Note on terminology: I despise race talk and refuse to use skin tone terminology, except if historical context requires it. I therefore use “Euro-American” and “African-American” in the equivalent senses as “Asian-American”.
In the United States, in any given year, less than 4 per cent of those people killed by police will be unarmed African-American men killed by a Euro-American policeman. The number is generally in the lower double digits in a country of 330 million and an African-American population of about 42 million. They will be less than 0.5 per cent of the 7000 to 8000 African-American men to die violently in the same year.
The United States has a problem with police violence. US police kill far too many people and at a rate much higher than police in any other developed democracy. Moreover, the rate at which US police kill civilians varies dramatically by jurisdiction and region. A Euro-American in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is more likely to be shot by police than an African-American in New York. In far too many US jurisdictions, despite a general pattern of improvement, there is something seriously wrong with the training, procedures and accountability of police regarding their use of violence.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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That the United States has such a high rate of gun ownership makes the job of police that much more fraught. Police in the US are more likely to be shot than police in other developed democracies. Nevertheless, it is clear that too many US police are under-trained for what they face.
Urban African-American communities have an appalling problem with violence. Young African-American men kill each other at rates far in excess of that of any other group in the US, or in the rest of the developed democracies. This is, however, specifically an urban community problem, as there are no differences in the rate of death by homicide between African-American and Euro-American males in rural US. Even more than past legacies of police indifference and police brutality, the sheer failure to effectively police so many urban African-American communities must undermine respect in those communities for the police that so often conspicuously fail to serve and protect them.
Nevertheless, given the very low scale of the killing of unarmed African-Americans by police (and remembering that unarmed does not always mean not dangerous or threatening), it is perverse to construct narratives of performative outrage over less than 4 per cent of police killings and 0.5 per cent of the violent deaths of African-American men. I say performative outrage as it is apparent that US police can killed unarmed civilians who are not African-American, and African-Americans can kill each other, in any numbers and in utterly egregious incidents that, even if caught on camera, elicit nothing like the same ostentatious response—or media coverage. Such killings do not fit into the packaged narratives offered for us to consume so that we can all gain a drive-by sense of moral worthiness. Pixelated piety for a social media age.
African-American frustration, even anger, is understandable. The highly selective performative outrage of others is something else.
The killing of George Floyd was near-universally condemned, resulted in the sacking of the cops involved and the charging of the cop who did the killing. That all seemed to matter very little.
Yes, the immediacy and ubiquity of social media obliterate context, but that just makes the packaged narratives even more powerful. They create the context that video clips and events are slotted into.
What is more, these protests, riots and attacks on police will have a completely predictable result. Over the next few years, we can expect thousands of extra violent deaths of young African-Americans. Those who have been conducting their public acts of performative outrage will be unlikely to notice or care.
How do I surmise this? Because we have been here before. After the 2014 Ferguson riots, deaths by homicide of African-American males surged upwards, after years of decline.
This was either ignored, downplayed or explained away by those so ostentatiously concerned by the tiny intersection between killings of unarmed African-American men by Euro-American police and African-American deaths by violence. These thousands of extra violent deaths did not fit the packaged narratives primed for piety display. It is precisely because those extra deaths have been so absent from the packaged moral narratives that the cry “defund the police” has any traction at all. It is performative sloganeering built on not noticing thousands of extra killings.
One might think that thousands of extra deaths might be worth some reflection and soul-searching. One would be wrong. The market for packaged morality, and performative moral display, is not to be derailed by a mere matter of thousands of inconvenient homicides.
A narratively convenient killing caught on camera is a moral outrage. Thousands of the wrong killings are just a statistic.
The patterns of urban homicide
In order to understand why African-American homicides surged after the 2014 Ferguson riots, we need to step back and look at the long-term patterns of homicide in urban African-American communities.
