Blog #75 – “Blaming an Un-named “System” for Police Shooting Blacks


This Blog #75 – “Blaming an Un-named “System” for Police Shooting Blacks Is A Cop-0ut,” argues responsibility rests in three areas: Individual perpetrators (the policeman, in the case of the killing of minorities ), the social institutions (police departments, the criminal justice system, and the underlying social, economic, and political system. All need to be named and addressed. They will not all be resolved at once, but transformative measures may begin to address them within the existing system
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In a recent The New York Times opinion piece ii, Professor Mullainathan, in “Police Killings of Blacks: What the Data Says” seems to be joining liberals, and even radicals. He argues that the data shows that, although African-Americans are only 13.2% of the population, they are 28.9% of those arrested by the police, and 31.8% of those shot by police. As possible explanations he points to the risks of living in “a high-poverty neighborhood,” the social institutions that “tie race to crime,” the economic policies that limited opportunities.” He concludes “removing police racial bias will have little effect on the killing rate,” presumably because of all these other factors.
“. . [After]… accounting for why some of these encounters [of police with blacks] turn into killings, [racial bias] is swamped by other, bigger problems that plague our society, our economy, and our criminal justice system.”
So far so good.
But he ends the piece with
“…there are also [my italics] structural problems underpinning these killings. We are all responsible for those. “
“We are all responsible.” What started out as a fairly radical move to enlarge the approach to the problem beyond the mere bias of individual policemen, ranging over a whole set of social institutions, and finally pointing to the bigger problems that plague our society, ends up with no idea about what is to be done, no conclusions about what it is that produces these plagues, no allocation of responsibility to any human agency. If we are all responsible, no one, no group, no interests, are responsible, no specific forces “plague our societies.” The system is not wrong; it is plagued by a disease. The disease is not named. The sub-headline for the piece summaries it as “finding some blame in persistent systemic issues.” The system is to blame. The system remains anonymous, incorporeal, inhuman, somehow natural, just there. It is not named or addressed. Blaming it is a cop-out.
The formulation “we are all responsible” is simply wrong. Some benefit from it; others suffer under it. It is man-made (less woman-made), defined by those with power, power which is very unevenly distributed. The 99% are not responsible for it, the 1% are. The formulation “blame in persistent systemic issues” is not a radical criticism of the system, but rather a cop-out,iii undercutting efforts to identify who is actually responsible, avoiding identifying the real changes that might address the roots of the problem the data identifies.
Going beyond the cop-out of blaming “the system,” three actions are needed: first, the actors that implement it need to be specified, second, the institutions that are the framework of their actions need to be confronted, and thirdly the system that underlies their actions needs to be named. Finally, of course, the purpose of all this is to formulate a viable political responses to change he present patterns.
We may look at the human agents responsible for these killing of blacks at three levels:
1) the individual perpetrator, the policeman firing the shots in our case;
2) the social institutions which directly produce, promote and constrain the individual perpetrator’s behavior, in our case the police departments, the criminal justice system, the schools, the housing, and
3) the underlying system, economic, social, political, cultural, which for present purposes I would name the racist/capitalist system (more on its definition below).
1. Firstly, as to the individual responsibility:
it is true that it is “too large a problem to pin on any specific individual officers.”iv But it is individual officers that do the shooting. They are at the flashpoint where the damage is done. Do they have the intent to kill blacks? Perhaps not. They are indeed constrained and subordinate to the system. Yet they have a certain amount of free will. But it is not a matter of an intent to kill blacks, but rather of the actual and predictable and known impact of they actually knowingly dov. In Fair Housing legislation, the law prohibits not only actions undertaken with the “intent to discriminate” but also actions “having a disparate impact” on members of the protected group. The standard for a police officer should be no lower than the standard for a planner or zoning administrator or developer. Certainly, the individual police officer is also subject to the social institutions and agencies– the courts, the legislatures, the schools, and the overall set of criminal justice policies, budget cuts, and social patterns. And is further moulded by the underlying system, with its inequalities, its insecurities and fears and perverse incentives. But holding the single individuals responsible for the direct result of their actions when they have in fact a realistic choice would surely be fair and a major help in avoiding those results. The courts are an appropriate institution to do the fact-finding and the balancing of individual choice against the social and constitution constraint required to deal with the specifics of individual situations, and if they are biased, the tools to deal with that bias are certainly known and in general available.
