Racial Unrest in America: The Michael Brown Trial is Not The Point

by Benjamin Studebaker

Yesterday, a grand jury decided not to indict white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown. This has resulted in a mix of peaceful protest and rioting in Ferguson, as well as protests in many other major American cities. My Facebook feed is full to bursting with people declaring themselves to be for or against the grand jury’s decision. Unfortunately, I’m seeing many people get caught up in the details of arguing over whether or not the jury made the right decision. This myopic response distracts from the larger structural issue the United States needs to confront–implicit racism in American police forces and throughout American society.

I did not witness the shooting of Michael Brown. I have not spent 70 hours or more reviewing all of the evidence surrounding his death with the help of a prosecutor and judge who are intimately familiar with the intricacies of Missouri law. I am not in an epistemic position to say that the jury ruled incorrectly based on the evidence they had and the law as it is written. Chances are, your epistemic position is not substantively better. Sure, you and I can read pieces people plaster around the internet highlighting small fractions of the 70 hours of evidence the jury heard, but we will never know the full context of that evidence or how that evidence relates to everything else the jury heard over 70 hours. This doesn’t mean the jury necessarily got it right–it’s possible that the jury could have made a racist decision in view of all the evidence that they had. But we are never going to know enough about the evidence that was presented to the jury and the way it was presented to be sure either way. As laypeople with limited and conflicting information, we are not in a position to judge, and the efforts by our various Facebook friends to argue it one way or the other are never going to meet legal standards of proof.

But here’s the thing–it doesn’t matter if Michael Brown attacked Darren Wilson. It doesn’t matter if Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in the back while he was fleeing. It doesn’t matter if the jury got it right or wrong. If this was the only case in which white police officers were suspected of mistreating black citizens, it would be inconsequential for society at large–it would be just another crime. What matters is that we know, statistically, that white police officers disproportionately (and perhaps inadvertently) discriminate against black citizens. We know that blacks are more likely to be stopped and searched than whites in Chicago and Illinois:

And we know that this is the case even though blacks are less likely to be carrying contraband than whites:

We know that in New York, the racial composition of one’s neighborhood predicts the frequency of stop and search even when we control for poverty and crime rates. We know that in Ferguson, the police are about twice as likely to stop and search blacks as whites.

This problem existed long before Michael Brown was shot. It would continue to exist regardless of what decision the grand jury reached. If the courts had decided to execute Darren Wilson by firing squad, it would not have resolved this problem. Darren Wilson is just one man, he is just a symptom of a wider sociological phenomenon in which white cops and minority citizens are mutually distrusting. Nothing the state could do to Darren Wilson would solve this problem. To solve the problem, we need comprehensive policy solutions. Focusing on individuals and on individual cases misses the forest for the trees. This is not a deterrence issue–when Wilson shot Brown, he shot Brown because he was afraid. Regardless of whether or not his fear was justified, strong emotions like fear are not responsive to rational reflection on the potential consequences of one’s actions. The only way to prevent fear from causing cops to shoot black citizens is to create social conditions in which the strong emotion–in this case, fear–is less likely to arise in the first place.

So how do we do that? This past week, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani offered a really bad solution to this issue:

Here are the relevant bits:

I find it’s very disappointing that you’re not discussing the fact that 93% of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We’re talking about the exception here…I would like to see the attention paid to that that you are paying to this…it is the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community…it’s because of the high level of crime…what about the poor black child who is killed by another black child? Why aren’t you people protesting that? Why don’t you cut it down so so many white police officers don’t have to be in black areas? How about 70-75% of the crime in my city takes place in black cities? The white police officers wouldn’t be there if you weren’t killing each other.

His argument goes something like this:

  1. Black culture is violent.
  2. Therefore, black people commit crimes.
  3. Therefore, black neighborhoods are high crime areas.
  4. Therefore, additional police officers are needed in black neighborhoods.
  5. Because these police officers are in high crime areas, they’re nervous.
  6. Because there are many nervous officers in black neighborhoods, the incidence of police violence is higher.

