Saturday, May 2, 2015

Alienation from the police? Almost certainly not the critical issue.

From Progressives Miss the Point of Baltimore by John McWhorter.

I think McWhorter has several good points but still misdiagnoses the Baltimore (and national situation). From McWhorter's article.
The supposedly sophisticated twitterati take on what has happened after Freddie Gray’s funeral is to essentially rationalize the riots by explaining that the looting we’ve seen on our TV screens was just collateral damage for institutional racism.

Put aside for the moment that many of the businesses and cars destroyed in the attacks were black owned. Put aside also that Baltimore’s mayor and police chief are black. Nevertheless, there are indeed structural issues that have combined to create this moment—but they don’t fit the narrative being proposed as higher wisdom.


Three key dynamics since the Civil Rights era 50 years ago created the inner city misery we are now seeing urgently rise to the foreground today.

First, the Black Power ideology that proliferated in the 1960s and 70s discouraged black communities from maintaining the old-time mantra that adversity meant that blacks have to try twice as hard. The wise insight was that after centuries in the United States, the persistent double standard was demeaning, and while that made basic sense, it changed black America’s orientation towards individual initiative. That helps explain, for example, why only in the sixties did it become common for poor blacks to burn their own neighborhoods in protest. Even amidst Jim Crow, black people did not do this.

Second, in the late sixties, partly in response to the riots of the Long Hot Summers, welfare was transformed from a time-limited program intended for widows to an open-ended program that didn’t care whether recipients ever got jobs. This had the unintended consequence of discouraging marriage, and made it easier for women to raise kids without the father around. This, a story too little told (read it here), decisively impacted the black experience nationwide.

Finally, the War on Drugs created a black market alternative to legal work for poor black men underserved by bad schools. Frankly, The Wire explained this dynamic better than any academic analysis.

Racism is too simplistic an explanation for all of this, as is an idea that “it’s complicated” where what’s really meant is “complicated racism.” Welfare was opened up by liberals who thought they were doing black people a favor, often at the behest of black protesters. The Rockefeller drug laws that ended up penalizing crack over powdered cocaine were supported by black Congress members.


But the reflexive liberal rush to moral relativism on the subject misses the mark as well. A certain contingent will not be disabused of the idea that inner city Baltimore is the product of racism alone, as opposed to a complex cocktail of racism in the past, misapplied benevolence afterwards, and a cyclic process of dissonance now. Their take on all of this is better at assuaging white guilt than telling us where to go from here in a real world.
I can agree with a portion of this argument, though not all. I do agree with the main thrust that a focus on "racism" both misdiagnoses the root issues and fails to create good policies for addressing the current problems.

But here is where I disagree with McWhorter the most.
Today, regardless of the complexities of how we got here, the main thing that keeps black America feeling alienated in its own land is the police.
Sure, there is a lot of truth in there but I am pretty sure that the police are not the "main thing." There is much more to it than that.

There are two roadblocks to my accepting McWhorter's diagnosis.

Whether Broken Windows policing has contributed to multi-decade long decline in crime is still arguable (though I suspect it has contributed). What is often overlooked in the Broken Windows arguments is that there has been a major change in the role of technology as it pertains to policing that accompanied Broken Windows but is its own phenomenon. One of the central changes has been the role of such systems as CrimeStat which monitors and catalogs crimes and violations by time and location, providing police forecasting capabilities that used to be relegated strictly to the gut.

Along with CrimeStat though, there is another change. It used to be that 911 was only to be used for emergencies, for a crime in progress. Now, 911 is one of the major feeds into CrimeStat type systems and police forces across the nation that use a CrimeStat system encourage citizens to call in anything that looks suspicious or out of place. For a libertarian, this is an extremely problematic herald of the police state but for law-and-order citizens, CrimeStat and its ilk are a godsend. No longer do police have to make as many snap judgments about an ambiguous situation which can later be claimed as potential profiling.

Instead, that has been outsourced to the citizenry. On the one hand this is a good thing. People on the ground and familiar with a location will always know the local circumstances better than the police ever can. The average quality of information goes up. But anything open to the public also has a lot of variance and noise in the system.