2. Secondly, as to the social institutions:
If, as Mullainathan and many others properly argue, more or better education is required, it should be provided, if the courts are not doing their jobs as they should, then the judicial system should be reformed; if police departments were reformed and trained, controlled, incentivized, not to shoot and kill, there would be less killing; if a gun culture is partly responsible, it should be addressed by appropriate legislation and civil society condemnation. Such reforms will certainly not be adopted without conflict. There are vested interests, both public and private, behind the institutions as they are, and serious reforms will meet serious opposition from powerful opponents. The distribution of power, rather than the search for justice, makes the fair resolution of these issues difficult. But these institutions have been made by human beings, and they can be changed by them.
While underlying systemic factors mould both the actions of specific actors and of specific institutions, placing some blame for their result properly points to the complexity of the problem, “blaming the system” is no reason not press for remedial actions and reforms, which could ameliorate even the most difficult of the issues involved .. They are not all structural systemic, and it is counter-productive to assume they are, or to think they cannot be significantly alleviated even with the existing underlying system.
3. But, thirdly, as to the underlying systemic issues
Systemic structural issues clearly are involved. There are some problems arising from the underlying system that cannot be solved by simple piece-meal reforms, problems such as inequality, poverty, exploitation, and oppression along class or racial or national or cultural lines, perhaps climate change and environmental degradation. The difficulties even of piece-meal reforms, reformist reforms, are immense as the conflicts about racial segregation reveal.vi
Even the Catholic Church, to the extent that Pope Francis today speaks for it, acknowledges that
If the system is to be properly blamed and then addressed, it must first be named and its key characteristics understood. Karl Marx had a comprehensive analysis, and would simply call the system capitalism. In today’s discussion, movements such as Occupyvii and Pope Francis have somewhat similar approaches:
“While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.viii.”
“When money, instead of man, is at the center of the system, when money becomes an idol, men and women are reduced to simple instruments of a social and economic system.”ix
“[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system.”x
The issues raised here, and underlying the Occupy movements 1%/99% cry, are truly systemic: the level of inequality, the ideology of the free marketplace, the limits on the power of democracy over the state, the role of economic power, the lack of inclusiveness among peoples and groups, are deeply embedded in the system, whichever name is used for it. It is not any old “system” that has the characterisitics of ours today, and should be blamed, but a very specific one that is responsible..
It might take an old-fashioned revolution really to get at the roots of these problems, to do it comprehensively, for they are all interlocked, as the current discussion of intersectionality stresses.
And a revolution is perhaps a theoretical possibility in this period. The new left of the 60’s certainly thought it was fifty years agoxi; the Black Panthers saw themselves as “Vanguards of the Revolution”. Many social activists and their theoretical supporters, from anarchists to Marxists, believed that the seeds of profound change were here then, and their reasoning might well apply today. Today’s systemic economic crisis would provide some grounds for such an expectation. But a revolution does not seem exactly in the cards right now; indeed, one from the right seems much more likely than one from the left, in many places in the world.
The reason revolution is not likely deserves extensive examination, much more than there is room for here xii Those with a vested interest in the present underlying system are powerful, and have convinced many, probably the majority, that they benefit from lt also. The system seems to be producing the goods, as Herbert Marcuse formulated it. But it does not follow that, because we can’t have a revolution right now, nothing can be done to change things as they are, and perhaps even move today to a point in time where the radical changes implied by a revolution could indeed be brought about.
Nor does it help to say: “We are all responsible” for these system-based ills that we are all to blame for them. “We”xiii are not all to blame, at least not in anything like equal measure, and ignoring that fact is both wrong and counter –productive in dealing with the issues. There are specific interests , specific groups, perhaps classes, perhaps the 1% or the .1%, that stand behind the institutions needing change that block that change, block reform. Ignoring their identity undercuts the process of dealing with those who are in fact responsible and to blame for the problem: Their identities are not obscure: the anti—regulators, the low-wage employers in manufacturing and services, the real estate ghetto builders and maintainers, the politicians still seeing advantage in their bigotry, hedge funds and financial speculators. Yes, “we” certainly need to act to change the system, but to get there we need to hold accountable those that are in fact responsible for it’s being the way it is. Much can be reformed within the existing underlying system, even if it is not easy to do and inevitably will be controversial
4. Formulating Responses: Transformative Goals.
But the system is not God-given, nor a natural beast, but one of a number of alternate systems, which may have their own pros and cons, be variably achievable and sustainable, but can be actively pursued here and now by those ill served by the present system. It may take a revolution to achieve the major changes necessary to go to one or another of the alternatives, but it can be done. Legislatures are likely to be the sites of many of these
battles, and the normal mechanisms of liberal democracy, including particularly the electoral procedures, which would need to be used strategically to the fullest extent possible.
