What Makes Police Reform Racial Justice?

The punditry consensus appears to be that proposals aimed at cutting down on police violence definitely fall under the racial justice umbrella but proposals aimed at cutting down on poverty do not. I’ve eagerly consumed these kinds of arguments for the last six months, but I still cannot figure out why anyone thinks they make sense.

Race Neutrality
One argument against categorizing poverty reduction as racial justice is that poverty reduction is a race-neutral policy that merely indirectly helps people of color. It’s not targeted at uplifting people of color even if it happens to have that effect.

The problem with this argument is that it equally applies to police reform stuff. When you look at police reform platforms (such as Campaign Zero), you don’t see any race-specific stuff except possibly platform planks pertaining to altering the racial composition of police officers. Other than that, it’s just a big slate of race-neutral proposals that merely indirectly helps people of color. Body cameras will help all police victims, not just people of color. Demilitarization will help all police victims, not just people of color. And so on.

If race neutrality disqualifies something as racial justice, then both poverty reduction and police reform are disqualified.

Another argument that shows up in this debate concerns disproportionality. The fact that police violence disproportionately affects people of color is held out as evidence that police violence is a racial justice issue. But, of course, under this logic so too is poverty.

According to the Washington Post police shooting database, last year 514 White people were shot by police and 264 Black people were shot by police. Thus, for every Black person shot by police, 1.95 White people were shot by police.

This ratio exactly matches the official poverty figures. In the last year, 19.652 million White people were in poverty and 10.058 million Black people were in poverty. Thus, for every Black person in poverty, 1.95 White people were in poverty.

Of course, the 1.95 ratio is based on raw levels of poverty and police killings. When you adjust for differences in overall population sizes, you find that there are 2.6 Black people killed by police for every White person killed by police. The same is true for poverty: 2.6 Black people for every White person.

However you want to represent it, the underlying point remains the same: the disproportionality is present in both. If disproportionality is enough to make something a racial justice issue, then both poverty and police reform are racial justice issues. If it’s not, then neither are.

Other Stuff
The equivalence between poverty reduction and police reform expands to basically everything I’ve read on the two topics. Is police violence and the criminal justice system racialized? Absolutely. So is poverty. Is there a reluctance to fix glaring criminal injustices because of the racial composition of those involved? Absolutely. So too with poverty. I could go on and on.

The reason I bring this up is not to stir debate about which of the two issues is more important. Rather, it’s because I am completely bemused by the degree to which uplifting the bottom of the economic hierarchy has been shafted as some kind of aloof All Lives Matter thing, without any coherent justification.

The police reform movement thus far has put together race-neutral policies that would help all victims of police violence, which is disproportionately people of color. Likewise, poverty reduction involves race-neutral policies that would help all victims of poverty, which is disproportionately people of color. There is no difference in the basic form of these two policy agendas. Yet one is somehow the true substance of racial justice while the other is cast as almost offensively ignorant of true racial justice.


Race and Class Part 2

In my last post, I broke down five social indicators — poverty, health coverage, employment, incarceration, and life expectancy — by race and class (using educational attainment to stand in for class). The point was to show that, while the disparities across classes are the biggest, there remains significant racial disparities within classes. This suggests race and class both operate in society as drags on well-being.

Multiple commenters have correctly pointed out that the analysis does not make note of the fact that there is a racial disparity in how people are concentrated in each class. A full account of the racial and class effects needs to include that fact as well. I avoided the concentration point in the prior post because this point is normally the one used to suggest that racial disparity is just about class disparity. I wanted to show that racial disparity remains even after you’ve essentially controlled out the racial disparity in who winds up in what class.

Nonetheless, it’s easy enough to present figures that take into account this concentration effect as well. Below, what I do is compare for each indicator:

  1. The overall black:white disparity. This will reflect both 1) the within-class racial disparity and 2) the racial disparity in class concentration.
  2. The black-low:black-high disparity. This is the disparity between black less-than-high-school (low) and black college-educated (high).
  3. The white-low:white-high disparity. Same as (2), but for whites.
  4. The white-low:black-high disparity. This is the disparity between white less-than-high-school and black college-educated.

1. Poverty
Here is poverty broken down this way.

The first bar says that blacks are, overall, 2.3x as likely as whites to be in poverty. The second bar says blacks in the “lower class” are 10.1x as likely as blacks in the “upper class” to be in poverty. The third bar says whites in the “lower class” are 8.7x as likely as whites in the “upper class” to be in poverty. The fourth bar says whites in the “lower class” are 6.3x as likely as blacks in the “upper class” to be in poverty.

Where the two bars in the middle are higher than the bar on the left, as in this case, that suggests the class effects are bigger than the combined effects of 1) racial disparity within classes and 2) racial disparity in the who winds up in each class. The bar on the right is just kind of interesting to consider.