But whether that is good or bad, is kind of moot. It is what we have and it has one particular consequence that I haven't seen particularly well addressed in the Ferguson/Baltimore etc. conversations.

Much policing and locational staffing is now driven by real time crime and citizen complaints. In my city (Black mayor, police chief, city council, school superintendent, etc.), for example, the police encourage everyone to call in anything that looks out of place, suspicious or dangerous. CrimeStat spits out a real time listing of everything that needs to be addressed and then through its algorithms prioritizes the limited police resources for the highest priority items. Investigating a suspicious character in a neighborhood will take lower priority to a physical assault, for example. Many of the lowest priority items age out before they can be addressed but at least there is a record so the police can spot emerging trends.

There is a lot of good to this system. It reduces the squeaky wheel syndrome whereby particularly influential neighborhoods draw in more police resources for less consequential crimes at the expense of poorer, less influential neighborhoods who can't command the same attention.

But the upshot of these trends also flies in the face of the more simplistic ideological diagnoses. The police, in most cities now using CrimeStat type systems, aren't in poor black neighborhoods on a whim to harass the residents. They are in those neighborhoods because the poor black law-abiding residents have called them there to address a real crime problem. The police aren't harassing, they are there to protect citizens and the fact that there are more crimes in one type of neighborhood than another has nothing to do with their possible prejudices or stereotypes. I think it was Jason Riley who referred to this as police having to deal with a behavioral pathology.

Back to McWhorter. Here's one of the problems with his analysis. He says "one simple thing is imperative: America must de-escalate the persistent tensions between cops and young black men." He frames this in a way as if it is simply or mostly up to the police to deescalate that tension. And certainly, there is always more training and higher recruiting standards that might help. But if the issue is, as Riley indicates, in the pathology of young black men and if black neighbors are calling the police to address those pathologies of behavior, then it is hard to see how the police on their own can solve that. The additional question becomes, what are the policies that could be implemented so that there are fewer instances of police being attacked, police being physically and verbally disrespected, individuals fleeing a stop, etc. Easy to focus on the police but probably dramatically insufficient. CrimeStat and dealing with crime where it is and crime by whom it is being committed limits the illusion that this is only a police issue. CrimeStat forces the unpleasant question - how do you stop young black men from committing such a disproportionate amount of the crime. Stop that and the de-escalation follows of its own accord.

The other roadblock to McWhorter is that he has bought into the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy that underpins the Black Lives Matter advocacy.

The police have a dangerous job to do with 50-250 losing their lives each year depending on definitions and the studies you look at. Each one of those lives lost is a tragedy and ideally should be brought to zero. Correspondingly, some 400-1,100 citizens lose their lives each year (again depending on definitions and particular study methodologies). Each one of those lives lost is a tragedy and ideally should be brought to zero. Among the citizens, a disproportionate number are African-American. I have not seen the evidence of this, but there is good reason to believe that the same is true on the police side of the equation.

This is not a black lives matter issue. This is an issue of violence in America and the interaction of the criminal element with the police. Whites, Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans are all subject to this, though in different proportions. Our challenge is not to reduce the number African-American police officers killed in the line of duty and the number of African-American citizens killed by police officers. Our challenge is to reduce the number of police officers killed in the line of duty to as near zero as possible and to reduce the number of citizens killed as a consequence of interacting with the police to as near zero as possible. To the extent that we are successful in overcoming that challenge everyone will benefit, and certainly African-Americans to a greater extent than other groups. Anybody who tries to limit this to an issue of police disrespect of African-Americans is, I suspect, ignorant, confused, or has misdiagnosed the problem.

Police training will help. I don't think police wearable cameras will make much of a difference other than to refine the training needed. I suspect much of this will come down to issues of mental health, substance dependency, personal behavioral pathologies and other such hard to tackle issues. But unless we tackle the whole problem, rather than pretending that it is a race issue, we likely won't make much progress. Those trying to make this a Black Lives Matter issue or a Police Biases issue are, I think, confusing the issue and postponing actions that could actually make a positive difference.

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