When we talk about race in America today, we think we are debating facts, but we are actually debating stories. We think the debate is over whether racism is evil, when it’s actually about what racism is. We think we’re arguing whether racism is pervasive, when we’re actually arguing whether racism is completely extinguishable. Is racism an unavoidable consequence of human tribalism that can be socially penalized but never totally eliminated, or a social construct perpetuated by norms and beliefs that can be wholly changed? If racism is mostly reflexive tribalism, then becoming more aware of race—even in the name of antiracism—might enhance that tribalism. If it’s mostly socially constructed, then drawing attention to race is a necessary part of deconstructing racism. Since it’s clearly both, the debate should be over how to deconstruct racism without enhancing tribalism. Does this mean redistributing privilege and power or adopting colorblind humanism?
Bias, Policing and Crime
Brandon Vaidyanathan’s article “Systemic Racial Bias In The Criminal Justice System” is a data-rich response to Heather Mac Donald’s “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism.” Vaidyanathan accuses Mac Donald of relying on cherry-picked data. He cites a number of studies showing bias in the criminal justice system and argues that disparity between racial groups does not constitute evidence of racism in itself but, given the history of racism in America, is likely to be a good proxy. Vaidyanathan defines systemic racism as tripartite: consisting of overt discrimination; structural disadvantages caused by laws, policies and norms that disproportionately harm blacks; and the compounded socioeconomic and cultural effects of past racism. He writes of American society as a “racialized system.” Vaidyanathan also criticizes some work that shows no racial bias in police shootings, particularly Roland Fryer’s famous study. Vaidyanathan rebuts the charge that disparities in policing outcomes stem from higher crime rates in black communities by observing that there is no direct correlation between racial bias in police shootings and crime rates at the county and city levels. He ends with a fairly nuanced set of prescriptions, which include a call to get past the all-or-nothing approach to discussions of systemic racism.
Vaidyanathan is right on many fronts, but he misses the mark in some meaningful ways.
First, the debate is not about whether there is racial bias in policing but where that bias stems from. Most people would probably accept that police are more likely to stop a young man shuffling down the street at night in a sketchy neighborhood than an elderly woman hobbling along in broad daylight, even though that technically suggests age-based and gender-based bias and a bias against certain times and locations. Likewise, hardly anyone takes issue with the massive sex disparity in policing outcomes because it’s generally understood that women are, on average, less violent than men. What’s missing from the discussion of policing is a consideration of local context. There is likely to be bias in policing within the black community: in the differential treatment of West Indian versus American blacks, for example, or of the wealthy versus the poor. Many subtle cues and tells besides race factor into police decisions.
So, are police responding to behavior on the ground or are they racially profiling blacks for no reason? Does the differential treatment of black suspects stem from experience on the beat or an unconscious stereotype inherited from a historically racist system? Is racial bias in policing the main reason why blacks are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and in police shootings of unarmed suspects?
It’s incredibly difficult to ascertain from statistical analysis what is actually happening in real world situations. No study can therefore answer these questions.
What is clear is that racial bias can’t fully explain these disparities. The data on black crime rates suggest that bias is not the main factor driving black incarceration. State prisons house more than half of America’s total inmates, the majority of whom have been imprisoned for violent crimes. Those who have been imprisoned for ostensibly non-violent offences often have extensive criminal backgrounds. Blacks make up a greater proportion of these inmates than any other group, but less than we’d expect based on their total crime rates. Black men comprise about 33% of the prison population and unarmed black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be shot by police than whites, but they commit well over 50% of the country’s 7,000 annual homicides (many of which are never solved) and 60% of robberies, despite making up only 13% of the population. According to the CDC, homicide is the number one cause of death among black men under 44. Crime rates track criminal justice outcomes fairly closely among other groups. Asians, for example, commit the fewest crimes and have the smallest number of encounters with police. Given the racial disparities in crime rates, eliminating racial disparities in policing would prevent police from doing their jobs.
So does racial bias in policing stem from disproportionate crime rates or institutional racism? Vaidyanathan cites a study that finds no correlation between racial bias and violent crime rates at county level as evidence that police shoot blacks as a consequence of racism. He also cites a study that finds that the levels of violent crime in a city do not determine the number of police shootings. The first study doesn’t account for the differential per capita rates of citizen-police encounters among different races and is wholly based on the logic that disparity indicates bias. However, it does prove that there isn’t a perfect geographical correlation between crime and policing outcomes—but does that mean that crime rates are irrelevant here?
The relationship between police presence and crime deterrence is a complex one, as shown by the recent spike in homicide rates alongside plummeting numbers of police-citizen interactions, following the Black Lives Matter protests. A disproportionate number of homicides occur in a handful of cities in a handful of neighborhoods. Also, police shootings, particularly of unarmed suspects, are extremely rare when measured against the size of the population and the number of police encounters with citizens that occur every day.
Cities and counties with more police shootings tend to be more violent. For instance, Fremont, California had the highest rate of police killings of blacks from 2014 to 2018. Fremont is in Alameda county, which has about 10,000 violent crimes per year, giving it one of the highest crime rates in the state. However, Buffalo, New York has a very high rate of violent crime but had no police killings from 2013 to 2016, while Orlando had a similar number of violent crimes and 13 police killings. But that doesn’t mean that there is no relationship between crime and policing. There would be no need for the use of lethal force in policing if there were no violent crime.
