Police and American Race Ideology

So far, in the two months I have been writing about police reform, I have said little about the racial aspect of police killings. We know that police, and the criminal justice system as a whole, target African-Americans well out of proportion to crimes committed by that community. Race is central to any reform of the criminal justice system, but not specific to those reforms. This is because the issue of race is central to anything and everything in American society. The legacy of racialized slavery pervades the institutions and ideology of American society. The ideology of race holds white America back from making genuine moral progress. That’s why these past articles about police reform have not touched upon race and the police – race is a problem for Americans in every facet of life. And it is entirely self-imposed. Race is nothing more than an ideological illusion.

We know that race is ideological, because race is not a real thing, in the sense that tables and chairs are real. There are no races in the human species at least not as we think of race. Racial distinctions are not found in the human genome.

Race is a shared illusion that previous generations have tried and failed to justify. The only purpose of the concept of race is the maintenance of a social hierarchy. The racial distinctions that we make are descended from the distinctions made by colonial authorities. African slaves needed to be distinguished from European servants, even though they had similar stations and received similar treatment, to prevent solidarity between them. Race is not about biology or culture; it’s about who will serve and who will command.

The fact that race is not real does not change the fact that it affects people’s lives. The racial inequalities are extensive, so let’s just focus on criminal justice (from the Sentencing Project’s report to the UN):

  • African-Americans are arrested at a rate disproportionate to their crime rate: 30% of arrests for property offenses and 38% for violent offenses are of African-Americans.
  • The arrests of African-Americans for drug crimes rose from 6.5 people for every 1,000 people in 1980 to 29.1 for every 1,000 in 2000, while arrests for white Americans only rose from 3.5 to 4.6 people. There are no significant differences between drug use between the races.
  • African-Americans are more likely to be searched at a traffic stop than white or Hispanics, and more likely to be threatened by police. African-Americans are more likely to be stopped in the first place.
  • Prosecutors are more likely to indict an African-American for killing a white American than vice versa.
  • When juries have a more than five white males, the jury is significantly more likely to convict an African-American and sentence him to death.
  • African-Americans are more significantly more likely to be convicted, and will be sentenced to longer sentences than white Americans.

This only addresses racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. People of color will encounter socially imposed disadvantages everywhere. For example, a black American without a criminal conviction is likely to be hired than a white ex-convict. That’s what race is for, after all. It’s about who matters and who doesn’t.

For some reason, in any discussion about race, white people get uncomfortable or angry. “I’m not a racist”, they say, or “I don’t benefit from being white!” (How would they know if they benefited or not?) They’re missing the point though. They’re worried about being called a racist, or being thought to have racist beliefs. Racial inequality is not a result of conscious racist beliefs, but of the intersection of implicit biases and institutional practices.

Every human being has implicit biases – unconscious biases for and against different groups of people. In the implicit bias test, our biases are determined by how quickly we can associate positive and negative concepts with different groups. For most white people, they have a difficulty associating positive concepts with African Americans, but easily associate negative concepts with them. White Americans have an overwhelming implicit bias against African-Americans, well and above any other race.

While African-Americans have much less of implicit bias against African-Americans, they also have some implicit bias against themselves. This is disheartening, but not surprising. We all have a picture of the social structure in our heads, regardless of race. Implicit biases represent that social structure.

Implicit biases still have an effect on our behavior, even if we don’t want them to. Even if each member of a community has only a slight bias against another group, the overall effect can be significant. Thus, schools and neighborhoods have become segregated again.

Meanwhile, institutions take advantage of those rendered powerless. Once, banks have pursued discriminatory practices called “redlining”, refusing to issue loans to qualified African-Americans, as well as other communities of color, for no other apparent reason than race. In the lead up to the financial crisis, banks engaged in “reverse redlining”, pushing loans on people whom they knew couldn’t pay back. People of color are denied the resources needed for social power, and so become the target of powerful organizations, regardless of whether its members are racist or not. A similar phenomenon probably leads to racialized policing.

As we know, police departments in the United States have a long history of cooperation and collusion with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists. In the early 20th century, this cooperation was open and celebrated, but since the Civil Rights movement has become clandestine.

Yet, even if the police are not themselves racist, or are themselves of color, communities of color can’t fight police power the way that white communities can. This is why police forces that are more diverse are not any less racially discriminatory than mostly white police forces.

What Can We Do?

There are two issues here: the implicit biases or individuals and the operations of organizations.

We can only counter implicit biases through positive presentations of African-Americans in media and thorough racial integration. Currently, both news and entertainment media is awash in negative presentations of African-Americans. The media portrays African-Americans, especially black men, as criminals, drug-users, and welfare recipients. While government action is not possible on this point, we can bring social pressure to bear on media organizations.

Countering implicit biases also means bringing people of different races into constant contact with one another. This requires the forced integration of neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Communities should resemble the population of which they are a part. Cities should not be broken into white and black parts of town.

Integration means that the state has to set guidelines for organizations to add new members. Organizations will have to alter hiring practices, school entry, and real estate sales to integrate American society.

Racially diverse police forces may not be significantly less organizationally racist in our racially segregated society. But police forces may change when the surrounding society changes. In the meantime, we should not lose sight of the unjust power and practices that police present in themselves. Addressing police power directly is more likely to yield benefits than adding more racial sensitivity training in today’s police departments.

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