The Problematic Premise of Black Lives Matter

In July of 2016, I published an op-ed in Truthout,  “Changing the Subject from the Realities of Death by Cop,” based on a longer February 2016 blog entry,  “Heather Mac Donald’s Red Herring,” that, among other things, takes issue with the tactic of downplaying the disproportionate shootings of black men by cops by changing the subject to the problem of “black-on-black” crime typical of neoconservative writers. I used Heather Mac Donald’s February 2016 op-ed, “The Myths of Black Lives Matter,” published in The Wall Street Journal, as the paradigm of this tack. The online publication of Mac Donald’s piece in July and my Truthout piece led to a timely appearance on the Project Censored radio program out of Berkeley, California, where I discussed the matter with hosts Mickey Huff and Peter Philips. Mac Donald’s op-ed is based on her book, The War on Cops, published that same year.

Heather Mac Donald’s The War on Cops

At the time, I was defending the Black Lives Matter movement against what I perceived as a rightwing effort to diminish the movement’s moral significance. I accused them of doing this by portraying the reluctance of black leaders and white liberals to admit the crisis of black-on-black crime as revealing more of a commitment to identity politics than to protecting blacks lives against violence. The number of black men dying at the hands of others black men compared to the number of black men dying at the hands of white cops, neoconservatives argued, suggested that a genuine commitment to black lives would reflect a different set of priorities. Since publicly engaging this argument, I have had a change of mind.

AP photo of a Black Lives Matter protest using the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” slogan and gesture. The gesture grew out of a false account of the Michael Brown shooting at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson in 2014.

Even while I was criticizing Mac Donald and the neoconservative tack, my appreciation for Black Lives Matter had already been diminished by its resort to such tactics as racially-exclusive event organizing and interfering with speaking events focused on other matters. I was troubled when, in July 2015, Black Lives Matter activists commandeered the stage at a town hall event organized by the progressive Netroots Nation conference, interrupting Martin O’Malley in order to push the issue of police killings of black men. This disruptive tactic was used again in August at a pro-Social Security rally in Seattle where Bernie Sanders was speaking. The tactic of disrupting public events runs counter to my civil rights and liberties commitments. I advocate a politics of equality based on individualism; with the exception of social class, exclusivity based on group identity disappears persons into collectivities led by self-appointed leaders or moral entrepreneurs. Moreover, he heckler’s veto interferes with the free exchange of opinion.

Then came the 2014 incorporation of BLM, which had found its voice with the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the Trayvon Martin killing and #BlackLivesMatter, into the larger Movement for Black Lives, which advocates reparations for blacks and dilutes the problem of police violence and economic injustice with postmodernist rhetoric of intersectionality. Even though the larger movement was inspired by a growing awareness of the disproportionate number of black deaths at the hands of police officer, spurred by protests surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, the promise of BLM risked being hijacked by identitarians for other purposes. The loss of focus was evidenced, for example, by the movement taking up the plight of Arabs in the Jewish-occupied territories in Palestine. This move was not only a distraction but resurrected the old tension between black and Jewish communities (see Race, Ethnicity, Religion, and the Problem of Conceptual Conflation and Inflation).

However, it wasn’t until I watched a video on YouTube of linguist John McWhorter using death by cop as an example in interrogating antiracism that I came to understand that, all the other problems of the movement aside, the core premise of Black Lives Matters, namely that death by cop is the work of racial bias in policing, is problematic. The video is an extract of a debate organized by Reason Magazine between McWhorter, an associate professor at Columbia University, and Nikhil Singh, who teaches at NYU, recorded in New York City on November 14, 2018. You can find the full debate on YouTube, but here is the relevant portion:

I want to stress that McWhorter’s argument does not reach the conclusion I reach in the present blog entry but rather pointed me in the direction of that conclusion by questioning the soundness of the claim that racial disparities in death by cop result from cops operating on the basis of anti-black prejudice and hooking this up in an implied but compelling manner to the problem of murder in America’s central cities.

One of the points McWhorter makes that struck me in particular is how we think about black overrepresentation in welfare utilization, an issue I often address in my sociology classes when the subject turns to the problem of poverty. Consider the following statistics gathered at the height of the welfare reform debate in the mid-1990s (from Robert A. Moffitt and Peter T. Gottschalk chapter “Ethnic and Racial Differences in Welfare Receipt in the United States,” in the 2001 book America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences).

TABLE: Participation Rates of Households in Means-Tested Welfare Programs, 1994–1996 (percent)

 AFDCFood StampsMedicaidHousing Assistance
Hispanic11.820.124.59.1
Non-Hispanic White2.75.78.33.5
Non-Hispanic Black14.023.327.015.3

I taught introductory sociology as a graduate teaching associate in the mid-1990s, and when conservative students would note black overrepresentation in welfare utilization as evidence of a deficit of black self-reliance, progressive students pushed back by noting that the majority of those on public assistance are white. I would then get into the difference between frequencies and proportions. Both groups of students we able to leave class feeling as if their arguments enjoyed support.

At first it seems as though McWhorter is about to contradict himself, since it sounds like his argument concerning police shootings is that, numerically, more whites are killed by police than are blacks, while at the same time quoting statistics showing that blacks are overrepresented in death by cop incidents. But then he notes that, because poverty affects a greater proportion of black people than white people, and that structural racism is a reasonable explanation for this disparity, disproportionality in welfare utilization is not a remarkable fact. It follows, then, that if poverty makes it more likely for a person to encounter a policeman, and if greater frequency of interactions with the police increases the probability that one will be killed by police, then structural racism, not racially-biased policing, may be the better explanation for black overrepresentation in death by cop.