In an essay published in April 2019 in the online magazine Areo, I argued that the serial and long-term failure of jurisdictions in the US, dating back to Reconstruction in the 1860s, to provide adequate policing services for African-American communities, especially urban communities, has permitted a bravado culture to become entrenched in those communities. A bravado culture is an honour culture without elite endorsement—that is, a culture of defending one’s social space by signalling one’s ability and willingness to engage in violence. It is sometimes called “street culture” in the sociological literature. This leads to high rates of homicide, as young males kill pre-emptively, or in retaliation, so as to defend their “rep”. The habits and responses of bravado culture also help create more fraught interactions with police. Social changes that encourage bravado culture will lead to more homicide, changes that undermine it will lead to less.
While the evidence tells us that African-American homicide death rates in urban areas have been much higher than Euro-American homicide death rates since the nineteenth century, the ratio between them has fluctuated over time. (All rates cited are per 100,000 people.)
In Philadelphia, the African-American homicide death rate was 2.7 times the Euro-American rate in the nineteenth century (7.5 to 2.8). In the years 1948 to 1952, it was 13.7 times the rate (24.6 to 1.8). In the early 1970s, it was 22.9 times the rate (64.2 to 2.8). A study of national figures found that the ratio shifted from 5.8 times higher in 1919 (30.5 to 5.3) to 8.3 times higher in 1927 (43.8 to 5.3).
Obviously, some fluctuating factor or factors are at play here, which affect homicide death rates among African-Americans far more than any relevant factors affect homicide death rates among Euro-Americans, which are much more stable. The pattern continues to the present.
Indeed, the recent surge in homicide death rates in various US urban centres is almost entirely a matter of the African-American, and specifically the African-American male homicide death rate, reversing the previous decades-long decline in their rate of death by homicide.
We can rule out genes (they don’t change fast enough) or racism (it has been a relatively stable factor in long-term decline) in explaining the post-2014 surge in homicide deaths. A factor that persistently affects patterns of homicide is severe status inequality: notably income inequality when combined with a lack of other means (other than aggression and violence) for men to gain status.
Given that crime rates have been generally falling in developed democracies, while income inequality has been generally rising, any direct link between homicide and income inequality becomes even more problematic—especially as status indicators for African-Americans have shown dramatic improvements.
Factors that can be identified as affecting variability in homicide rates are (1) urbanisation, (2) suburbanisation, (3) youth bulge, (4) illegal drugs, (5) fatherlessness.
Urbanisation breaks up previously existing social connections and encourages youth to congregate (young males being by far the most likely perpetrators and victims of homicide). Suburbanisation pulls middle-class families out of the inner city. A Boston study found that violence and aggression among male adolescents was higher in African-American communities with low income inequality (where middle-class residents were largely absent) and lower in communities with higher income inequality (where middle-class residents were far more common). The effect of middle-class residents indicates the complicated nature of the interaction between status hierarchies and income inequality—the lack of such residents makes bravado culture “rep” a dominant status path, while their presence demonstrates other paths to status.
A youth bulge maximises the proportion of the population that are in the most homicide-prone group. A surge in illegal drug use provides an income base for gangs as well as illegal assets to fight over. Fatherlessness weakens young male attachment to social norms, encourages involvement in gangs and is strongly associated with criminal activity.
All these factors also promote bravado culture, as they encourage recruitment of young males, including to the street gangs that feed off and exemplify bravado culture. All these factors also undermine alternative norms to those of bravado culture.
So, if there is increasing urbanisation, increasing potential income from gang activity, increasing fatherlessness, suburban flight and a youth bulge all at once, then a dramatic surge in homicide rates can be expected. And that describes the urban United States in the 1960s and 1970s in a nutshell. Especially if bravado culture already has a significant foothold due to a long-standing failure of police to achieve homicide clearance rates. The wider the ambit of action available to its practitioners, the more bravado culture is able to recruit new members into its patterns, the stronger it will be and the more disruptive and destructive to its local community.