2. Health Insurance
Here are the same figures for health insurance.

3. Employment
Here are the same figures for employment. Because a higher employment rate is the better outcome in this indicator (unlike the above rates), I have done 1/ratio in order to make the bars visually comparable with the above.

4. Incarceration
Same figures but for incarceration.

So, as you can see, bringing in descriptive stats that reflect the class concentration disparity between races just confirms the basic story in the prior post. In all cases, the within-race class disparity dwarfs the overall racial disparity. Nonetheless, for the reasons explained in the prior post, it would be wrong to say, as some do, that class is the only thing going on here. It does not explain within-class racial disparity and does not explain racial disparity in class concentration, both of which are very significant disparities.

Class and Race

There was a time a great while ago where leftists struggled over the question of whether race or class is the motive force of oppression and suffering in society. These days, with the intervention of intersectionality and considerable progress in sociology, this question has largely been answered by discarding its faulty premise. It needn’t be the case that only one is the force of oppression and, in fact, what you find empirically is that race and class operate separately and together to immiserate large swaths of people in society.

To see this, consider the following social indicators broken down by race and educational attainment, the latter being a common way to identify socioeconomic status or class.

1. Poverty

Using the 2013 ASEC, I produced the following poverty figures.

2. Health Insurance

Using the 2013 ASEC, I produced the following figures for the percentage of people lacking health insurance.

3. Employment

Using the January 2014 through December 2014 CPS files, I produced the following figures for the average percentage of people who were employed that year in a given month.

4. Incarceration

From an analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth discussed in Western & Pettit (2010), here are figures for the incarceration risk of young men.

5. Life Expectancy

From the Appendix of Olshansky (2013), here are figures for the life expectancy of men.

Here are the same figures for the life expectancy of women.


These indicators, and others not featured here, all follow the same basic pattern. Socioeconomic status or “class” (as proxied here with educational attainment) exerts the largest force in determining whether one will be hit with poverty, joblessness, lack of health insurance, incarceration, and a premature death. But, at the same time, class does not explain everything, as very significant racial disparities exist even within socioeconomic groups.

Actually, Breaking Windows Is Good

I wrote a piece in Gawker titled “Actually, Riots are Good: The Economic Case for Riots in Ferguson.” The piece is serious in many ways, but also trollish in a way that is obvious to a certain internet circle, but not others. What has surprised me is how underwhelming the criticisms of the piece has been.

Broken Windows
Outside of the usual one-line criticism about it being “dumb” or “absurd,” the main substantive criticism has been that the piece commits the Broken Window Fallacy (BWF). I have received no fewer than 100 tweets to that effect. It occurs to me now that the Broken Window Fallacy is one of those things dumb people who are sort of smart but not really gravitate towards.

Interestingly, the BWF is not actually a fallacy. Breaking windows can increase production and employment levels when there is excess capacity in the economy due to cyclical events. The little Bastiat fable of the BWF elides this fact because it has assumed in the background an economy operating at capacity. Now maybe you believe the economy will always operate at capacity because of some version of Say’s Law, but in that case the BWF should really be renamed the Fallacy of Believing Recessions Can Happen.

You can see how BWF is such a sweet spot for the sort of smart but not really bunch. Those smart enough to understand that people employed fixing windows can be employed somewhere else, but not smart enough to conceptualize how things change in an economy operating with slack are squarely in the zone of people who think the BWF is deeply profound.

More interestingly, my piece has nothing to do with the BWF. Literally nothing. The economic argument in the piece is not premised upon how many jobs will be created cleaning up and repairing Ferguson AutoZones. It is premised upon the deterrent effect the riots might have on other wealth destruction, namely the wealth destruction of killing human beings. I completely avoid all Broken Windows reasoning, but the half-wits who find that non-fallacy profound were unable to detect that. This is, I guess, to be expected if you buy into my theory that the BWF is natural home of the sort-of-smart-but-not-really crowd.

Crony Capitalism Isn’t Real
The other substantive argument I’ve frequently seen is well presented in this Robby Soave post at Reason.

The piece is desperate right from the start because it’s titled “LOL, Gawker Claims Ferguson Riots Good for Society, Economy, Something” as if I haven’t made a clear argument. This kind of title would make sense if I had made a kind of vague, emotive gesture about why the riots are good. But in fact, my argument for why they are good is brutally clear. I add up the dollar cost of Ferguson damage and the dollar cost of lives, incarceration, and oppression the riots might deter in the future, and then speculate that the latter is greater than the former. It’s as clear as a spreadsheet and has nothing to do with “society” or “something.” It’s literally just adding up figures.

