Bad Comparisons and the Call for Racially Differentiated Law Enforcement

“I am heartbroken,” George Floyd’s girlfriend Courteney Ross told the Star Tribune. “Waking up this morning to see Minneapolis on fire would be something that would devastate Floyd.”

Former United States Labor Secretary and current UC Berkeley professor weighs in on the Minneapolis riots with one of many bad comparisons widely shared on social media

Hundreds protest in Michigan seeking end to governor's emergency ...
Armed protestors in Michigan’s capitol building in Lansing on April 30, 2020 protesting Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s request to extend emergency powers

Bob, I have to ask, were those MAGA protestors throwing bricks and molotov cocktails, burning down buildings, looting stores, and physically assaulting people in Lansing? They look rather laid back in the picture above. Pictures can be deceiving. But I can assure you that the protestors were peaceful. Nobody was hurt. I also know that it is not illegal to carry guns in the capitol building in Lansing, Michigan.

When, on May 2 1967, two dozen armed members of the Black Panther Party entered the state Capitol in Sacramento, California, did you freak out, Bob? The Black Panthers entered the capitol to protest the Mulford Act, a measure that repealed the law allowing public carrying of loaded firearms. Unlike the MAGA protestors who were carrying guns to protest extreme government measures, the Panthers were carrying guns to protest for the right to carry guns in public—in order to challenge police officers patrolling black-majority neighborhoods (what the Panthers called “Copwatching”).

Tell us, Bob, what did the police do in Sacramento on May 2, 1967? Did they fire tear gas canisters at the Panthers? No. After they escorted the Panthers from the capitol building, they gave them back their guns. The Mulford Act had yet to be signed into law. The situation was peacefully resolved.

Open carry was legal until armed Black Panthers protested ...
Armed Black Panthers enter California’s capitol building in Sacramento in 1967 to protest the Mulford Act, which repealed the law allowing public carrying of loaded firearms

Armed protestors gathered in the Michigan capitol yesterday, too. But this time they weren’t white. They were members of a political organization calling itself Legally Armed in Detroit. They were mostly black and armed with AR-15s (this was not the first time armed black men appeared in Michigan’s capitol). They were not tear gassed, either. Why not? Because they were breaking no laws. Their protest, like the MAGA protests, like the Black Panther protests, were peaceful.

Armed participants in a demonstration at the Michigan Capitol on Thursday, May 28, 2020, pose for a photograph.
Armed protestors at the Michigan capitol, Thursday May 28, 2020

The police exist to secure public order. To be sure, it is a capitalist order. But it’s an order nonetheless, one that an overwhelming majority of Americans support. Securing the public order protects people. The Michigan protestors—white or black—were orderly. The Minnesota rioters are not. This explains the differential police response. It would have been bizarre to see the police in full riot control mode for a riot that never occurred—just as bizarre as it is to see the police stand down in the face of an actually-existing riot, which is what they are doing in Minneapolis.

Why are there riots and looters in Minneapolis?
Riots erupt in Minneapolis over the police killing of George Floyd

This is how utterly messed up the progressive establishment is in today’s America. Here is the essence of their argument: White men with guns peacefully protesting an order that quarantines healthy people in their homes represent a grave threat to democracy and should be roughly dealt with by the police. White males are privileged. What would they have to protest about? They’re protests are illegitimate. The looting of stores, setting cars and buildings on fire, and physically assaulting people, on the other hand, should be watched by the police from a distance. That’s legitimate protest. The people are angry so let them have at it. As the police chief told a local news station in Minneapolis, he told his officers to stand down for their own protection.

Of course, this can’t go on forever. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced yesterday that he had asked Governor Walz to activate the national guard to help local law enforcement. But he also excused the rioters: “The emotion-ridden conflict over last night is the result of so much built-up anger and sadness. Anger and sadness that has been ingrained in our black community, not just because of 5 minutes of horror, but 400 years.” How living human beings on the basis of skin color carry with them the anger of generations they never experienced is never explained in this type of rhetoric. As I have noted in previous blogs, the tone here is biblical. The fatalism of supposing that hundreds of years of anger and sadness have been genetically ingrained in people is, however, likely to produce undesirable outcomes.

Whites are said to have things ingrained in them, as well: racism and race privilege. Frey didn’t have to say it. Others said it for him. Tucker Carlson provides several examples:

Tucker Carlson on the situation in Minneapolis

Make no mistake, what the police did to George Floyd was wrong. The protests are appropriate. It was just as wrong when the police killed Dylan Noble and all the other men they have unjustly killed before and after Black Lives Matter became a hashtag. Techniques such as the one used by the police in this incident should be banned. The police kill far too many black and white men. But it is of some significance that whites don’t protest the killing of white people by the police. Perhaps it’s because the media doesn’t report facts like, in 2015, the year after Ferguson, police killed nearly twice as many white people than they did black people. Thus the potential for mass protests of police violence is redirected by the practice of racializing that violence.

