing rich people.
Black people are overrepresented among those killed by police not because cops are racist—though that undoubtedly exacerbates the skew—but rather because blacks are disproportionately poor and working class, a direct consequence of how sharecropping prevented blacks from accessing even the most moderate fruits of America’s industrialization. “The racial breakdown of those killed by the police almost exactly matches the racial demography of the poor,” Guastella observes.
Reframing police brutality as an issue primarily of class reinforcement is strategically beneficial because it bypasses antiracism’s unhelpful allyship framework, wherein white people are “allies” to and for black people. It recasts the fight against police brutality from a selfless act that white people should engage in out of the goodness of their hearts for the exclusive benefit of black people to a collective one in which all working class people can find self-interest, strengthening the movement’s material footing.
Democratic Socialism: An Alternative to (and a Form of) Antiracism
The class dynamics of police brutality should point toward its causes, the proper identification of which offers us the best chance of ending it. The roots of the policing crisis are not to be found primarily in individual officers’ racist biases or a transhistorical and immutable white supremacy pervasive among police departments, as liberal antiracism charges, but rather in our choice to respond to dramatic social and economic inequality with intensive policing and hyper incarceration instead of a redistributive agenda based in robust social democracy.
As Adaner Usmani and John Klegg argue in a pathbreaking piece on the economic origins of mass incarceration, the historic underdevelopment of the American welfare state culminated in a precipitous rise in violent crime in the 1960s to which the Lyndon Johnson and future administrations responded with insufficient social policy, leaving the management of crime to local and state governments, whose only constitutionally and financially available policy options were harsh punitive measures. “The overdevelopment of American penal policy at the local level is the result of the underdevelopment of American social policy at the federal level,” they write.
If we understand the regime of intensive policing that killed George Floyd as a response to the rise in crime, and the rise in crime as a result of the federal government’s failure to meet its citizens’ basic needs, then we can tackle the policing crisis by addressing the various social problems associated with inequality that hyper policing was designed to manage. This project requires policies such as a federal jobs guarantee, Medicare for All, affordable housing, free higher education, and a Green New Deal, paired with strong anti-discrimination measures and a dramatic drawdown of intensive and militarized policing. In a robust social democracy with policies like these, the role that police play in today’s neoliberal capitalism would become mostly obsolete.
The enormity of the required response should make clear that defunding or even abolishing police departments alone is not enough, as undoubtedly some form of private security would expand along the lines of that which murdered Trayvon Martin in 2012. Strategically, these proposed solutions miss “the clear opportunity to unite a constituency around ending the complementary problems of police brutality, gun violence, municipal austerity, and economic inequality,” Guastella writes. Nor is redirecting police funds to affected communities enough, as Minneapolis and Los Angeles seem poised to do. Such a move is woefully inadequate to the task at hand.
As Usmani and Klegg point out, punitive policy (police, prisons, and courts) costs far less than social policy (welfare, health care, education, etc.), given the former’s hyper-targeted nature and the latter’s universality. Cops and prisons deal with inequality’s ills on the cheap. As such, the social response is going to require a lot more money than currently allocated to police departments. In developed European countries, police kill so many fewer people not because law enforcement training is far more extensive, as a widely shared post suggests, but rather because the ratio of social spending to punitive spending is far higher there—on average by twice as much as the United States, and three to four times as much in countries like Denmark, Finland, and Norway.
What’s more, policing is a local issue—albeit one crafted by the U.S. imperial state—but it’s not one we can address at the local level. While punitive policy is funded mostly by states and localities, the major social programs required for reducing inequality are federally funded. “The perverse consequence of American federalism,” Usmani and Klegg write, “is that it is those areas in which violence concentrates that have the least resources to fight it at its root.” The locus of the fight against police brutality, therefore, should not be the cities and states that fund police departments, but rather the federal government.
Most of liberal antiracism’s other favorite proposals—prosecuting killer cops, banning chokeholds, ending qualified immunity, outlawing no-knock warrants, limiting the use of force, taking away the MRAPs and LRADs, getting cops out of schools, and teaching de-escalation—are necessary measures for improving public safety. But none fundamentally eradicates the economic inequality that intensive policing was developed to manage. Without a redistributive program, antiracism’s procedural tweaks will only temper police brutality’s most visceral expressions, leaving intact a regime designed to exploit poor people and protect the ruling class’s property.
Socialism won’t automatically make racist beliefs disappear, but it can significantly undermine racism’s power, i.e., its material basis. By ensuring everyone’s economic security and well-being, socialism flattens the stark power imbalance between cops and the communities they abuse. By contrast, the only people antiracist training empowers are the specialists paid big bucks by HR and police departments to tell workers that their implicit biases are responsible for blacks’ overrepresentation in police killings.
If we lived in a society that guaranteed everyone’s basic needs, George Floyd wouldn’t have been forced to use counterfeit money at a convenience store during a national pandemic. The two men alleged to have used Breonna Taylor’s house to receive packages wouldn’t have needed to sell illicit drugs to pay their bills. Eric Garner wouldn’t have had to sell loosies. The poverty of the racialized ghettos Michael Brown and Freddie Gray lived in wouldn’t have automatically labeled them criminals. And Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have looked out of place in a nice neighborhood.
Liberal antiracists may dismiss social democracy as tone deaf to a national emergency of police murder, but it’s our best and only hope to stop the violence.
Gunar Olsen is a New York-based freelance writer and a research assistant at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.