Anyways, the piece believes it found the flaw in my argument:

So what’s the big problem with his argument? For starters, it assumes that riots “impose costs on state authorities.” But the police aren’t the ones getting their shit destroyed; innocent, random store owners are. So that cost is imposed in an extremely indirect manner, if at all.

This argument, which is not just coming from this guy, says that the riots will not deter police across the country because the costs of the riots are not felt by the police. But I deal with this directly in my Gawker piece:

Since state authorities are always and everywhere most concerned about capital and business interests, threatening to impose costs on them via rioting should have a similar impact on police incentives.

The point here is actually the same one that Reason makes when it says we have “crony capitalism.” Under “crony capitalism” (more commonly referred to as “capitalism”), the state acts as an agent for business interests. The state does not directly feel the costs of business, but since business is the state’s principal, the state does its bidding, which includes helping businesses avoid costs. You can believe crony capitalism exists or doesn’t exist (or, in the case of Reason, believe it exists when it flatters your politics and disbelieve it exists when it doesn’t), but my argument clearly has accounted for this apparent “problem.”

As I said at the top, I have been surprised by how weak these responses have been. I could make much better arguments against me than I have seen anyone else make yet.

Last Place Avoidance and Poor White Racism

In a review on The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

Perhaps more importantly, I am less than convinced by Alexander’s rendition of white supremacy as a means of cleaving poor whites away from blacks. My view on this is that white supremacy is an interest in and of itself. It’s not clear to me where the politics ends and the bribe begins. I generally think that the left tells itself this story in order to evade the political complications of dealing with white supremacy as a sensible, if deeply immoral, choice, as opposed to a con played on gullible white people.

Coates disagrees with the common line that poor whites who act politically upon racist impulses do so against their own interests. His point is that they have an interest in maintaining a white supremacist order, presumably because it privileges them in certain ways that a different order would not.

This is a tired debate to say the least, but it’s also not really a debate in the sense of people clashing over the same topic. Because each side of the debate is using a different definition of the word “interest,” they mostly talk by each other.

If you define the “interests” of poor whites purely in economic terms such that they align with poor blacks, then you are going to determine that anti-black attitudes and political activities go against the interests of poor whites. If you define the “interests” of poor whites more broadly so as to include reasonable concerns regarding social rank and regard, then you are going to determine that anti-black attitudes and political activities don’t go against the interests of the poor whites.

So the claim that “many poor whites act against their own interests” is true or false depending on what is meant by the word “interests.” Since words have many meanings, none more legitimate than the other, there is no deep down way of saying the phrase is true or false. You just need to be clear on what sense of the word “interests” a given speaker intends.

With regards to the broader sense of “interests,” it’s hard to disagree with Coates’ point here. Of course poor whites have an interest in maintaining structures that keep down blacks. Presently, poor whites are in the lowest economic class alongside poor blacks, but they aren’t in the lowest social caste. In a society with white supremacist structures, poor whites avoid being in last place. They aren’t up with the rich whites, many of whom regard poor whites as inferior trash. But they aren’t all the way down with the poor blacks. They occupy a social rank that is near the bottom, but not at it.

If you blow up the racial caste component of social ranking such that only economic class remains, poor blacks would rise to the level of poor whites, creating a new last place where both poor blacks and poor whites reside. But people are last place averse, meaning they really don’t like to be at the bottom of anything. Those who are near the bottom, but not at it, are especially prone to oppose things which might help those at the very bottom rise to their level:

In our surveys, we asked Americans whether they supported an increase to the minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour. Those making $7.25 or below were very likely to support the increase – after all, they would be immediate beneficiaries. In addition, people making substantially more than $7.25 were also fairly positive towards the increase. Which group was the most opposed? Those making just above the minimum wage, between $7.26 and $8.25. We might expect people who make just below and just above $7.25 to have similar lifestyles and policy attitudes – but in this case, while those making below $7.25 would benefit if the minimum wage were raised to, say, $8.25, those making just above $7.25 would run the risk of falling into a tie for last place.

We’ve also found evidence of last place aversion in laboratory experiments. In one, we created an artificial income distribution by endowing individuals with different sums of money and showing them their “rank”– with each rank separated by $1. We then gave them an additional $2, which they had to give to either the person directly below or directly above them in the distribution. In this income distribution, of course, giving $2 to the person below you means he will jump ahead of you in rank. In our experiments, most people still give to the person below them – after all, the alternative is to give $2 to a person who already has more money than you. People in second-to-last place, however, who would fall to last place when giving the money to the person below them, are the least likely to do so: so strong is their desire to avoid last place that they choose to give the money to a wealthier person (the person above them) nearly half the time.

People care about (i.e. have an “interest” in) where they shake out in the hierarchy of society. Poor whites don’t want to be in last place, and pro-white social structures ensure that they aren’t.