What to do
So, if we want to turn back bravado culture, homicide clearance rates in African-American urban communities have to improve. In some jurisdictions, they have to improve dramatically. How might we do that? According to a February 2016 survey of the literature, including experience with various policy initiatives, published by USAID, there appear to be six “elements of effectiveness” that successful violence reduction interventions generally share. In the words of the survey:
# Specificity. Violence is “sticky”, i.e. clusters together, so focusing on the people, places, and behaviors most at risk for violence is critical.
# Proactivity. Violence should be prevented before it occurs whenever possible, either through deterrence or prevention. Active engagement with high-risk populations is critical. Reacting after the fact is necessary but not sufficient.
# Legitimacy. Interventions that create a positive feedback loop between formal (e.g. police) and informal social control (e.g. communities) are more likely to sustainably succeed.
# Capacity. Even the best interventions fail if they are not implemented effectively or lack sufficient resources.
# Theory. A well-defined, well-understood theory of change is critical for both implementation and evaluation.
#Partnership. Interventions do not exist in a vacuum. Actively engaging and partnering with critical stakeholders is essential.
Key considerations for success or failure were:
In many respects, what doesn’t work in reducing violence is simply the opposite of what does. Ineffective interventions are generally overbroad and reactive in their focus, lacking in legitimacy, improperly implemented, lacking a sound theory of change, and working in isolation or even in conflict with other organizations….
To summarize, these interventions deter violent behavior by reaching out directly to offending individuals and groups, explicitly stating that violence will no longer be tolerated, and then backing that message with credible threats of enforcement and credible promises of assistance.…
Focused deterrence distinguishes itself from other strategies with a laser-like focus on (a) the specific groups most likely to offend, (b) the specific behavior it seeks to change, and (c) the specific message delivered to the groups about the behavior. Often relating to gun violence, the message is simple: stop shooting and we will help you, keep shooting and we will put you in prison.
What does all this take? Effective policing. It was the lack of effective policing that allowed bravado culture to become entrenched in the first place.
Thus, if police, for whatever reason, pull back from an African-American urban community, what (predictably) happens? Homicides surge.
Police pulled back in Chicago, Baltimore and elsewhere after the 2014 Ferguson riots and the ensuing wave of police-critical activism. There was, for example, a major fall in homicide clearance rates in Chicago. Hence the surge in homicides due to thousands of extra killings by and of African-American men in urban African-American communities as bravado culture moved into the vacuum left by police withdrawal.
It is utterly predictable that we are going to go through the same pattern again. Bravado culture will be reinvigorated and killings will thereby increase. There is already a suggestive surge in homicides in New York, where Euro-American police offers are in a minority and where there had been a dramatic decline in police-involved shootings, including fatal shootings, since the 1970s.
The toxic nature of race talk
Even beyond the demand for packaged narratives of moral outrage, the fundamental problem is using the prism of race. Race talk strips people of their culture and civilisational heritage. It reduces people to their skin tone, and presumptive reactions to their skin tone (which might be, instead or in part, reactions to social cues).
Race talk buries relevant factors; for example, poor people are more likely to interact with police and African-Americans are about 2.5 times more likely to be poor than Euro-Americans. There are, however, more poor Hispanics, and considerably more poor Euro-Americans, than poor African-Americans. It is fairly clear that poor Euro-Americans also have a problem with police violence that is buried under the rubric of race. The dual problem of respect for law and order, and of law and order one can respect, is poisoned by race talk, not improved by it.
Fatherlessness correlates with criminal activity far more than poverty (though the two are clearly connected) or race. The connection of poverty, fatherlessness and the dynamics of locality captures the heart of the problems of violent crime. The prism of race blocks understanding.
Due to slavery, the process of exile was far more all-encompassing for slaves and their descendants than for any other group in the United States. For they were the only group whose process of arrival extinguished kin and all other social ties and identities. The slaves and their descendants were the only group that had to invent their identity and culture in the US. For neither indentured servants nor transported convicts was the process of exile remotely as complete.
