Home / General / Violence and the racialized failure of the American state [Guest Post By Lisa L. Miller]

Violence and the racialized failure of the American state [Guest Post By Lisa L. Miller]

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We are very pleased to present this post from our friend Lisa L. Miller. Lisa is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. Her research is on the political dynamics of crime and punishment, social policy and law, and constitutionalism. Her most recent book is The Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty and the Politics of Crime Control (2008 Oxford University Press) and her new book project is entitled, The Myth of Mob Rule: Violent crime and democratic politics. She has published in Perspectives on Politics, Law and Society Review, Policy Studies Journal and Theoretical Criminology, among others. She is a former Visiting Scholar at All Souls College, Oxford University, and a former Fellow at Law and Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

The refusal of grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, to indict the police officers that killed Michael Brown and Eric Gardner has led some conservative commentators to direct attention to the so-called “Black on Black” crime problem, a much greater threat to Blacks than the police. The reaction from advocates for racial progress is to reject such attempts to connect these phenomenon, and to re-focus attention on state violence.

This is a mistake. The use of lethal force against Black Americans by the police or the state more generally, should not be untethered from the heightened risk of criminal violence that Blacks experience. Doing so simply reinforces the assumption that the primary tool for ameliorating racial inequality is to further constrain the state, which exercises its criminal justice authority disproportionately against African-Americans.

But this view misses the larger problem of racial inequality in the U.S., which is the failure of the state to act affirmatively to successfully protect Blacks, to the same degree as whites, from a wide range of causes of early death. Understanding the link between the disproportionate exposure of Black Americans to one of these causes – murder – as well as to state violence reveals a far more tragic reality than a singular focus on the police suggests, and that is the racialized failure of the American state.

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 murder to the same degree as other rich democracies. But for Black Americans, this failure is astounding. The risk of being murdered is seven to eight 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 lifetime risk for Blacks was one in twenty-three, compared to one in 160 for whites.*

This exposure to violence is coupled with heightened exposure to other forms of physical risk, including police harassment, arrest, imprisonment and execution, often for offenses, such as drug violations, that they are no more likely to engage in than whites. Sociologists Becky Pettit and Bruce Western estimate that, for men born between 1964 and 1969, approximately three percent of whites and an astonishing twenty percent of Blacks had served time by their earlier thirties. It is not hyperbole, then, to say that African-Americans, far more than their white counterparts, experience devastating under-protection and over-enforcement of, the law.

Some will object to characterizing this as an instance of state failure, and return again to “Black on Black” crime. But why is this a meaningful phrase? It 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 is sophistry. The vast majority of murders are intra-racial and crimes committed with greater frequency by whites – such as mass shootings – are never referred to as white-on-white crime. The simple fact is that some American communities are much more likely than others to experience murder and its collateral consequences, and this differential experience does not fall randomly across the population but, instead, is deeply racialized.

From the perspective of state capacity and responsibility, the race of perpetrators is immaterial with respect to its obligation to reduce the levels of violence to which a people are exposed. In nearly twenty years of research on the political dynamics of crime and punishment, I have found that security from violence, from fellow citizens and from the state, are essential public goods, and that the persistent exposure to risk of such violence, no matter the source, is a first-order political problem that citizens of all races expect the state to ameliorate.  The fact that both types of violence fall so disproportionately on African-Americans calls into question the very legitimacy of the American state.

In this sense, thinking about risk more broadly – rather than zeroing in on the risk of police violence – draws into sharp relief the differential exposure of Blacks and whites to the positive goods that the state helps to produce. Whites have little understanding of the historic and contemporary role of the state in producing many of the social conditions that insulate them from serious injury and death. But, as political scientist Ira Katznelson describes in When Affirmative Action Was White, few areas of society are untouched by broad social policies that shaped the opportunities and social conditions of white Americans and that have made society much more secure for them.

That Blacks were often excluded from such goods – directly or indirectly – is a function of the long attachment to racial hierarchy that animates much of our history. That Blacks continue to be at significantly heightened risk of violence reflects the persistent racialized failure of state institutions to work proactively to provide the same protections from violence to which whites are privilege.

