Stop Blaming Police and Focus on Criminality—That Will Make Our Communities Safer

“We cannot allow the cycle of systemic racism and injustice to continue” Tony Evers continues to encourage the mob with terrible consequences. A man with a long gun defended himself from the mob in Kenosha overnight. Two people are dead. This is the predictable consequence of persistent violence against persons and property. Rioting is not only not a First Amendment right, it is action aggressing upon a citizenry that has Second Amendment means to manifest its inherent right to self-defense.

The deluded have been dreaming about an America that no longer exists. They are now waking up to an America that still does, an America that is armed and dangerous. Those who want a civil war don’t seem to recognize that they will lose that war. There are too few of them and most of them have no experience with firearms. If federal, state, and local law enforcements are not going bring down the hammer on the mob, civilians are going to take up the slack. The longer this goes on the more organized and impatient the citizenry will become. They’re the ones with the firearms and they know how to use them. It’s going to go very badly for Antifa-BLM in the end. The only martyrs recognized in the end will be ghosts in the nightmares of those who survive. The cause that propels them is wrong.

The President of the United States recognizes this. “We will NOT stand for looting, arson, violence, and lawlessness on American streets,” he tweeted less than an hour ago. “My team just got off the phone with Governor Evers who agreed to accept federal assistance.” Evers is in way over his head. At least he knows it. Hopefully the federal government will bring order to Kenosha. Other cities need to ask for assistance before they also go up in flames.

All this chaos would have been avoided if those who are rioting cared about reality and the social class to which they belong. As I have shown on this blog, there is no systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States (The Far Podcast; The Myth of Systemic Racism in Lethal Police-Civilian Encounters). Controlling for crime rates and circumstances, the police do not disproportionately kill black civilians—even unarmed ones. In this blog, I explain the problem of overrepresentation of blacks in police stops.

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Analysis: LAPD searches blacks and Latinos more often - Los ...
LAPD officer searches a woman’s purse after finding a gun on the floor of a car he and his partner pulled over in South Los Angeles (source: LA Times)

Racial profiling occurs when police use race exclusively to determine traffic stops or stop-and-frisks. Racial profiling does not refer to law enforcement officers pursuing descriptions of suspects that include gender, race, and ethnicity. Police routinely pull over vehicles and ask questions of their occupants because somebody in a vehicle fits the description of somebody the police are looking for or because somebody in the vehicle is a known offender and therefore potentially suspect in a criminal investigation.

There are three legal standards police officers may use to stop, question, and search a person: a warrant, probable cause, and reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion is a low-level standard wherein there are specific and reasonable inferences that entitle the officer to draw from facts in light of experience. This practice should not be confused with racial profiling. Compared to white males, black males more frequently commit serious crime both proportionally (aggravated assault, burglary, theft and larceny) and absolutely (homicide and robbery). As a consequence, black males are more likely to fit the description than are white males.

Racism is not at work here. If white males were overrepresented in crime, then they would more often fit the description. But they aren’t. Moreover, black males are more likely to have more extensive criminal records compared to white males. And this is not a function of arbitrary arrest, but of overrepresentation black males in criminal behavior. One-third of all black males have been convicted of a felony, the most serious criminal charge. Very rarely are those with felony records innocent of the offenses that affixed that label to them.

What explains the drastic overrepresentation of black males in crime? There is nothing about a black person’s biology that makes him more prone to criminality than a white person. Even if criminal behavior had some genetic basis, race does not exist as a biological reality, so it could not explain grouped variation. Race is a social construct and a historical phenomenon—it is the product of ideology. Explanations for the racial disparity in frequency and severity of criminal offending are better sought in analyses of societal and cultural forces. However, I do not find convincing the claim that material inequalities are exclusively or mostly responsible for overrepresentation of black males in serious criminal offending. The fact that three times more whites live in poverty than blacks but do not kill or rob at three times the rate of blacks—on the contrary, white males are underrepresented in the perpetration of homicide and robbery—tells us that we have to look at other situational and ideational factors.

We know this for sure: except for verified cases of irresistible impulse, every person who commits a crime makes a decision to do so. This is how we can hold individuals accountable for their wrongdoing: they possess an agency that governs the actions of their persons. This is not to say that they do not find in their thoughts justifications and rationalizations for violating the law. Indeed, they do and that’s the point.