Parenting patterns (who looked after children) and practices (what they did when they looked after children) were the only elements of prior culture likely to have made it through the social churn of enslavement and transportation. A partial exception is that African religious elements did survive in tropical areas. This was because the death rate of slaves was so high in tropical areas that Christianity found it harder to supplant rival religious ideas and sentiments—too large and constant a stream of new arrivals, too few survivors.
But these are specific historical experiences that the descendants of American slaves do not share with recent African immigrants (a notably successful group). While Afro-Caribbean migrants also come from a legacy of slavery, they also come from a much stronger legacy of self-government after the abolition of slavery, which occurred over a generation or more earlier than in the US.
Race talk, where it is not just a clumsy way of speaking about ethno-cultural groups or supergroups (sadly traditional in the US), is analytically impoverishing. The only thing race talk is good for is racial stigmatisation and racial hierarchisation, because it reduces people to their skin tone, on whose unresisting simplicity any common features or behaviours can be ascribed.
If race talk is your go-to categorisation, there are only two choices when dealing with some group disparity, such as much higher homicide rates: the up-hierarchy choice or the down-hierarchy choice.
In the case of African-Americans, the down-hierarchy choice says it is because they are black and there is something wrong with being black. Which is demonstrably false, as there is no difference between Euro-American and African-American male homicide rates in rural areas. (Nor are the dramatic shifts in homicide rates over time supportive of any such claim.)
The up-hierarchy choice says it is because it is how people react badly to them being black. Or “structures” do, whatever that means: structural racism and similar terms seem to be the go-to terms when one does not have any evidence of actual racism. Once again, either claim is demonstrably false.
The blinding prism of race
If one abandons race talk, because it is so analytically impoverishing, and instead analyses matters in terms of social dynamics, then racial stigmatisation gets its due place in creating the original circumstances and having aggravating effects over time but analysis, as we have seen, can then fit the evidence. Even better, such analysis provides a way forward. Race talk just traps people inside their skin tone, inside their melanin count, forever.
Of course, if performative outrage and piety display are the point, the dead-end nature of race talk is an advantage. It provides endless opportunities for performative outrage by ignoring changes (for good and ill) while seeking to freeze patterns of discourse and analysis.
Melanin count is not a moral category. Nor, unless one is talking about Vitamin D deficiencies, perhaps in the context of heightened risk of respiratory infection in cold climes, an analytical one. Even African-American is too broad a term, as the patterns of Caribbean-Americans, and of recent immigrants from Africa, are both very different from those of descendants of American slaves.
The prism of race obscures that complexity, to the point that the children of African immigrants, in no sense a disadvantaged group, nevertheless qualify, due to their “race”, for affirmative action based on a legacy of slavery and discrimination they do not share. The prism of race also greatly elevates disparities construed racially over other disparities between people of different ethnic origins that may well be comparable in scale but are rendered narratively invisible.
Structural or systemic impediments operating in (and against) various localities, sometimes obvious, sometimes more subtle, are a feature of the contemporary US, sometimes worsened by measures seeking to overcome such impediments. For instance, busing disrupted the connection between schools and their communities, while welfare and tax arrangements have sometimes penalised marriage.
An enormous deployment of funds and regulatory effort across decades, often deployed in a very race-conscious way, has failed to eliminate intense local patterns of disadvantage, albeit amidst a more general pattern of improvement—though including the notably successful recent African immigrants in the general rubric of “African-American” or “black” tends to exaggerate the degree of improvement for descendants of American slaves.
But race talk, except when it is a clumsy way of discussing ethno-cultural groups, is generally not about understanding, it is far more often about setting up moral hierarchies—including that particularly noxious form, racialised moral hierarchies.
