Is police brutality aimed at the black community, or is it aimed at poor communities which just so happen encompass black people? If so, why?
Originally a research paper
I won’t drag this introduction out, but let me fill you in a little bit. Something which has always stood out to me is the way in which race and economic prosperity are so innately intertwined. I’m not saying I was four years old discussing socioeconomic disparities in the playground at lunch (which I probably was, to be honest), but thinking back it always struck me how the wealthiest and most affluent people I knew in western society were almost never people of colour. So when I started getting into politics and particularly identity politics, I was so deeply intrigued by the Black Lives Matter movement. But I actually remember the first time I heard of the BLM movement, it was in year 9 during my Tumblr days (a whole ‘nother story in itself). Reading unfiltered opinions on the murder of Michael Brown triggered in me so many feelings: pain, sadness, you name it. But above all, confusion. But at the time I knew nothing about politics, I was just a girl with emotions and opinions. So as time went on and events got worse, I saw people around me and on social media getting angrier and angrier. And I was angry too. And I was amazed at how well we came together to turn this anger into something positive; going to my first BLM march with my little sister was undoubtedly one of my proudest moments. But to me we were all missing something. This conversation was solely fuelled by anger and pain and all I kept seeing was the word ‘race’. Yet when I researched each case and each incident, there seemed to be a reoccurring pattern: poverty.
It’s always very quickly assumed that the Black Lives Matter movement is based solely on race, and perhaps rightly so. I mean, it’s in the name right? Pretty self explanatory. What is often forgotten, therefore, is the role that economic prosperity can play in fuelling discontent and tension between two societal groups. So I researched the extent to which the BLM movement can be deemed a poverty issue as opposed to an identity one. And here I am, with the receipts.
Institutionalised racism is often generally defined as a systematic distribution of resources, power and opportunity in society to the benefit of people who are white and the exclusion of people of colour. While in theory the USA no longer imposes racial segregation, in practice its cities are still loosely structured along the lines of ethnicity, culture or race, with the clearest and most prominent example of this physical segregation being witnessed in Kansas City. It can therefore clearly be seen that there is an undeniable link between race and economic prosperity. For many African-Americans, unemployment, underemployment, substandard housing and police brutality over the past decades has led to a resurgence against state authorities. But yet it must be said that in a country with growing economic inequality between the richest and poorest, austerity budgets and political attacks on social welfare come at the peril of all ordinary people. I think this is the main reason why people don’t often consider poverty in the BLM conversation – because clearly the problem of poverty in the African-American community is not unique to the community, it transcends the boundaries of race. However, this tension between the black community and the state governance has been exacerbated by a wave of mass protests in response to seemingly biased policy brutality, which began with the murder of a young black man in 2014, Michael Brown. This led to the rise of a national movement against police brutality and daily police killings of unarmed African-Americans, commonly known as the Black Lives Matter movement.
So first I looked at cross-cutting cleavages. Cross-cutting cleavages tend to see members of a population divided into sub-cultures, based on criteria including class, religion, ethnicity, region or a combination of these, thus forming a segmented society with minority groups having little social interaction with the rest of the country, creating a “them” and “us” sentiment. This can be explained using cultural marxism, a theory which makes allusion to the oppression of minority groups by majority groups on identity grounds. In accordance with this theory, it can be argued that the Black Lives Matter movement is simply a physical and conceptual manifestation of the resurgence of a minority group of the American population, black people, in response to their continued oppression at the hands of a minority group. But oppression doesn’t have to be overt, nor does it have to be explicit. Oppression isn’t solely physical, it doesn’t have to be sticks and stones.
So this is where it gets interesting. Classical marxism can also be considered, which refers to the belief that the true power struggle lies instead purely on economic prosperity, depicting a conflict between the bourgeoisie (or the rich) and the proletariat (the poor). Using this theory, it can be deduced that perhaps the true origins of the BLM movement lie in the lack of economic prosperity of the black community in the USA. And there’s evidence to back this up, starting with the remnants and repercussions of the period prior to the American Civil War in 1861, often referred to as the ‘Missouri Compromise Era’. There is clear statistical information showing that the gap between rich and poor is more pronounced among blacks than among whites. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of ISR writes that ‘The richest whites have seventy-four times more wealth than the average white family. But among African Americans, the richest families have a staggering two hundred times more wealth than the average Black family. African Americans make up 1.4 percent—about 16,000 of the 14 million Black families in the United States—of the richest 1 percent of Americans. Each of those families’ net worth averages $1.2 million, in comparison to $6,000 for the average Black family…Class differences have always existed among African Americans, but the pall of legally instituted racism in an earlier era essentially tethered Blacks together into a Black community. Today, the absence of formal barriers to Black economic and political achievement has allowed for more differentiation among African Americans and has frayed notions of “community.”’ I found this so interesting, because it confirmed something that I was already thinking – the African-American community was essentially characterised by poverty and lack of socio-economic prosperity. But more than this, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor also suggests something much more worrying – that the apparent removal of barriers to black socio-economic affluence, a positive thing, has undoubtedly raised new issues by disrupting the community’s common identity (the criteria that shape social cleavages).
