Monday, August 10, 2015

Reforming police and prisons will not save us

Guest Blogger

Lisa L. Miller, Rutgers University

For the Symposium: Deconstructing Ferguson One Year Later

Over the past year, the lived experience of Black Americans in relation to the “justice” system in the United States, in contrast to the White majority, has come into sharp, brutal relief.

These events have brought to light the repressive police practices and mass imprisonment of an extraordinarily large number of African-Americans.  While scholars and social activists have long decried this reality, these issues have now come onto the public and political agenda in a way that has real potential to change criminal law and practices within the justice system. At the recent Aspen Ideas Festival, Clifton Kinney, a rising freshman at Howard University noted that, “America has always existed under some kind of racial caste system…what I would like to see in my community is an end to state violence.” For the first time since I began studying the political dynamics of race, crime and punishment in the 1990s, I see real potential for diminishing the exposure of Black Americans to violence from police and prisons.

Still, the nation’s narrow fixation on police violence is unlikely to change Mr. Kinney’s main observation that “America has always existed under some kind of racial caste system.” Focusing only on police, or even prisons, risks obfuscating the larger context in which aggressive police actions and mass imprisonment have emerged. If we listen to African-Americans actually living in the kinds of neighborhoods where so many have been killed by police, we learn that violent policing is but one end of the continuum of the challenges they experience.  Improving personal and neighborhood safety and promoting prosperity are routinely the two most important concerns registered by residents in impoverished communities, as illustrated by my own research as well as recent work by James Forman and Michael Fortner.

Taken together, safety, prosperity, and freedom from state violence form the foundation of modern democratic systems. We expect to be relatively secure from serious violence, to have the opportunity to pursue educational and economic opportunity, and to be free from arbitrary and capricious use of force by government.  But African-Americans enjoy these conditions far less than their white counter-parts, so much so that sociologists Ruth Peterson and Lauren Krivo have referred to the lived experiences of urban Blacks and Whites as distinct “social worlds.” 

Perhaps the starkest illustration – and one that is almost always the number one priority of urban Black communities – is the dramatic difference in the homicide rate for White and Blacks.  The risk of being murdered is six to seven times as high for Black men as white men, and three to four times as high for Black women as white women. More starkly, at the height of murder risk in the 1990s, the risk of murder for Blacks over an average lifespan was 1 in 23, compared to 1 in 160 for Whites. Lifetime risk calculates the likelihood of being murdered if the homicide rate remained static from the year of one’s birth across a 75-year lifetime. While this is an artificial calculation – homicide rates wax and wane and do not remain at their peak for decades at a time – it nonetheless provides a powerful way of understanding just how significant a risk homicide is for Blacks, compared to whites. It is also worth noting that Black women are murdered at a higher rate than White males, a staggering fact given that, worldwide, homicide is predominately male on male.

I have begun referring to the twin risks of state violence and street violence as racialized state failure, but it is difficult to understand this concept unless we widen the lens from the current focus on the pathologies of the criminal justice system. What is a failed state? There is no single definition but, at a fundamental level, failed states are unable to deliver on the most basic of positive goods: security from violence. The United States, as a whole, fails to protect its citizenry from the risk of violence to the same degree as other rich democracies.  But for Black Americans, this failure is astounding.

Situating Black violent victimization and Black exposure to state repression in the context of, what Ruth Gilmore calls, “preventable pre-mature death” upends the  “Black on Black crime” discourse that is so popular among both White and Black conservatives. The phrase implies that Black victims of murder are somehow implicated in their own victimization, simply because the perpetrators of the crime are from the same race. This transparent ‘racial othering’ of African-Americans becomes clear when we think about the absurdity of referring to mass shootings as White-on-White murder. The simple fact is that some American communities are much more likely than others to experience murder and its collateral consequences, and disparities are deeply racial. 

Confining policy demands to more constraints on police and reductions in state use of jails and prisons – both laudable goals to be sure – reinforces anti-statist political discourse that obscures underlying living conditions and legitimates aggressive policing in Black communities. This fits neatly with right-wing preferences – less government intervention of any kind for the worst off – and also taps long-standing Liberal concerns about civil liberties, a logical move, but one devoid of sacrifice. 

The more persistent problem is the failure of the state to act affirmatively to reduce the exposure of Blacks, to the same degree as Whites, to a wide range of causes of violent death.  This exposure comes both from disproportionate risk of violent victimization and state violence. It is not hyperbole, to say that African-Americans, far more than their white counterparts, experience a failing state characterized by the devastating dual problems of under-protection and over-enforcement of the law – a concept, it is worth noting, that was first observed fifty years ago, after the Watts riots of 1965.

Thinking about the current problems of state violence against Black Americans more broadly draws into sharp relief the racially stratified beneficiaries of the positive goods that the state helps to produce, goods that have flowed to Whites through much of the 20th century but that were reduced for, or denied entirely to, Blacks. Such policies, for example, the GI Bill, have helped make society more secure for whites; but the life course of Black Americans reveals the persistent failure of state institutions to work proactively to provide the same protections from risk to which whites are privilege.

To be clear, the American state has done enormous damage to Black individuals, families and communities through police use of force, policing killings, and mass imprisonment. But reducing police violence and imprisonment will hardly touch the number of pre-mature deaths of African-Americans in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Washington D.C., Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles or any other American city. The biggest flaw of American democracy with respect to African-Americans is not that the state does too much but, rather, that has done too little to help generate the kinds of safety, prosperity and security from the state that Whites enjoy.

In my view, the most promising next move is a public and formal linkage between BlackLivesMatter and local and national groups all across the country that work on reducing gun violence, improving public education, generating jobs for low-skilled workers, producing more affordable housing, and reforming criminal justice. There is also the potential to find allies in the minimum wage movement. Such ‘federated’ organizations, modeled after late 19th and early 20th century movements, will have much more likelihood of reducing the number of Black Americans subjected to serious violence from any source.

While scholars cannot be central players in this process, we can help make the conceptual link between these interests and highlight the ways in which such alliances have been successful in the past.

Lisa L. Miller is Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. You can reach her by e-mail at miller at

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