A letter to a longtime (white) friend in the labor movement about race and policing

December 2, 2014

Dear _____,

Thank you for responding so thoughtfully to the MLK speech I asked you to read. I really didn’t mean to be patronizing in assigning you “homework,” but in what follows I will suggest other things to read by way of evidence for my claims. Here we go:

1. Ferguson is about race. And class. In the United States, these categories have substituted for one another in way that perpetuates racism against what is labeled a criminal, degenerate “underclass.” Of course many, many thousands of white people are poor. Obviously most of us protesting against police use of deadly force would stand up for them as well. Many people around me now can be found both at anti-police-brutality protests and living wage for Wal-mart workers protests. The ruling class divides us on the basis of race, perpetuates a set of racist ideas to that end, and effectively shuts down class struggle as well. You know, of course, the importance of inter-racial (and inter-gender etc.) solidarity on any picket line. We have to stand up to racism both in conjunction with other struggles and separately. When it comes to the police, race is the dominant feature of differential treatment.

The Grand Jury was mishandled grievously, and we cannot take its judgement as credible. Even conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia thinks so.  See also this, and this.

2. There is a racism problem in policing in the United States. Every 28 hours, a black man in the United States is shot by a cop. PolitiFact has verified this claim: Here is more evidence supporting the claim that there is a profound racial disparity in extrajudicial killings by police. And more.

3. This racism problem corresponds to broader manifestations and consequences of racism. We cannot blame those consequences on failures of democratic engagement or personal responsibility because they are historical and systemic and have conditioned the possibilities of life for every Black person alive today. The gap between the top 1% of the population and the rest of us is at historic highs. But there is an enormous wealth gap that can be attributed to race. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of Blacks.

Black unemployment has always been at least 2/3 higher than that of whites. To attribute this difference to failures in personal responsibility does not begin to explain the systematic, permanent discrimination against Black people, not only poor ones, but upwardly mobile ones as well. Stories about Black executives being mistaken for “the help” abound. A recent study gave employers reviewing employment applications identical sets of resumes, but with one set featuring “Black” names like Jamal. The gap in callbacks is notable.

In addition to and because of gaps in wealth and employment, Black Americans and other minority groups suffer disproportionately from inferior schools, housing, health care, and other resources. Black men are grossly disproportionately incarcerated for the same crimes. The “war on drugs” has been a disaster for the country, but especially so for Black men.  According to the Sentencing Project, racial perceptions of crime have distorted the criminal justice system.

This radical difference cannot be attributed to higher crime rates among Blacks. Sentencing rates for the same crime show how the war on drugs disproportionately penalizes the Black and poor.

Incarceration Rate by Gender and Race

The turn to making a living via the secondary, illicit economy makes sense in this context. And you know that compared to the Fortune 500 and the bankers, any theft or “looting” undertaken by the poor pales incomparison.


4. Riots, like other forms of disruption (Boston Tea Party, anyone?), including strikes and other labor actions, have historically been effective at prompting change. While engaging in local destruction, they can focus mass public attention on social problems when more measured responses have not. Such a conversation has exploded since the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Wilson.

Moreover, most protests around this issue and others do not generally take the form of riots. When riots do occur, much of the time it is the police who instigate them, according to a University of California study. In 1968, the year after riots swept US cities in response to disenfranchisement and poverty, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act Into Law. His action was a response to the riots and to a report about them, which LBJ commissioned, by the Kerner Commission. The Kerner Commission report concluded (unhappily for LBJ) that Black and white Americans lived in two separate societies, one marked by despair and disadvantage. Its analysis of the riots concluded two things: that they were motivated by legitimate anger and despair, and that they were largely sparked by acts of police violence. This is a federal commission report, not a radical treatise.

5. Even when not correlated with positive change, riots in response to racist policing should not be understood simply as acts of destructive lawlessness. This was the point of King’s speech. I was not comparing Mike Brown to MLK. MLK was simply noting the rationality that lies behind riots as expressions of the oppressed. He understood why people would riot and did not judge riots moralistically, even though he did not advocate riots as a tactic. (He did, however, embrace unlawful civil disobedience.) He stated, ““I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Here’s a position of small business owners in Ferguson that you don’t see in the mass media: A group of them “closed for struggle” in solidarity with the rioters.

6. One need not have been an “angel” in order to deserve to go on living, or to be an example of a deadly racist practice. Activists of all races should stand in solidarity with communities oppressed in all of the ways described above. Mike Brown was no angel. But last I checked, shoplifting and shoving are not capital offenses. And his death was not the sole catalyst for anger. We have not built a movement only around Michael Brown. We have built it also around Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Larry Jackson, Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, and many, many others who have died as a result of what I hope I have proven here to be a racist police practice.

In the month since Brown’s death, there have been at least 13 more such killings of unarmed Black men by police.

According to Pro-Publica, “The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.

“One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica’s analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring – 185, more than one per week.”

Traffic stop data reveal a similarly profound racial disparity.

7. We have to understand riot shaming and the other arguments (for example, “he was no angel,” “he was monstrous and scary,” “other racial groups have made it successfully”) used to discredit Ferguson activists and the claims about race and policing as ideological diversions from the fundamental racism that divides US society with tragic, deadly consequences for people of color, especially young men.

See this piece that I wrote last year on the “no angel” theme: .
See this on the racism behind the “monster” characterizations.  on the racism behind the “monster” theme.
See this on the myth of the model minority.

8. We must see the patterns in policing and incarceration as systematically connected to generalized oppression. We must see that going along with the logic of racial divide and conquer, which depends on the image of Black people as criminals, is damaging to the working class as a whole.

I recommend Nicholas Kristoff’s series in the New York Times about how white people “don’t get it.” Perhaps it will make more sense to you than I, being a radical, can.

Our friendship is deeply important to me. As a loving and principled person committed to social justice, please consider my arguments and evidence on this issue, which, like the battle for labor rights and welfare, has only two sides.

Love and solidarity,

2 thoughts on “A letter to a longtime (white) friend in the labor movement about race and policing”

  1. The Blind Black man couldn’t get a job and didn’t know why so he read your article and said That’s it.. I quit. Your opinion has resulted in so many people living this as a reality. Pity has no place in a free and open society. You are creating the opposite of what you say we want.


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