MINNEAPOLIS BURNS: Riots Over George Floyd Death Lead To Arson ...
Riots erupt in Minneapolis over the police killing of George Floyd

I want to make it clear that the extraordinary crime and violence in Minneapolis is largely being perpetrated by a few individuals who are taking advantage of the opportunity to loot and vandalize under the cover of rage. I have watched numerous videos and those participating in criminal activities appear more interested in theft and vandalism than in making a political statement. Cracking safes is not legitimate protest action. It is certainly counterproductive to positive social change.

To be sure, the desire to loot and pillage is driven, at least in part, by the alienating conditions of capitalism. Crime of this sort is what Marxists have called “primitive rebellion.” Engels, in The Conditions of the Working Class in England (1845), argues that the degrading working conditions prevailing under industrial capitalism demoralize the proletariat, leading to a loss of social control among workers and their children. The discontents of capitalism provide workers with the temptation to engage in deviant behavior and wear down their moral capacity to withstand the temptation to take what they believe they should have. Capitalism thus generates the social conditions that motivate some members of the working class to behave in criminal ways. Engels characterizes “primitive rebellion” as the “earliest, crudest, and least fruitful kind,” which, because of its expression at an individual level, is not only suppressed by the state but also condemned by the working class. For this reason, Marx and Engels are skeptical that working class criminals could be of much use to their revolutionary goals (which might explain why progressives applaud rioting). Indeed, Marx and Engels write in the Communist Manifesto that the conditions of capitalist society make more probable that working class rogues will play “the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.” Marx and Engels don’t mince words, describing street criminals as “lumpenproletariat,” “social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society.”

All people have a moral obligation to desist from unjustified violence—even if agent provocateurs get the ball rolling (an apparently white man in black clothing smashing windows at an AutoZone in Minneapolis has lit up the internet). And if I were in the streets of Minneapolis protesting excessive force by police I would be troubled by those standing with me lumping our protests with looters and vandals. But the justification for crime and violence as the consequence of white privilege by the US media and progressive activists licenses more of it. Rioting is almost expected in this context. Perhaps even useful. Now that the reality of the COVID-19 hysteria is dawning on people, those in the service of corporate power desperately need a new propaganda wedge to distract the public from the reality of the world elites have made—and the potential for class solidarity threatening those arrangements. Reinforcing the divisive narrative of black victimization and white privilege, Black Lives Matter was a successful propaganda project. It is not unexpected that progressives would return to it. My Facebook feed is overflowing with virtue signaling and self-loathing from woke white crowd (the same crowd that praises the Peoples Republic of China as a forward-looking entity). The white progressive wants the black man to know she’s no Karen.

Make no mistake about it, racial politics will be used against Trump in the upcoming election. Indeed, hysteria over the upcoming election is feeding the narrative in Minneapolis. But the strategy may backfire. Crime and violence demand law and order in the eyes of many, and not just in the heartland. Trump wasted no time talking tough, taking to Twitter to wax belligerent. His apparent threat to shoot looters was over-the-top but nonetheless strategic [see note below]. The president knows how to cut through the noise—even if much of his rhetoric is noise—with a powerful signal to his base. As Nixon showed us, law and order rhetoric stirs the silent majority to action. A little historical reminder is in order: Nixon won reelection in 1972 with 96.7% of the electoral votes, while his opponent, the George McGovern, 3.2%. Nixon would have one more had a Republican elector not switched his vote for the candidate for the Libertarian Party. Nixon received 60.7% of the popular vote.

So why are these memes so wrong? After getting the situation wrong in 2016, I have written several blog entries about the social profile of police shootings in order to clarify the claims made by progressives about the role race plays in this phenomenon. On the claims made about the role of race in police shootings, see The Problematic Premise of Black Lives Matter, Demoralization and the Ferguson Effect, Death by Cop Redux: Trying to Save the Narrative in the Era of Trump, and, more recently, Did Arbery Die to Perpetuate a False Narrative About Contemporary American Society? It is not true that police officers are more likely to shoot black people than they are white people.