The greater number of police-citizen encounters that involve black people could, of course, be the result of police going out of their way to target blacks. Indeed, the critique Vaidyanathan cites of Roland Fryer’s study suggests precisely that. After comparing the rate of encounters with the rate of police shootings, multiple studies, including Fryer’s, have shown no evidence of bias. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any bias in operation here. The rate of encounters matters, too.
The data Vaidyanathan cites don’t show that racism is the cause of racial disparities in policing outcomes. But they don’t prove that crime explains the whole of the disparity, either. I believe that police are drawing on their experience when they target blacks, but that the association between blacks and crime often unjustly influences police actions. The most important thing we can do here is to establish a culture of trust between police and the communities they serve. But trust is a two-way street. Community policing, body cams, higher standards, more accountability and transparency and dialing down the war on drugs will help, as will destigmatizing snitching and tackling the gang-based honor culture that prevents so many people in high-crime areas from talking to the police after a homicide.
Disparity by itself doesn’t imply bias, but these differences aren’t the outgrowth of a system that originated on some level playing field. Rather, our criminal justice system from the beginning has produced and sustained disadvantages for African Americans. This bias is systemic in the sense that it is perpetuated primarily by structures such as policies, codes, norms, laws and organizations across the criminal justice system. Systemic racism means you can have “racism without racists.”
But the fact that so many groups with oppressive histories outperform the white majority today, as well as the fact that blacks made substantial gains during periods with far more racism—such as the period between 1940 and 1960, when black male employment quintupled and black household poverty halved—should cast doubt on that assumption. Surely, our racial history accounts for some degree of racial inequality today. The questions are how much and what can be done about it.
History is a tricky concept: what actually happened is often different from what we choose to highlight. For instance, some commentators have argued that the well-intended social policies of the 1960s—federal housing and urban planning, welfare programs and integration of schools—led blacks to identify as societal victims and, in the long run, did more damage to poor black communities than slavery or Jim Crow. You don’t have to accept this argument to recognize that history is liable to different interpretations and can have multiple, complex and even couterintuitive effects on the present.
Disparities between groups arise from a complex set of cultural, historical, social, geographical and other demographic forces for which no one group is necessarily to blame. No two major ethnic groups have ever had the same outcomes on all measures anywhere in the world. But how much disparity constitutes injustice and which disparities are worth caring about? Perhaps disparities within groups are more relevant than those between them, or maybe wealth disparities are the most important, or maybe geographic disparities in human welfare. It’s not obvious. But if, in 200 years time, black Americans have eclipsed whites in wealth and income and whites use that as evidence of racism and point to the affirmative action and anti-white rhetoric of the early twenty-first century as justification, we will have miserably failed to learn an important lesson.
Vaidyanathan argues that overt prejudice, present-day policies and past racism together form a racialized system that disadvantages blacks in perpetuity: “While the relative influence of these different mechanisms may change over time, African Americans experience these effects as the legacy of the same racist system that has endured over generations.”
In this expansive definition, racism is anything—past or present, direct or indirect—that disadvantages black people. Let’s compare this with the definition of murder. There are different degrees of murder under our legal system. But accidentally killing someone is technically considered manslaughter and the intergenerational ripple effects of murder aren’t called murder. The term has clear associations and expanding it would mean treating things that aren’t murder as if they were.
Many people have a visceral moral reaction to racism. And it is not the complex ripple effects of historical redlining policies, for example, that they are reacting to when they say that something is racist. The gap between our emotional reaction and the definition of the thing we are reacting to is widening. To call America a racialized system also misses the mark: every multi-racial society in the world has some disparities between races and some history of racial oppression. Curiously, Vaidyanathan’s diagnosis of the problem as one of racialization doesn’t lead him to prescribe anti-racial solutions. He seems to believe that we can transcend racialization by re-racializing things.
There are potential trade-offs to diluting the meaning of racism. Maybe expanding the definition will enable us to have a more sophisticated conversation about racial inequality. But we should be wary of destigmatizing individual racist acts or beliefs, particularly in a society as diverse as ours, with prejudiced attitudes across the board. It is better to talk about racism and racial inequality separately. Racism should have a moral valence that disparity should not.
Also, where do we draw the line between individual and systemic racism, given that it is individuals who act out systemic bias? If a study finds that white people get more callbacks than black people with Muslim-sounding names on job applications, despite similar resumes, is that individual or systemic bias? If the essential difference between the two is that one is overt and the other covert, that implies that overt discrimination, like the Jim Crow laws, isn’t based on implicit institutional norms and systemic social processes as well as overt prejudice. Ibram X. Kendi asserts that “racist policies and ideas” account for both forms of racism, but what counts as racist policies and ideas? How will this new, more expansive definition of racism track racial progress, if not by the measurable decline in racist behaviors, attitudes and laws and the increase in diversity and intermarriage? How can America be a white supremacist society when whites are not the most successful group? Maybe racism is just racism.
If racism is not a universal human phenomenon but the result of a particular system that reproduces unequal outcomes, doesn’t that make America as a nation and white people as a group essentially evil? Wouldn’t that mean that, in a sense, all whites are guilty and privileged—no matter how downtrodden—and all blacks are victimized and oppressed—no matter how well off? Are we meant to believe that all police departments, job sectors and institutions in America are guided by the same racist principle, in a country where every major media outlet, corporation, university and even public health agency came out in support of the Black Lives Matter protests in the midst of a pandemic? We should reject such notions of collective, intergenerational racial guilt and victimization, which blot out individual autonomy and ascribe all the privileges of one group to the oppression of the other in zero-sum terms.