I made a similar point logic-wise to reporter Paul Srubas in a March 19, 2006 article in the Green Bay Press Gazette concerning racial disparities in drug busts. In Green Bay at that time, statistics showed that blacks were sixteen times more likely to have been arrested for drugs than whites.  Srubas was asking the role of racism in the pattern of arrests. “I don’t think cops are being consciously racist,” I responded; “it’s a product of where they are patrolling.” And where cops patrol, I explained further, reflects class-based patterns of policing, which, as a matter of course, disproportionately snare blacks in the dragnet. The police official being interviewed for balance took exception to analysis saying that race and ethnicity had nothing to do with it. Clearly race has something to do with it. Scientific surveys consistently find that blacks are no more likely to use illegal drugs than are whites, yet blacks represent one third of arrests, one-half of all convictions, and approximately three-quarters of all those sent to prison for drugs. The question is how race figures into the dynamic.

McWhorter then shifts to a discussion of antiracism as religion, as faith-belief, and notes that one of the elements of faith-belief is avoidance of commentary by others, out of respect for scared topics, concerning certain problems in a community because of the expectation that they will be perceived as offensive, even blasphemous. I take it that his point is that avoiding sacred cows functions to diminish the significance of problems at the expense of members of that community.

For example, and this example is my own, recognition of the hijab as representing the extreme sexualization of male-female interaction in Islam, a burden that impacts women disproportionately since they’re the ones expected to keep the male libido in check by adhering to strict modesty rules of dress and segregation, is seen as insulting to Muslims and will kick up the ire of that community, particularly among its female adherents. Consequently, people don’t go there. But this stifles feminist critique of oppressive Islamic gender rules and that is a victory for the patriarchy. Another example (again, my own) is the inappropriateness of pointing out the impotence of prayer or the function of prayer as self-interested attempts to assuage anxiety or signal virtue. Christopher Hitchens’ observation that it is acceptable for the faithful to actively encourage deathbed conversions yet unacceptable, even downright hateful, to talk a sick and dying man out of his expectation of an afterlife, is a useful illustration of the way faith-belief is privileged and functions to protect the supposed integrity of dogma by deterring and shaming its critics. (Yet another problem is the way slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and “Support Our Troops” put critics in position of sounding like they affirming the opposite, as if they they don’t believe black lives matter.)

The failure to deal with the alarming number of black men who die at the hands of other black men, McWhorter contends, is an example of the suspension of disbelief, acting to bracket logic and substitute for it dogma that denies the problem. An etiquette comes into play when the problem of violence in black communities is raised, notes Mcwhorter, especially when trying to understand why police violence is held up as a much greater threat to black men than violence in black communities, the suppression of which is the function of law enforcement. If you bring it up at all, you’re supposed to stop pushing the matter when you don’t get a satisfactory answer. Of course, most are reluctant to even ask the question because of the risk of being criticized. Heather Mac Donald, a committed atheist, a woman particularly resistant to the power of faith-belief (see “In-Depth with Heather Mac Donald” on C-SPAN), does not suffer from such reluctance. (What one comes to understand when taking time to listen to Mac Donald on the issues is that what we today call neoconservatism is really stalwart dedication to secular liberalism of the bourgeois variety. Disagreements over which class should be in charge of society does not automatically affirm or obviate the soundness of claims being made.)

In my Truthout op-ed, I write, “The BLM protest is not about black-on-black crime, but about racial disparities in death by cop. Decrying black-on-black homicide after every high-profile killing of a civilian by a cop has become cliché for conservative pundits (and almost obligatory for liberals who want to be taken seriously). But it is entirely beside the point.” I can see now that what I am dismissing here is that black-on-black crime matters and the usefulness of questioning why a movement claiming that black lives matter would not put central to its struggle a phenomenon that causes many times more black deaths than cop shootings. It matters because of the following facts: In 2015, civilian white killers took 229 civilian black lives. The Washington Post puts the numbers of black people shot by the police that at 258. Of those, more than 85 percent were armed. In comparison, 2,380 black civilians were killed by other black civilians. Black-on-black murder accounts for half of all murder cases in the United States annually, mostly at the hands of male perpetrators. Black males comprise less than six percent of the US population. That is a crisis and dismissing it because neoconservatives point it out for whatever reason is an exercise in antiracist thought stopping. At the time I declared myself an antiracist. I have since left the religion.

Denying the extent of lethal violence in black communities by understandably resisting what may be a red herring spawned by neoconservative desire to defend the integrity of American policing is at the same time a failure on the part of a movement that claims to defend black lives to acknowledge the greater threat to those lives. Moreover, the thought-stopping exercise of attacking Mac Donald and her ilk causes observers to fail to see how both the racial disproportionality in death by cop and the extraordinarily high frequency of death of black men at the hands of other black men have the same underlying cause: structural inequality disproportionately affecting black communities. If concerted government action could bring into proportion with other murder-victim ratios the black-on-black ratio, then the racial disproportionality in death by cop would largely resolve itself since the root cause—crime and violence caused by structural inequality—would be eliminated. In other words, the attack on Mac Donald is itself a red herring.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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