Progressives don’t excuse the heinous acts of wealthy white offenders by denying their agency or infantilizing them. So why do progressives infantilize black males by routinely portraying them as something like marionettes dancing at the end of abstract strings manipulated by unseen forces? Why to the left-idealists romanticize criminals as heroes rebelling against the conditions of their existence? We see this type of rhetoric in the justification for the riotous (and racist) actions of Antifa and Black Lives Matter—and not just from the anarchists and self-described “trained Marxists.” Those who perpetrate crime and violence are bad actors and they should be identified, arrested, charged, and tried by a jury of their peers, the members of the community whom they have wronged.

Of course, holding bad actors responsible for their transgressions gets us only so far if the conditions from which they emerge are allowed to persist. If we want to reduce crime, we must tackle the source of the motivation to act badly. That means broaching the subject of culture. Human action is a function of what and how individuals are taught to think about and respond to the world around them. If people learn that crime and violence are appropriate ways of acting or are morally justified, then they will be more likely to engage in crime and violence. If a person is told that his society is unjust, then he will feel less compelled to obey its rules—independent of whether his society is unjust.

Individuals often resist accepting responsibility for their failures, especially if they are taught to do so, and this prepares people to accept rhetorics that locate responsibility outside themselves. Because people are fond of their own thoughts, taking them to be who they are or who they should be, they resist accepting that the culture responsible for those thoughts is the reason for their situation. If outsiders allegedly responsible for this situation are more or less clearly identified, and the targets of ginned up hatred and resentment are members of an abstract group based on some arbitrary and superficial characteristic, such as skin color, then the actor’s empathy towards members of that group will diminish and the likelihood that he will deal with them in a rude and rough manner increase. Hatred and resentment may even put in a man’s mind a duty to act in a criminal and violent fashion. This is why we take care to socialize our children to behave responsibility and with care and concern for other people. More than this, we teach our children not to dehumanize individuals on the basis of perceived group membership. At least we’re supposed to be teaching them this.

* * *

All around me I hear people asking why agents of the criminal justice system stop, detain, search, arrest, charge, convict, and sentence black males at higher rates than white males while refusing to hear the answer: Because black males are overrepresented in serious crime and violence and the police are tasked with crime control. The laws passed against these wrongful acts are not unjust, but designed to make people freer and happier. If the answer is accepted but the response is that the agents of criminal justice, to do the work of antiracism, should enforce the law in a racially-differential manner, then a more thoroughgoing racism is proposed: racially-selective underprotection of majority-black communities (and not an insignificant number of white citizens). For it must be remembered that, even though whites are more likely to be the victims of black perpetrators than the other way around, blacks are overrepresented among the victims of crime committed by black males. And there are victims beyond the immediate ones; the social disorder generated by criminal activity degrades the conditions of life for everybody in the community.

The question we should therefore be asking therefore is this: What are black males learning from the culture that prevails in their communities that makes them more likely to criminally offend than white males? We have ruled out biology. We have ruled out poverty per se. Idleness plays a role, since space-time beyond the constraints of constructive activities creates room for wrongful behavior; at the same time, the idle also pass their time in ways that do not involve hurting other people. The left has for too long rejected culture as the source of the problem. Shared belief, norms, and values are features of culture and morality. This is why I must insist that cultural criticism not be a priori defined as “racist” (Smearing Amy Wax and The Fallacy of Cultural Racism). It is not true that cultures associated with spaces occupied by particular racial groups are intrinsic features of those groups. Culture is tied to place and tradition. Persons become bearers of that culture. To be sure, they take their cultures with them. But, while persons, regardless of race, are socialized into a culture, they may also escape some of the shared beliefs, norms, and values that justify action and rationalize behavior. Leaving a culture is like leaving a religion or leaving a politics. A man should be suspicious of the energy put into making him unaware of the opportunity to leave personally dysfunctional beliefs, norms, and values.

Have you ever wondered why is it “antiracist”—what you are today told you must be to be a good person—to criticize and even condemn “white culture” but racist to suggest there are elements in “black culture” that undermine law-abidingness, stunt personal growth and development, and sabotage life success? Why are white people told that they can and should abandon Western culture, with its emphasis on individualism, industriousness, linear thinking, reason and science, while telling those who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods that they are defined and enriched by the culture prevailing there? Please note that I put “white culture” and “black culture” in scare quotes. Why are we told in the first place that these cultures are “white” and “black”? Why is so called “white culture”—humanism, liberalism, rationalism, secularism—identified in a racialized manner?

These mystifications and double standard pervade today’s political discourse. They keep us from asking the hard questions. Moreover, they put working people in antagonistic corners to fight amongst themselves. What we should want is the good life for all Americans, and the good life necessarily depends on civil order and public safety. Without order and safety there is no freedom and development. Order and safety depend very fundamentally on a commitment of members of the community to the same. Those commitments are cultural attitudes.

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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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