While this approach may seem even less likely to come to pass than reforming police, it offers an opportunity to reconnect the fundamental political and socio-economic conditions into which people are born, with specific actions of the state. In fact, the economic crisis of 2008 dramatically highlighted the role of government in contributing to conditions that create greater inequality, as well as those that ameliorate such inequalities. Americans are easily seduced by anti-statist arguments, but in the current political economy – with a stagnant Congress and ineffective leadership in both parties – it is becoming clear that the greatest threat to American democracy is not that the state does too much but, rather, that it does too little, failing address the fundamental needs of citizens. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the life course of African-Americans, for whom violence at the hands of other citizens and violence from the long arm of the law are all too common.

Limited and fair application of the use of force by the police is a crucial component of the democratic state. But restricting ourselves to this understanding of state obligation in relation to racial progress misstates the depth and breadth of racialized risk in the United States. If the economic, social and political conditions in which African-Americans live constituted a distinct nation, there is little question that our government would characterize such conditions as evidence of an ineffective state, one that leaves its citizens unnecessarily exposed to the kinds of risks that modern democratic states have very effectively reduced.  Only through popular demand for a more robust, proactive state, one that can address the causes of violence and reanimate trust between citizens and government, can we extricate ourselves from failure and become the successful state for all citizens that we imagine ourselves to be.

*Lifetime risk calculates the likelihood of being murdered if the homicide rate remained static at the year of one’s birth. While this is an artificial calculation – homicide rates wax and wane and have not remained 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.

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  • DrDick

    Another excellent post, which highlights what Jose Farmer and Laura Nader have referred to as structural violence.

  • Ronan

    Interesting post. A related Q. Have you read Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman’s arresting citizenship ? If so what did you think of it ?
    I havent had time yet, but for anyone interested the argument is laid out here

    http://www.bostonreview.net/us/vesla-m-weaver-citizenship-custodial-state-incarceration

    edit: this is related I hope, im not trying to derail this on to a hobby horse or anything.

  • StuckinOz

    Excellent post. Thank you. I remember a WaPo article several years ago on the difference in support for handgun restrictions among Black Americans and White Americans. If we just ask the general question: is the benefit of having access to guns worth the associated risks?, we get widely divergent answers depending on where people live and how their communities are policed. Whose risk calculation should take precedence? Surely it’s wrong for those who suffer little risk from widespread access to handguns to get all the say. But that’s what happens. Black communities often know quite precisely what would help them, but they don’t have enough political power to make it happen.

    • SgtGymBunny

      Very good point. Just this Saturday afternoon whilst I was merrily putting up the indoor Christmas decorations, there was a shooting at the intersection behind my apartment. After hearing a commotion of voices, I just had to be nosy and went outside. Regretted that decision when I saw actually person lying in the street. (EMS and police showed up rather quickly, and they expected the guy to live).

      Somebody getting shot is bad enough, but the fact that someone let off at least five shots in the middle of a fairly dense residential neighborhood, even though his target was hit only once, was pretty disturbing. Where did the other bullets go? Thank gawd, my apartment wasn’t in the immediate vicinity of the shooting. (And thank goodness, it was raining, otherwise kids would have been outside playing.)

      As is often said, “Bullets don’t have names on them”. So people who live in communities that do have higher risk for gun violence, are very aware of the risks that come with loose gun restrictions. Not being the “intended target” of a shooting is of very small comfort to any shooting victim or his/her family. Good intentions be damned, I don’t want anybody shooting off anything near me.

  • CaptBackslap – YOLO Edition

    As others have noted, a very strong piece.

    But I’m not sure you can cleanly separate under-protection from state violence. A huge chunk of the general violence that affects black communities comes from the same source as the state violence of incarceration–namely, the insane War on Drugs. If drug prohibition and all the bullshit that accompanies it went away, you’d see a huge drop in violent crime, as well as boosting the overall life prospects of black people (except those who fell into drug addictions they otherwise wouldn’t, but I have yet to see evidence that their numbers would even come close to balancing the lives not wasted in prison or in drug-related shootings).

    • Steve LaBonne

      Basically, our society has not missed any possible opportunity for screwing black people.

  • joe from Lowell

    The fact that both types of violence fall so disproportionately on African-Americans calls into question the very legitimacy of the American state.

    I don’t think this is hyperbole. There really is no other meaningful standard of legitimacy besides “consent of the government.” The question of whether government if legitimate actually is determined by whether the people being governed feel like it’s legitimate.

    And we are staring in the face the reality of a large and growing segment of our population that does not consider the police that are policing their communities – the most prominent face of government in people’s lives – to be legitimate.

    For most of American history, if the non-white population didn’t respect the government, that was their problem. There weren’t enough of them, and they didn’t have enough power, for that dissatisfaction to really threaten the operations of the state and society. But those demographic changes we always talk about in the context of the Democrats’ electoral prospects are going to have other consequences, too.

