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.
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.
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.