I originally wrote the article below back in June 2020 during the BLM protests. It was for a separate online publication and was never released due to an amicable editorial dispute I had, but I wanted to put it out here since I believe the premise is still correct and relevant. This is also why references made to the protest are in present tense. The article begins below:
The overwhelming tone of the 2020 protests is one of racial justice. It is one of white supremacy, racist police officers killing black men, Doing Better, and fighting racism in police departments and in society at large. The hyper-focused target of the protests is the institution of policing and the calls for its reform/defunding/abolishment/etc. This focus, from any kind of truly universal and emancipatory perspective, is a mistake. The protestors have adopted (or have always held, if we accept this as a fundamentally liberal movement) the ideology of the status quo they’re trying to change – the idea that neoliberal economics are unchangeable and that we need to focus on the issues caused by this system rather than the underlying system itself. Presenting this as a solely racial issue or policing issue is not only a dead end but extremely counterproductive, with the can of racial justice simply being kicked further down the road.
The key to overcoming this obstacle is recognizing that racial injustice and economic injustice are inextricably linked and that the only tangible way we can ever hope to achieve racial justice is through economic justice. Making this point is completely verboten, even on the left, and just speaking about this has become a disciplinable offence. Focusing on class/political economy constantly gets misconstrued as a refusal to talk about racism, a cryptic fascism, and so on. On the contrary, this is an urgent and serious attempt to fight the contradictions and tensions that both empower and are empowered by racism. There is also the issue of universality that gets muted when focusing on race. When we take the focus off of proportionality, (poor) white people make up the majority of people killed by police – focusing on race ignores this, while focusing on class/poverty provides a more universal answer.
While black men are certainly killed by police at a disproportionate rate, an extensive study that controlled for class showed that what unites nearly all victims of police violence is not their race but their class. The police are performing their function – policing the underclass – and this function will continue to be performed, one way or another, if that underclass remains a part of society. If we want to end police violence rather than simply correct its racial proportions, we should work to bring economic justice to that underclass.
There has been further evidence showing that, when adjusting for population values, there seems to be no racial disparity in the police use of force. A research study that built on the latter evidence and examined poverty as an additional factor states that “the odds ratio of getting killed by police for poor Black citizens, 3.34 out of 100,000, is similar to the odds ratio of getting killed by police for poor White citizens, 3.64 out of 100,000.” Therein lies the key: you will never keep the underclass from being policed, but you can potentially get rid of that underclass through economic justice.
Additional evidence that controls for class includes a 1986 study of police behaviour in different neighbourhoods which found that “suspects encountered by police in lower-status neighborhoods run three times the risk of arrest compared with offenders encountered in higher-status neighborhoods, regardless of type of crime, race of offender, offender demeanor, and victim preferences for criminal arrest.” A 2003 study of neighbourhoods and police use of force backed this up: “police officers are significantly more likely to use higher levels of force when suspects are encountered in disadvantaged neighborhoods…Also found is that the effect of the suspect’s race is mediated by neighborhood context.” A 2016 Harvard study observed that “On the most extreme use of force –oﬃcer-involved shootings – we ﬁnd no racial diﬀerences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account.”
There is no denying that black people are killed by police at a disproportionate rate, and the evidence on whether or not this is due to racism is inconclusive, but, regardless, the question then becomes “what is to be done?” Do we pursue the anti-racist liberal project that seeks to adjust police violence so that it has the correct proportions? Or do we look for something more tangible and pursue a truly emancipatory project that seeks to eradicate the conditions of poverty that lead to police violence in the first place? I argue that the latter is the only project worth pursuing. Liberals are fine with keeping the ruling class/underclass dynamic that fosters police violence, so long as that ruling class has the same proportions of racial, ethnic, and other minorities that are found in the general population – they are fine with poverty so long as it is not a racist or discriminatory poverty.
The effects of poverty go far beyond just police violence. If we look at who is killing black people in America, we find that the vast majority of black homicide victims are killed by others of the same race (there are similar findings for white people), with unarmed black police shooting victims representing only 0.1% of all black people killed in 2019. Black-on-black (and white-on-white, for that matter) crime is a tragic fact rooted in poverty and if we’re going to take the phrase “black lives matter” seriously, we need to be focusing on the conditions of poverty that lead to nearly all of the black lives lost in any given year. In addition to homicides, deaths of despair account for approximately 150,000 lives per year and individual-level poverty accounts for around 133,000 deaths, with a disproportionate number of these deaths affecting black people (but, again, take the focus off of proportionately and white people are the majority of those affected).
The presence of the police, as overpowered and troubling as they are, clearly reduces crime and lowers murder rates. Recently, the Chicago police were drawn away from high-crime neighbourhoods in an effort to control protests, which led to the city’s deadliest 24 hours in 60 years. “I sat and watched a store looted for over an hour,” a local Chicago reverend said. “No police came. I got in my car and drove around to some other places getting looted [and] didn’t see police anywhere.” He adds, “People are on the edge, people are angry, people are poor, and they don’t even know when it’s going to change.” Let’s be very clear: defunding or abolishing the police in conditions like these will only lead to more black lives lost.
The studies you’ll see promoted on most mainstream news, however, are ones that highlight instances of white officers killing black victims and that don’t control for class/poverty/income/wealth. The stories you hear on the media will usually be from bigger cities where black people are disproportionately killed and where people are more likely to be standing by and filming. The racial tone of the media and corporate class is an attempt to deflect from the economic foundation of this mess. It has us treating a cough on a patient with lung cancer.