“Transformative” is a useful term for the kinds of demands and approaches that bridge the need to deal with all three levels of responsibility outlined above.xiv Two complementary avenues might be envisioned: one pursuing loaded reforms, the other exemplary reforms.
Loaded reforms address directly individual perpetrators and social institutions but stressing their connection with the underlying causes and pointing in the direction of change, pointing out causes, exposing, not only what is happening but why it is happening, who the actors are for and against, what the lines of struggle ultimately are, just who the 1% are, what power they hold and how they benefit from the system, who the 99% are and how they suffer from it. Their hallmarks are seeking the immediately feasible within the system but naming the obstacles to real success: the remaining inequalities and the long-orange systemic alternatives that are ultimately needed for real success.
Such reforms are loaded in the sense that they acknowledge their own limitation, at the same time pointing to the further changes that would be required for substantial structural change. In the shootings of African-Americans by police, reforms in the training of police, in the punishment of offenders, in the availability of guns, etc; but reforms acknowledging that poverty, frustration, misunderstood but real grievances, a search for security as well as safety in the system as a whole, are causes of the police actions and the judicial systems responses that also need to be addressed.
Exemplary reforms bring into existence relationships among individuals and groups , patterns of organization and doing business, rules of behaviour, that pre-figure within the existing system possibilities that can only be fully developed beyond it, but can have real if limited impact within it. Projects such as worker-owned cooperatives, community land trusts, radical educational offerings, participatory budgeting, will not produce structural change by themselves, but will show that real alternatives are available to existing structures and behaviours.
Again, in the police treatment of minorities, projects such as community control of the piece, Planned diversity in housing, full citizenship rights for all residents, are examples that can support movements for more wide-spread and deeper extensions of such approaches.
Blaming “the system,” without naming it, without going beyond addressing individual ills as isolated unrelated problems, will not do. It will not go far to address underlying social issues. Seeing who is responsible for social ills, who benefits from their existence, what institutions need change, are all necessary, and beyond that, pressing for solutions that are transformative, policies that are loaded progressively and exemplary in reality, are needed.

—references

ii October 18, 2015, The Upshot, p. B6
iii I only realized the pun after I used the term: it lets the cop out of responsibility…
iv Mullainathan, supra.
v A paraphrase of the general sense of what creates liability in civil law, on a continuum with culpability in criminal law. For a concise discussion, see Paul H. Robison, Mens Rea, at https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0ahUKEwjmuZCs1L7JAhVKcT4KHfEpB0gQFggvMAI&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.law.upenn.edu%2Ffac%2Fphrobins%2Fmensreaentry.pdf&usg=AFQjCNFnYj1gAqCw_JFTrIBZBVXDr4MtVQ&cad=rjt
vi See blog #70 – The Causes of Discrimination. And they are global in scope, on segregation alone see most recently https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/02/how-the-rise-of-american-style-segregation-is-feeding-division-in-europe/
vii See Blogs #1-10, supra
viii https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/may/documents/papa-francesco_20130516_nuovi-ambasciatori.html
ix https://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/pope-francis-catechism-for-economics/
x http://fortune.com/2015/09/14/pope-francis-capitalism-inequality/. And quotes collected at http://gawker.com/here-are-11-top-screw-capitalism-lines-in-pope-franci-1471888334
xi See Herbert Marcuse, Essay on Liberation, and Peter-Erwin Jansen and Charles Reitz, eds. 2015, Herbert Marcuse’s 1974 Lectures at Vincennes University.
xii See also, even more briefly, Blog #74 – On the Relevance of Herbert Marcuse
xiii See Blog #35 – Watch your Language, Krugman, and the Rest of Us, and Blog #37 – Lopsided Language.
xiv See Blog #30: Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas, at pmarcuise.wordpress.cm.

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