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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