The discussion surrounding the recent spate of police killings has either been in terms of the Right’s view that each and every victim deserved to be executed on the spot or in terms of the Left’s view that the killings are solely an expression of white racism. The Rightwing view, as usual, is not worth discussing, at least to anyone with a few minutes to watch some YouTube videos. But is the liberal intelligentsia’s take any better?
The claim that it’s all white racism is usually presented dogmatically and in a manner that forbids all possible challenge. We are supposed to just see, somehow, that the motivation of this or that police officer was racism, and any questioning of the view or presentation of an alternative explanation is condemned as “whitesplaining.” It is impossible for a white person to sympathize with or know anything about a black person’s reality, and that includes all interactions with the police. (My head spins when I consider that most people writing from this point of view are white.)
There can be no doubt that racism is a prime driver of police murder. It is unreasonable to think that America’s terrible racist past—foundation, even—has somehow been overcome. And the statistics make it highly reasonable to suppose that racism contributes substantially to the much higher arrest and incarceration rates among blacks.
Yet the rigidly dogmatic and unchallengeable racialist narrative ignores the vast improvements in race relations since, say, the 1880s and Jim Crow. Or consider that prior to the 1960s Civil Rights movement, just 4 percent of Americans approved of interracial marriage. Today, 84 percent approve. These changes represent a radical shift in consciousness; does that have no relevance to police violence?
Moreover, the racialist narrative has no way to explain the many cases like Freddie Gray. Three of the six police officers charged in his murder were black, as were the chief of police and the mayor. How too does it explain the murder of Dylan Noble in Fresno, a young white man? It is unfortunately easy to go on and on with counterexamples.
Virtually without exception, what the cases have in common is not white police officer, black victim, or white political establishment, victimized black community, but that the victims are all poor or working class. The poor neighborhood is where capitalism keeps its surplus labor. Deprived of the dignity that comes with being able to make a meaningful contribution to society through work, enormous sections of American society are in a degraded condition that often places them in confrontations with the law enforcement. More importantly, law enforcement begins to see the poor and working class as a hostile population, not the kind of people the middle class and up feels any solidarity with.
Moreover, the recent police executions are taking place in the context of a sharply worsening situation for working people and enormous increases in social inequality, not only in the US but worldwide. Besides police violence, we see an expression of increasing class tension in the rise of nationalist and semi-fascist political tendencies all the way from Duterte in the Philippines to Trump in the US. Think of the Republican convention oriented toward low-minded, savage war mongering, and near worship of the police and military. Or think of the Democratic convention with all its similar appeals to militarism, though dressed up in slightly less stupid rhetoric.
None of this is accidental. Such moral and social ills are the predictable responses of a society ordered toward class dominance, and with a government whose basic job is to make sure things stay that way. A sane society would make sure that every citizen had meaningful employment, first among social rights, and the political empowerment it brings. Then there would be no question of having to patrol poverty stricken neighborhoods like concentration camp guards.
That would also be solidarity, a value impossible to realize if we take the view of the identity politics crowd.