Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Negrophobia", "Rational Racism", and Rebutting Donald Trump's Willful Lies about "Black Crime"

Donald Trump is continuing his overtly nativist and racist campaign strategy. Why shouldn't he? In terms of crude political calculus he is leading the GOP 2016 presidential primary field precisely because of his use of racism to win over white voters and not despite it.

Donald Trump has now played one of the most tired cards in the deck of white supremacist talking points. He tweeted out an inaccurate "infographic" about "black crime" where--now imagine if this were actually true the amount of hell that would be brought down on Black America--81 percent of white people are killed by black people.

Such a claim is absurd; said claim is also intoxicating for too many White Americans on both the Left and the Right.

I wrote the following essay in 2012 in response to the Trayvon Martin murder case. Much of what I said there about "reasonable" or "statistical racism" and "black crime" applies to Trump's racist demagoguery at present. 

A surrender to a basic and fallacy laden argument that black people, and black young people in particular are uniquely and especially prone to violence, oversimplifies the nature of crime in America. As the old saying goes, "numbers lie and liars figure." Or alternatively, the lazy recitation of statistics is a dumb person's idea of how a smart person sounds.

The black people commit more crime canard is a error in reasoning of both process and outcomes. African Americans are subject to discrimination in the legal system at every level. As documented by The Sentencing Project, and detailed in such works as Race, Crime and the Law, and The New Jim Crow, African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police without cause, to be more aggressively questioned, receive longer and more severe charges for the same crimes as white defendants, and to have fewer resources to defend themselves in court.

As compared to white neighborhoods, black and brown communities are also subject to more severe surveillance and aggressive police tactics. Moreover, the disproportionate number of minorities in the criminal justice system can be largely explained by the War on Drugs. In total, if white communities were subject to the same type of aggressive police tactics as black and brown communities, the number of white people in prison would skyrocket.

The data is very telling here. While people of color are the prime targets of such policies as “stop and frisk” and racial profiling, it is in fact white people who are far more likely to be both drug users and to be in possession of narcotics at a given moment. This reality signals to a larger social phenomenon: black individuals who commit crimes are representative of their whole communities, crime is racialized, and there is no qualifier of individual intent. All black people are deemed suspicious and guilty because of the deeds of the very few.

In contrast, white people who commit crimes are unique individuals: the criminals who destroyed the global economy, a group of white men, were not taken as representative of the entire white community. There is a long list of crimes such as domestic terrorism, serial murder, child rape, sedition, treason, and financial fraud that are almost exclusively the province of white people. But again, whites as a group are excluded from suspicion or indictment as a “criminal class.”

The supposition that black men (and black folks more generally) are by definition “suspicious” is a channeling of the once in vogue concept known as “rational” or “reasonable” racism. Applying this logic, George Zimmerman is justified in shooting first, profiling, or harassing black people because “statistically” the latter are more likely to commit crime. Again, this is a chain of reasoning that is rife with problems.

Generalized statistics about crime tell you very little about a given person’s likelihood of committing a criminal act. This is especially true in a society where race and class are variables which over-determine how the courts treat suspects and who the police choose to single out for surveillance, harassment, and arrest.

Broad statistics also tell us little about a given population’s capacity or propensity to commit crime. For example, while black men are disproportionately incarcerated, the majority are in jail for drug offenses. African Americans are also more likely to be poor than whites. When a researcher accounts for these variables, the story becomes one of class and not race. Further problematizing the true lie that “black equals criminal,” is that disparities in crime largely disappear when you consider the black middle and upper classes in comparison to their white peers.

As demonstrated by Jody Armour in his book Negrophobia, less than 2 percent of black men are incarcerated for violent crimes. By implication, to generalize from the demographics of a given prison population to a specific person’s likelihood of committing a violent crime is a fool’s errand of the first order. 

This is a counter-intuitive dynamic: just because a given group may constitute a higher percentage of those in jail, it does not in fact mean that a given individual is more likely to commit said type of crime.

A person is more likely to suffer a violent crime at the hands of a family member, friend, or acquaintance than a stranger; and most crime is intraracial.

Ultimately, incarceration is a function of many structural factors in relation to the criminal justice system.

Anecdotes matter. Police often give a pass to those who they know or trust. The white kid with weed just made a mistake; the black or Latino is a hardcore thug to be jailed. The judge may give parole or a lenient sentence to a white defendant in order to “teach them a lesson” about bad behavior. By comparison, a person of color before the same judge is already a “lost cause,” someone to have the book thrown at. We see this same dynamic even in schools: researchers have determined that white and black youth who are accused of the same offenses see wildly different outcomes in terms of punishment. The latter are suspended or expelled, while the former are given warnings or other remediation.

Two points are readily apparent.

The demographics of those in jails, prisons, and hospitals are a means of judging a society, as well as determining which groups of people are valued (and those who are not). By that calculus, the poor, working classes, and people of color are second class citizens in the United States.

If American history's circumstances were reversed along the axis of the color line, then our country's jails and prisons would be filled with millions of white people. In the sum total of this alternate America's history there would likely have been many thousands of white people killed at the hands of black mobs and blood thirsty vigilantes obsessed with maintaining the racial order, and protecting themselves from white “criminals” and “thugs.” In this world, there would likely have been many "Black" George Zimmermans and "white" Trayvon Martins.

Here is the true failure of political imagination and empathy in the present: many white conservatives instinctively defend George Zimmerman because they cannot imagine themselves, their kin, or their children, as victims of unjust violence at the hands of the police.

Sadly, the consequence is an inability to find a sense of shared humanity with Trayvon Martin, because to do so would require a leap of faith in the pursuit of shared humanity and the common good across lines of race and class--a journey that many white conservatives and others are unwilling to entertain even in the twenty-first century.

Once more, our politics are sick.

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