Things I’ve Worked On: Framing is the fight

I want to begin by saying I stand fully behind the spirit of the protests going on around this country. In broad terms, the extent of the protesters’ response has been perfectly proportionate to the scourge of racism in this country as well as to the years of inaction that have brought us to where we are. That said, I do have frustrations with what I’m seeing.

But I don’t mean the rioting or the looting. As Bernard Shaw said, “morals are a luxury of the rich,” which is to say, we can hardly blame people experiencing extreme helplessness for lashing out in “ugly” ways. If one feels they are without alternative recourse, it’s easy to see how more antagonistic forms of protest become manifest.

No, my issues are more fundamental. They center on our collective diagnosis of the problem – that racism is non-causally expressed through individualistic acts (i.e., an event that begins in an individual’s mind and ends in his fist) such as police brutality – as well as the logical solutions that follow from said diagnosis, such as defunding the police.

Put another way, we’re misframing the nature of racism in America. Racism is not a series of unconnected prejudicial acts originating in the minds of bad apple citizens. It’s a cogent constitution of oppression rooted in the notion of underclassdom. Call it the legacy of slavery, call it a feedback loop of unkind media narratives, or call it biological racism, the underlying principle remains the same: American culture implicitly asserts that black people occupy a space below white people. James Baldwin put it more elegantly: “In a way, black men were very useful to the American because in a country so absently undefined, so amorphous–where there were no limits, no height really and no depth–there was one thing on which one could be certain. One knew where one was by knowing where the negro was. You knew that you were not on the bottom because the negro was there. You knew where the sin was.”

Racism is, for lack of a better term, an ethos, not necessarily an action. And in relation to the events at hand, police brutality is much more a symptom of racism than an actual instance of it. This may sound like semantical hair-splitting, but it has serious consequences in the search for solutions. For example, when we talk about racial disparities in lethal use of force, we’re arguing for something not particularly borne out by data. Take one study by Professor Roland G. Fryer of Harvard University, who found that when you control for contextual factors, there were no racial differences in victims concerning officer-involved shootings. A similar story plays out for incarceration; research by People’s Policy Project indicated that “while class has a large and statistically significant effect on [whether or not men aged 24-32 years have ever been to jail or prison, whether or not men are jailed after being arrested, and whether or not men have spent more than a month in jail or prison], race — once one controls for class — does not.” And this observation is not limited to criminal justice. For instance, a study by Reardon et al. found that, considering both race and income, what matters most in educational achievement is differences in exposure to poor schoolmates rather than differences in exposure to minority schoolmates.

The operative point here is the control for income/context. Once you consider economic disparity, racial disparities oftentimes shrink tremendously. To be sure, in many cases, stand-alone racist effects sometimes still exist (e.g., such racism exists in non-lethal use of force against black and Hispanic persons). However, by and large, poverty/class is the main battleground. And in fact, a large reason black Americans are more likely to be victim to many societal ills (even beyond criminal justice) is that they are more likely to live in low-income communities and face financial precarity themselves.

But don’t mistake what I’m saying for class reductionism, because black Americans have a distinct relationship with poverty and class. More black Americans live in poverty and have a tougher time escaping it than white Americans. And the black families who are able to escape poverty experience a harder time staying out of it generationally. Racism certainly exists.

The reason most significant effects of racism are captured by class context is because it entails countless interactions throughout the life of a black person that have a compounding effect. Each individual interaction may not be overtly racist, but the final results of these interactions are usually overt (and sometimes violent) acts of racial aggression. Much like the Coronavirus, even if (and precisely because) most instances are asymptomatic, the final result can still be an epidemic. In this regard, policing and incarceration are simply the final steps in a very long chain of interactions.

You might argue that policing and incarceration are the most dangerous link in this chain because officers are empowered by the state to engage in acts of violence. There is of course a good deal of truth to this. But this interpretation downplays the causality of the loop. That is, earlier interactions impact later ones much more than later ones impact earlier ones, if they do so at all. Class and poverty, entailing much of the earlier links in the chain, dictate the entire trajectory and circumstances of an individual’s life, including the chances of a police encounter. 

And to the (undeniably large) extent that more affluent black individuals experience racism, it’s through the inescapability of their association with this racial underclass. When a white person escapes poverty, we call it a relief from financial difficulty. When a black person escapes poverty, we call it an exception (or a mistake achieved through disreputable means). For example, inherent in the idea of black excellence is the notion that it requires extreme levels of commitment by black people to achieve and maintain a position of financial security (largely because this is actually true). The point is we measure white achievement in relation to a presumed position of wealth, whereas we measure black achievement in relation to a presumed position of nothingness.

If you don’t agree with this argument, we can also look at Martin Luther King Jr. MLK had something of an about-face later in his life, moving from a primarily race-based focus to a primarily poverty-based focus. His final effort before his death was the Poor People’s Campaign, which was a decidedly multiracial effort. Did he change course because he had already solved racism? No. It was because he recognized that the instances of racism addressed to that point in history were costless end-of-chain relief: “The new phase is a struggle for genuine equality. It is not merely a struggle to get rid of the brutality of a Bull Connor and a Jim Clark. It is now a struggle for genuine equality on all levels, and this will be a much more difficult struggle. You see, the gains in the first period, or the first era of struggle, were obtained from the power structure at bargain rates; it didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate hotels and motels. It didn’t cost the nation a penny to guarantee the right to vote. Now we are in a period where it will cost the nation billions of dollars to get rid of poverty, to get rid of slums, to make quality integrated education a reality. This is where we are now.”

So why exactly is it a problem that we’re focusing on the symptoms of racism rather than the ethos of racism itself (and its primary manifestation/feedback loop of poverty and class)? First, modern politics has made it into something of an either-or proposition. Every movement has limited political capital and energy, and we need to ensure that we’re spending it on the right thing. Victory will almost certainly be declared if we’re able to extract significant disinvestment in police forces across the nation, but in reality, focusing on policing to address racism is like using a ventilator to cure the Coronavirus, undoubtedly useful, but fundamentally a stopgap until we find a vaccine. Second, strategically, in so focusing on end-of-chain dynamics, we’ve conceded massive amounts of ground to alternative explanations. By making policing as racism the end-all, we’ve opened ourselves to disproof by counterexample. That is, opponents simply have to show that racism doesn’t exist in that one type of interaction (as in ways shown in the studies above), and they’ve proven their point. Some renowned free-thinking academics (Profs. Glenn Loury and John McWhorter) have already pointed this out explicitly as a point of academic debate, whereas ordinary people on the right have expressed this implicitly with concepts like All Lives Matter.

I want to end by saying this is hardly the fault of the protesters themselves. Instead, we should be mad at the institutions whose very job is to understand the big picture. That begins with politicians claiming to be acting in good faith. They have a vested interest in ignoring poverty and class, namely because assuaging it would require an admission of guilt as well as a tremendous amount of financial investment. To amend Bernard Shaw’s words, rather than “morals are a luxury of the rich,” I would say “morals are the responsibility of the rich.” Those who can afford to think about these things owe it to the common good to in fact do so.

I wouldn’t describe this piece as my full objection to modern-day protests such as the one ongoing. For example, I also take exception to the notion of consumer activism, so perhaps I’ll revisit this topic in a later post.