I have supported this argument in the past by citing the work of Ronald G. Fryer, in “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” published in the Journal of Political Economy in 2016, who, when turning his attention to the most extreme use of force—officer-involved shootings—found no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. For those who may feel that one study is insufficient to determine the claim, I want to add some studies to the review. First, Joseph Cesario, David J. Johnson, and William Terrill, in “Is There Evidence of Racial Disparity in Police Use of Deadly Force? Analyses of Officer-Involved Fatal Shootings in 2015–2016,” published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, in 2018, found, adjusting for crime, no systematic evidence of anti-Black disparities in fatal shootings, fatal shootings of unarmed citizens, or fatal shootings involving misidentification of harmless objects. They conclude that, when analyzing all shootings, exposure to police given crime rate differences likely accounts for the higher per capita rate of fatal police shootings for blacks. This is the argument I made in my blog entry Mapping the Junctures of Social Class and Racial Caste, where I marshaled facts to show that black men are overrepresented in the crimes of violence that increase the likelihood that they will come into contact with the police and that, therefore, police actions must be understood in light of the patterns of violent crime officers confront. In another study, “Disparity does not mean bias: making sense of observed racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings with multiple benchmarks,” published in the Journal of Crime and Justice in 2019, Richard K. Moule Jr. and Bryanna Fox found that, when focused on violent crime arrests or weapons offense arrests, black citizens appear less likely to be fatally shot by police officers. Finally, Charles E. Menifield, Geiguen Shin, and Logan Strother, in “Do White Law Enforcement Officers Target Minority Suspects?” published in Public Administration Review, in 2018, found that, although minority suspects are disproportionately killed by police, white officers appear to be no more likely to use lethal force against minorities than nonwhite officers. These are all rigorous studies published in peer-review scientific journals.

For another way to understand how race-craft constructs false realities, see Everything Progressives Say About Mass Shootings is Wrong…and Racist. Here I disprove the claim that whites are overrepresented in mass shootings. For those who think my arguments are pro-police, please see There are No Blue Lives and Let the Jury Do the Wrong Thing. I am neither pro- nor anti-police. I am pro-justice and pro-truth. Street crime and violence is no method for solving systemic problems. It should be suppressed for the sake of the working class.

That black males are neither subject disproportionately to police killings or to white-on-black killings was not a conclusion I had expected based on the politics in which I have long been immersed. I used to identify as an anti-racist and on a number of occasions repeated slogans that committed the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, that is, that substituted for the concrete individual a demographic designation. I even flirted with the new civil rights ideology of white privilege. But stubborn devotion to facts and reason compelled me to pull back from the precipice and change my understanding of the situation. After a long time studying the problem, I came to the conclusion that America has never been less racist than it is today. And then I came to see hi-tech race-baiting are too effective of a weapon in diverting the working people of this country from the solidarity necessary to rise up together and restore democratic-republican government and an economy that works for all the people to let it sit on the shelf. So once more I have to confront a false narrative promulgated by the corporate media and progressive activists. It isn’t easy sharing the good news. People get mad at you.

There is a terrible consequence to the identitarian rhetoric in which progressive activists partake: people are given permission to rationalize crime and violence in the name of justice that has already been achieved. While we can disagree with tactics pursued in addressing it, the collective anger that erupted in protests and rebellion in the 1950s-1960s when institutionalized racism was the order of the day is understandable, maybe even necessary. But that order was abolished more than fifty years ago. Not only is institutional racism a thing of the past, but the administrative state and business firms have designed and implemented policies that pay special attention to the situation of blacks in educational and occupational institutions. The frustration people feel regarding their personal situation is due to individual failure and the workings of the class system (there is agency and there is structure). The workings of the class system call for worker solidarity and mass democratic action. However, this frustration the conditions generate is redirected into race resentment. Race resentment cripples the worker movement. Woke progressivism and its fetish for violence gets in the way of justice.

Here’s another bad comparison in the spirit of Robert Reich. The framing here is particularly obnoxious. Friedman says that Trump supporters are storming state houses. They are doing so because they “dislike” something.

The left is getting this one wrong. Fact and principle are not with them. First, the comparisons are false. The police do not treat equivalent protect action in a differential way based on race. Second, the claim of ongoing institutional racism is a myth. The United States abolished institutional racism over fifty years ago. Third, living people do not carry historic oppression in their beings. Trauma from one era does not carry over to the next era except by indoctrination. Those who preach intergenerational trauma constitute the source of trauma. Fourth, mounting evidence contradicts the specific claim of racial disparate police shootings. Police kill far more white males than black males. And if white Hispanics are included, even more than that. What the victims of police killings have in common is their proletarian status. This means that protests against police violence should not be couched in racial terms but in class terms. Fifth, criminal violence in the streets of Minneapolis does not constitute legitimate protest of police violence. Moreover, primitive rebellion is not a useful strategy for social change. It is wrong to egg on street crime. It is anti-working class to lump criminals with the cause of combating police violence.

Do the right thing. Call for nonviolent protests of police violence. Condemn criminality. Stop glorifying violence.

* * *

Note: I may have erred in suggesting that Trump was advocating the shooting of looters. He may have been making an observation. Calvin L. Horton Jr. , was fatally shot outside a pawnshop Wednesday night in Minneapolis. The shooter, who owns Cadillac Jewelry, was arrested and remains jailed ahead of possible murder charges. The storefront suffered significant damage and was looted. Does anybody believe Trump knew Miami’s police chief, Walter Headley, used this phrase in 1967?

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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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