Low-income African-Americans, according to a poll, suggest that the perception of differences over values and identity among Blacks “is felt most strongly by those Blacks at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum”. These class differences influence the ways in which black people experience the world and the political conclusions they draw from those experiences. So maybe the real origins of the Black Lives Matter movement don’t solely lie in an identity issue or a poverty issue but rather a synthesis of both.
This combination of identity and poverty issues is best materialised and evidenced in Kansas City, a city in the state of Missouri. Troost Avenue, once on the eastern edge of Kansas City and home to millionaires, is now widely seen as one of the city’s most prominent racial and economic lines. As homes primarily built on speculation dropped in price due to the Wall Street Crash, less affluent African-American communities moved east of the Avenue. Over time, the population of black people grew, leading to the formation of a clear line separating the white west and the black east.
So you can see how the synthesis of poverty and identity in this city has progressively led to the area’s segregation, racial inequities in housing, jobs, pay, health, transportation and access to food. Understandably this is an extreme example, but the same pattern can be traced in the formation of most of African-American ghettos and ‘projects’. I’m sure you’ve heard of the infamous ghettos in Chicago, Detroit, The Bronx or even Brooklyn. A ‘ghetto’ is a part of a city in which members of an minority group live, typically as a result of social, legal or economic pressure. Particularly, many of these African-American ghettos are located in northern cities where millions moved during the Great Migration (1914-1950) in order to escape the widespread racism of the South and seek a economic opportunities and a better quality of life. The separation was further exacerbated by the relocation of industrial enterprises and the movement of middle and upper class citizens (which tended to be majority white) into suburban neighbourhoods. Looking at these specific case studies, it can be assumed that the so-called ‘segregation’ of the black community was initially caused by a poverty issue which then progressed into an identity based system of separation. Arguably, maybe the real question we should be asking is why there exists a lack of economic prosperity in the black community, a disparity significant enough to form a physical separation in the population and a feeling of resentment for the local and national governance of liberal democracy. This can be explained through the use of the politics of collective identity, which depicts a shared definition of a group that derives from members’ common interests, experiences, and solidarity.
Since its formation in 2013, the NGO Black Lives Matter has actively seeked to raise awareness and change in the treatment of blacks and other minorities in the USA, particularly in regards to police brutality. Police in Kansas City alone have killed 47 people since 2005, including 28 blacks (the highest figure in comparison to other demographics in the region). Looking at other states in the USA, Philadelphia is also seen as home to one of the most brutal police departments in the country. The Department of Justice (DOJ) conducted an investigation of the Philadelphia Police Department from 2007 to 2013, and found that 80 percent of the people Philadelphia police officers had shot were African-American, even though less than half the city’s population is African-American.
Linking this back to institutionalised racism, it can be argued that the true answer to the question lies in the comparative disadvantage that black people have in American society as a result of the remnants of colonialism and post-colonialism. Racial discrimination caused disparities between blacks and whites in employment, poverty, housing quality, and access to education. As Michelle Alexander has pointed out in her book The New Jim Crow, the imprisonment of black men has led to social stigma and economic marginalisation, leaving many with few options but to engage in criminal activity as a means of survival. It is therefore impossible to understand the intense policing of black communities without putting it into the wider context of the comparative disadvantage that black people had at the end of the American Civil War – indeed a synthesis of racial identity and lack of economic prosperity, but primarily, in my opinion, a lack of economic prosperity. It’s no surprise that Kansas City is ranked as the second most dangerous neighbourhood in America, with the violent crime rate being 104.81 and one’s chances of becoming a victim there in one year being 1 in 10. Poverty leads to crime, crime leads to police intervention and then engrained racism, discrimination and negative stereotypes (amongst other things) lead to… well, you see where I’m going with this. Mixed with generational poverty traps, an increasingly controversial political climate and sensitive race relations you’ve basically got a recipe for disaster.
This issue expands beyond its prominence in the USA and can be witnessed in other states, such as in the UK in the Grenfell Tower incident. A recent report has revealed that the child poverty level across the borough is 27%, but in the poorest pockets it stands at 58%, while in the most expensive stretch around Hyde Park it is just 6%. One street in Knightsbridge has a 0% health deprivation rating, but one block on a council estate two miles away (still within the borough) has a 65% health deprivation rating. However, it has been argued that beyond being a poverty issue, there is an underlying issue of structural inequality, in housing in particular, in which the poor who are pushed out of quality housing in favour of affluent and largely white renters and buyers, are often BME.
So let me keep this conclusion short and sweet. Negative race relations in American society are an issue of paramount significance in the increase of racial profiling, but this issue is largely if not entirely exacerbated by the lack of economic prosperity of black Americans. There are many factors which contribute towards this lack of economic prosperity; I focused on the repercussions of their negative comparative advantage at the end of the civil war era. But what about the lack of spending on education and healthcare in predominantly black areas, in the ghettos and projects? What about the lack of representation in the public sphere that this causes? What about the misrepresentation of the black community that causes?
So yes, it is a race thing. But it isn’t that black and white.