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For example, the city of Chicago has spent more than $ 500 million since 2014 in literal blood money for the victims of police brutality. Collectively, the 10 largest American cities have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to settle police misconduct cases during the same time period.
These sums of money are the macro-level reflections of individual tragedies and needless deaths that include names such as Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, and Rekia Boyd.
During the same time period, Chicago and the state of Illinois have eliminated hundreds of millions of dollars from the city’s public school budget. This is part of a larger trend where American public education, the social safety net, and other services for the poor, working classes, and other vulnerable groups are being ruthlessly cut in the name of “austerity” and “efficiency.” Yet in the United States, spending on the military and mass incarceration continues to grow largely unabated.
As recent research shows, a relatively small number of American police account for a majority of the unnecessary shootings and other acts of thuggery against black and brown communities and the poor. However, these police are coddled and protected by a culture of racism, classism, and authoritarianism. As an internal report from the Chicago police details, they “have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” Ultimately, the so-called “good cops” are actively protecting and providing cover for the “bad apples” in their midst. Narratives about the non-existent “Ferguson effect”—the notion that America’s police are somehow “afraid” to do their jobs because of the Black Lives Matter movement—only enable police criminality.
If based on pure economics, such a dynamic would appear to be easily rectified: Police brutality and thuggery is an expensive problem that can be corrected by dismissing the officers involved and reforming the culture(s) of America’s police departments. Reality is much more complicated.
Beyond the private actors who are personally enriched by mass incarceration and the punishing and punitive state, police brutality and violence against people of color (as well as the poor and working classes more generally) is a form of social control.
From their origins in the slave patrols of the American South, America’s police have historically served as enforcers of the color line and white supremacy. As philosopher Michel Foucault demonstrates in his classic work Discipline and Punish, police and the legal system represent the interests of the monied classes over and against those of poor and working people. In all, in the United States from the founding to the present, the legal system and its enforcers have never been blind to race, class, gender, sexuality, or other markers of difference and identity.
America’s police are also the leading edge of a system of social control known as “custodial citizenship.” As outlined by political scientist Vesla Weaver, custodial citizenship describes how through incarceration, intimidation, violence, and other coercive means the denizens of black and brown poor and working class communities are excluded from the polity and the full fruits of democratic citizenship.
Custodial citizenship manifests itself in many ways. These include felony disenfranchisement laws; not interacting with government or public services for fear of being arrested or otherwise harassed; and in one of the most damning examples in recent memory, the Jim and Jane Crow-like debt peonage protection racket that was inflicted on the black community in Ferguson, Missouri by its white-controlled police department and local government.
Public opinion and other research demonstrate that this system of racist and classist social control via the legal system is also supported by a majority of white Americans. Ultimately, police thuggery, violence, and abuse of non-whites are not a bug or anomaly of the American criminal “justice” system. They are a feature, one that too many in white America are very comfortable upholding.
Why is this?
The above system(s) of social control help to pay the material wages of whiteness. Custodial citizenship and mass incarceration provide jobs to (white) police and those others who work in prisons, jails, and other such facilities—the latter being one of the few growth industries in rural white America. Narratives of “black criminality” and “bad culture” from the era of American chattel slavery and Apartheid through to the War on Drugs possess enormous political capital for politicians on both the left and the right. The millions of black and brown people who are in prison or otherwise marginalized in the labor market because of previous convictions are not in direct competition with the white working and middle classes for jobs.
Whiteness gives its owners and beneficiaries both material and psychological support. Historically and through to the present, those unearned advantages have been great. However, they have often come at a cost to white folks en masse.
There are many examples of how whiteness and white identity politics hurt the average white American. It is easier for white (right-wing) politicians and others to rail against “welfare queens,” “lazy” black people, and “illegal immigrants” than it is to engage in a discussion of how, for decades, the one percent, the financiers, and other plutocrats (a group comprised almost exclusively of rich white men) destroyed the American economy. The billions of dollars that are spent on mass incarceration for nonviolent offenders, a disproportionate number of which are black and brown people, could be used to fix the United States’ schools, to provide student debt relief, or to pay for public health care. On a local level, the hundreds of millions of dollars paid to enable and support police brutality could be used to improve public transit, provide job programs, summer and after school activities for young people, or to combat homelessness.
Beyond questions of how best to create a more humane and just society, redirecting these resources would help to create economic growth, opportunity, and jobs for Americans on both sides of the color line.
Unfortunately, too many American political elites (as well as rank-and-file citizens) would rather punish than nurture, personally benefit from systems of racist and classist social control, wallow in ignorance and spectacle, and maintain a corrupt and broken status quo than work toward a truly democratic and inclusive “We the People” democracy. These are choices, not acts of nature or God. At some point, there will be a reckoning.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, philosopher Henry Giroux Jr. spoke about this crisis in American civic life and culture. He cautioned:
Unfortunately, we live at a moment in which ignorance appears to be one of the defining features of American political and cultural life. Ignorance has become a form of weaponized refusal to acknowledge the violence of the past, and revels in a culture of media spectacles in which public concerns are translated into private obsessions, consumerism and fatuous entertainment. As James Baldwin rightly warned, “Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
The warning signs from history are all too clear. Failure to learn from the past has disastrous political consequences. Such ignorance is not simply about the absence of information. It has its own political and pedagogical categories whose formative cultures threaten both critical agency and democracy itself.Where do we go from here?
The 2016 presidential election is an opportunity, once again, to ask basic questions about the type of society that we, the American people, want to create. And given the madness of Donald Trump and the power of his proto-fascist, racist authoritarianism over tens of millions of people, such an opportunity has perhaps never been more critical in contemporary American politics.