This argument ignores the research I presented above, which establishes that the police stop blacks disproportionately to the amount of crime committed in their neighborhoods. It is also an implicitly racist argument, because it blames black crime on black culture without accounting for the state’s role in creating that culture by failing to provide black citizens with equal economic and educational opportunities. As I discussed a couple months back, implicitly racist arguments take the following form:

  1. Some fact about the state of African-Americans relative to whites (e.g. “they’re poorer than whites”, “more likely to go to prison”, “more likely to be on welfare”, “more likely to be unemployed”, etc.)
  2. The fact about blacks is attributed to black culture (e.g. “black people need to take responsibility”).
  3. Because “black culture” is to blame for blacks’ relative position, the state is exonerated from any duty to resolve inequalities, allowing them to persist.

In Giuliani’s case, the fact about the state of African-Americans relative to whites is that they’re more likely to commit crimes (“the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community…it’s because of the high level of crime”). Giuliani then attributes this to black culture and claims that the black community must take responsibility (“why don’t you cut it down?”). This argument is used to exonerate the state from any duty to resolve the inequalities of opportunity that cause these problems in the first place (“I would like to see the attention paid to that”).

The problem is that human beings are products of their environments, and the primary actor responsible for the kind of environment we’re going to have is the state. State policies determine whether black children will have access to good schools, good jobs, and equal opportunities of all kinds. The black community does not make these decisions. Black parents care about their children. Clearly if the black community had any substantive agency in all of this, black children would be much better educated and have access to much better economic opportunities than they do today. The fact that black children do not have these things is clear evidence that there is a larger structural force impeding them from getting these things. The state is the organization with the greatest influence on the structure of our society, and consequently the state is in the best position to solve the problem. When a problem goes unsolved, it is because the state is unable or unwilling to implement corrective policy. Giuliani was mayor of New York City. He had the tools of the state policy making at his disposal, and under him and his successor Michael Bloomberg, New York has come to be an especially unequal place:

Under politicians like Giuliani, low-income black families continue to live in neighborhoods full of other low income people. Their children continue to attend schools in these areas based on geography, and these schools continue to under-perform schools in affluent neighborhoods. This is because it’s state policy for schools to select geographically and because it is state policy to refuse to do anything about economic diversity in neighborhoods. Their parents are forced to work multiple jobs to keep their children fed and clothed, and as a result they’re not at home enough and not able to spend the same amount of time and energy helping their children succeed. This is because it’s state policy to refuse to pay significant welfare benefits to poor parents so as to force them to work as many hours as possible. When state policies ensure that you go to bad schools and that your parents don’t have time to help you succeed, your chances of getting into college (much less succeeding if and when you get there) are severely diminished. Meanwhile, you see affluent white kids getting additional opportunities. There’s no good reason for this, and it destroys your confidence in the system’s fairness. If you are living in an unfair system where the rules are against you, why not commit crimes? Breaking the rules is the only way to make them fair.

At this stage, racism in America is a distributive justice problem more than it is an identity issue. Black identity is held responsible by implicit racists only because black identity has become synonymous in the minds of many Americans with poverty and the social problems that stem from poverty. The only way to solve the problem is to break the psychological association of blackness with poverty through redistribution. Only the state can redistribute on the scale required. The black community cannot solve the problem on its own, and when politicians accuse the black community, they are deflecting from their own policy failures.

When we talk about individual cases and make the national race conversation all about the particulars of whether the black guy or the white guy acted wrongly, we are distracting one another from the underlying structural problems that help racism survive from one generation to the next. Politics should not be about identifying good guys and bad guys, it should not be about choosing individual’s sides. It should be about trying to find and implement policy solutions to relieve people from the domination of adverse social structures. We are all victims of this system. Black people are being denied the opportunities and resources they deserve, but white people are being harmed too, albeit in less serious ways. Because many black people never get the chance to be engineers, scientists, professors, and so on, our society misses out on the opportunity to benefit from their contributions. In the meantime, white people live in unnecessary fear of black and poor people. This obstructs white people from forging friendships and broader community bonds with an entire segment of the population, dividing our society to the benefit of no one. Instead of vilifying Michael Brown or Darren Wilson, we should be taking this opportunity to demand that the state implement anti-poverty policies that will empower people of all creeds and colors to benefit themselves and their society as much as they are able. Insofar as we fail to do this, we are part of the problem, regardless of how loudly we might make Michael Brown’s case. This isn’t about Michael Brown, it’s about all of us, together.