In an attempt to cancel myself even further, let me bring Martin Luther King Jr into this mess. Many people enjoy twisting and weaponizing the words of Dr. King, so I have no problem doing it as well: King claims that “the inseparable twin of racial injustice is economic injustice.” Let’s take King very seriously here and put all weight on the word “inseparable,” as this is the key to the solution for these injustices. Race and class are, as King says, inseparable, and we can take this to mean that one contains the other – at the core of any racial injustice is a class injustice and to separate racial injustice from its class character is to keep it from ever turning into a truly emancipatory project.
The problem is that there is a big effort right now, supported and promoted by the ruling class, that is explicitly trying to separate the two. They are trying to make it purely a race issue, ignoring the fact that they are fundamentally inseparable. The Work of separating the inseparable twin looks something like this: the police are racist, we live in a global white supremacist world order, everyone is, in fact, racist and must repent, you have to Do the Work, you have to educate yourself, etc. The beneficiaries of the status quo, naturally, want to keep the status quo intact. That’s why they surgically separate the inseparable twin of racial injustice and economic injustice and they are able to perform this surgery because they wield economic power through the state. This allows them to maintain the balance of power by leaving economic injustices uncriticized and untouched, while doing just about anything else imaginable to try to “fix” racism in the form of market-friendly rules and reforms.
These tactics intentionally miss the point that is implied by the critical reading of police violence data: the police aren’t “bad” because they’re racist (although many still are), they are “bad” because they are there to control the poor, underemployed, or unemployed underclass – the labour surplus that capital needs to survive. As long as that labour surplus exists alongside capital, it will be policed one way or another. If you defund/abolish/whatever the police, crime and murder will go up and the market will step in. Some seem to think that defunding the police will somehow magically transfer that money to things like education and so on. This is, unfortunately, not how neoliberalism works. Austerity is used to establish new enclosures and advance privatization – it’s very important here to remember the corporate interests and billionaire NGOs that support these protests. At “best,” this defund/abolish attitude will merely create jobs for social workers and diversity consultants and won’t do anything to address the underlying causes. At worst, it will unleash the disciplining of the underclass to the ruthlessness of the free market.
Just look at the proliferation of private security forces in South Africa (among other countries). Rudolph Zinn of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa states things clearly: “I think the growth in the industry is definitely attributed to the fact that, let’s call it a weak policing or ineffective policing, and it created the opportunity for private individuals to move into the market.” If you don’t alleviate the economic tensions that are being policed, then weakening/defunding/abolishing/”reimagining” the police will not get rid of violence – it will just privatize it, making way for private security officers to patrol the underclass.
So the protests, the riots, these outbursts of racial tension are completely inseparable from class (economic injustice) and it is class that needs to be addressed if these tensions are going to be eased. We’ll never figure out how to “fix” racism – that’s a liberal project that separates race from class so it can be tinkered with forever, extracting capital in the process. It supports an entire class of academics, writers, journalists, NGOs, non-profits, and even entertainers. It should be clear that the only way to maintain social order and have any chance of “fixing” racism at this point is through economic justice. If you want to “abolish the police,” you have to first abolish the labour surplus and abolish poverty. Are there racist cops? Certainly. Can we “un-racist” the cops through reforms? The ruling class would have you think so. Can we defund the police? Sure, but that will just increase crime and privatize the brutality. And none of this is to say that we shouldn’t combat racism on its face, both personally and politically, it is simply an honest attempt to create serious, long-lasting solutions to these frustrating and never-ending problems.
If you put a gun to my head and told me to be optimistic about the protests, I would say that we have to lay waste to the liberal elements of this opportunity if we want any chance of change. Everyone echoing ruling class academia and talking about things like microaggressions (coined in Harvard), white supremacy triangles, Doing the Work, and so on, and all the religious self-flagellation, woke segregation, podcast recommendations, Netflix documentary recommendations, NGO recommendations, the donations and payments to this or that marginalized person, and so on and so on – all of that stuff is liberal at its very core. It’s about shifting responsibility to you – the individual. It is your responsibility to input the correct and Good things into the market if you want it to behave (just look at Justin Trudeau, Canada’s sitting Prime Minister, model this behaviour for citizens). Maintaining social order, fighting for social justice, upholding social institutions – these former duties of the state are now the responsibility of the individual, who has to perform these duties by placing the right inputs into the market. So donate to that, watch this show, listen to this, read that, send money to these people, work on yourself, etc – you are responsible for holding society together. Remind me again – in which part of any social contract theory is the individual meant to be responsible for the duties of the state?
To shamelessly plagiarize from Wikipedia:
“Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority (of the ruler, or to the decision of a majority) in exchange for protection of their remaining rights or maintenance of the social order.”
It appears as though the state is not upholding their responsibility to protect our rights or maintain the social order and, using twisted liberal logic, that responsibility is now with the individual, who still has to “surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority.” As Benjamin Studebaker says, “liberal states draw a line between public and private, between politics and morality, they can depoliticise issues by moralising them, by pushing them into the private sphere. In this way, the liberal state avoids collective responsibility for conditions, instead pushing its citizens to take personal responsibility for them.” A class analysis reveals the ideology of this reversal and recognizes that our moral beliefs stem from the state/system and our position within the class structure, not the other way around. In the words of Studebaker, “If we are to change, the system must change first.”
Luckily, these liberal elements are being shed and exposed. Their methods have been tried and they have failed, time and time again. No amount of reforms and rules and Doing the Work and defunding and abolishing can keep the fires of class tension at bay forever.