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.