    • Steve LaBonne

      Christ, I hope so. But I’ll believe in it around the time when the people of Ferguson vote out their racist, corrupt city government in favor of people who will fire and replace the cops. Protests are necessary, but short of a genuine revolutionary situation, which I don’t think will ever happen in this country (almost certainly a good thing), they pose little threat to the power structure.

      • joe from Lowell

        Not a threat, but a problem.

        Protest movements that get too big or last too long are bad for business.

    • Hogan

      There really is no other meaningful standard of legitimacy besides “consent of the government.”

      I know you meant “governed,” but I’m banking “consent of the government” against my future snark needs. Which will be immense.

      • joe from Lowell

        Damn you, autocorrect!

  • DrS

    If the economic, social and political conditions in which African-Americans live constituted a distinct nation, there is little question that our government would characterize such conditions as evidence of an ineffective state, one that leaves its citizens unnecessarily exposed to the kinds of risks that modern democratic states have very effectively reduced.

    Much of the rhetoric surrounding and including the phrase “Black on Black crime” seems to me to be a way of making that sort of criticism, but ignoring that it is not a distinct state. Nothing like having your cake and eating it too.

  • cpinva

    interesting article, and pretty much says, in one fell swoop, what has been discussed here and elsewhere, in bits and pieces. I must take issue with you right off the top though:

    “The refusal of grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, to indict the police officers that killed Michael Brown and Eric Gardner”

    let’s be very, very clear, mr. brown and mr. garner were not “killed” by those police officers, they were murdered, and there is a very stark difference in the terminology being used. both deaths were deemed, by the respective ME’s, as homocides. they did not die as the result of accidents, the police didn’t inadvertently back into them with their vehicles. the police very specifically committed affirmative acts, that resulted in the deaths of both men. in the case of mr. garner, the ME very specifically deemed his death the result of criminal homicide, the grand jury’s decision notwithstanding. the murderers of both of these young men will face civil suits, for wrongful death and (probably) denial of civil rights.

    I am not being pedantic, it’s extremely important that these deaths are called what they are, murders, and the perpetrators called what they are, murderers. to do otherwise devalues what actually resulted in their deaths.

  • tsam

    So where do we begin to address this problem? This post brilliantly outlines the problem, in my opinion. I just don’t know where to go from here.

  • Turkle

    I do wish I had read this a few days ago. Here is a story you may or may not find boring.

    On Friday, I was meeting a friend for dinner (I live in NYC), but I got off work quite early so I repaired to a local wine bar to grab a light snack and a Beaujolais. Anyway, an affable enough old white guy next to me struck up a conversation, which was good-natured enough until he asked me how I felt about the Garner protests that were soon to be marching up Broadway.

    I should have known better, but I was feeling the wine and, as carefully as I could, I explained that police are a public institution, and we are a democracy, which means that they murder, they murder in our name, and when they murder black people for no reason, as they have been doing since before the American Revolution, it is the duty of the citizenry to correct injustice using whatever methods are necessary and commensurate with justice. So of course I support the protesters because the police shouldn’t be in the business of murdering people, and they especially shouldn’t be a white supremacist institution that murders black people, and it is the duty of our justice system to prosecute murderous cops.

    So anyway, after nodding politely through my little speech, he then said something to the effect that black people are extremely dangerous, just look at all the black-on-black crime, couldn’t I see that the police needed to use deadly force with those people. I had the wherewithal to point out that most white people are killed by white people, because people kill the people they are near, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He honestly believed that black Americans are uniquely violent and if cops kill them, it is only in self-defense against the sole agents of criminality.

    It was at this point that I was completely revolted and informed him that I would no longer be speaking to his old, white, racist self. He left the bar shortly afterwards. But I couldn’t help but feel that my response was insufficient.

    Had I read this essay before last Friday, I would have been able to counter his grotesquely racist insinuation that black people are unusually violent by pointing out that, as the article so cogently states, “African-Americans, far more than their white counterparts, experience devastating under-protection and over-enforcement of, the law.”

    An excellent article. Thanks to Prof. Miller for writing and sharing it with us.

  • Matt

    The funny thing: every moron who brings up “black on black crime” has ALREADY missed the point – they’re describing it AS CRIME. If cops using excessive force was regularly even *considered* a crime folks would likely be less pissed off.

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