The first civilisation to deploy colour-based race talk in systematic discourses of denigration was Islam. Islamic writers, especially in Andalusia and the Maghreb, engaged in “explanatory” denigration of entire groups based on skin colour. Here, for example, is Sa’id al-Andalusi in his 1068 work Tabaqāt al-’Umam (Categories of Nations):
The rest of this tabaqat, which showed no interest in science, resembles animals more than human beings. Those among them who live in the extreme north, between the last of the seven regions and the end of the populated world to the north, suffered from being too far from the sun; their air is cold and their skies are cloudy. As a result, their temperament is cool and their behaviour is rude. Consequently, their bodies become enormous, their colour turned white, and their hair drooped down. They have lost keenness of understanding and sharpness of perception. They were overcome by ignorance, and laziness, and infested by fatigue and stupidity. Such are the Slavonians, Bulgarians and neighbouring peoples.
It is amazing how stupid and lazy slave groups are so often reported to be. It is almost as if slavery discourages hard and diligent work.
This is classic denigration of a slave group because your universalist morality (they are children of Allah who should be converted to Islam) contradicts the convenience of continuing to enslave them en masse. When mass slavery later became part of their societies, Christian and Enlightenment writers responded to the same imperative in the same ways. Except, of course, they were enslaving people of African origin, not Europeans as well.
Racism did not cause slavery. Slavery, in the context of universalising morality, generated justificatory racism. Race talk, especially elite race talk, is a discourse of domination.
Sa’id also denigrates sub-Saharan Africans for the same reason of justifying mass slavery. He then has a problem, for South Asians have advanced mathematics and science but dark skins. He wants to make it clear that they are a different group:
The Indians, as known to all nations for many centuries, are the metal [essence] of wisdom, the source of fairness and objectivity. They are people of sublime pensiveness, universal apologues, and useful and rare inventions. In spite of the fact that their colour is in the first stage of blackness, which puts them in the same category as blacks, Allah in His glory, did not give them the low characteristics, the poor manners, the inferior principles associated with this group and ranked them above a large number of white and brown peoples.
It is possible that equality is unstable, that we are such a status-concerned and group-identifying species that we cannot help ourselves, we have to create moral hierarchies. If that is so, then we should at least attempt to create pro-social moral hierarchies rather than anti-social ones. Indeed, bravado culture is toxic to a significant degree precisely because it creates anti-social hierarchies.
The Democratic Party in particular has a long association with race talk. Originally, it was anti-black race talk, assuring “white” Americans that they will keep the “blacks” in their place. That has since morphed into anti-“bad”-white race talk, assuring minority Americans that Democrats will protect them against the nasty “white” people out to get them. Strangely, much of the worst areas of disadvantage are in urban jurisdictions that have been Democrat-dominated for decades.
Politically, race talk has obvious utility as a divide-and-dominate power strategy. And the politics of identity, especially racialised identity, full of sound and symbolism, permits considerable economising on policy effort, as mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein has pointed out. You do not have to fix any social problems. Indeed, it does not matter if you make them worse. You just have to engage in the performative politics of outrage over them. The elimination of grievance is, after all, hardly helpful to identity politics. Hence the need to continually generate grievances. (Microaggressions, anyone? Implicit bias, perhaps?) Nevertheless, in whatever form, race talk, seeking to trap people within their skin tone, is toxic to the health of the American polity. Especially as it turns out that the race talk of anti-racism is every bit an elite discourse of domination as were previous versions of race talk.
Demonising people due to their skin colour, or for being in the police, or both, cannot generate pro-social moral hierarchies. After all, racial stigmatisation (the only thing race talk is actually effective at, apart from misdirecting understanding), and not enough useful policing, as a direct result of racial stigmatisation, helped entrench violence in African-American urban communities in the first place.
Progressive opinion has become addicted to race talk, and its performative politics of sound and symbolism, with its ability to generate performative outrage and piety displays. The diversity-inclusion-equity faith system insists that we all share its addiction, seeking to punish any heretics who demur. So, now, we just wait for the bodies to fall.
Michael “Lorenzo” Warby is writing a book on marriage, to be published by Connor Court