If I were Hillary Clinton I would have begged the Secret Service just to get a little lazy one day, and allow Black Lives Matter to take over a speaking engagement. How hard can it be to look solemn and concerned while uninvited guests pontificate? Let them say their bit, and then thank them for sharing what’s in their hearts. Make some vague reference to forming a committee. Be sure not to say anything about valuing all lives, because that just makes you a total jerk-wad.
Off-script isn’t Hillary’s style, as we all know. But she couldn’t put off Black Lives Matter forever, so she offered to have a heart-to-heart with a select group of activists. Now the whole nation gets to watch as she wrangles with activists Julius Jones and Daunasia Yancey over the question: does anybody here have an idea what to do about, you know, anything?
Black Lives Matter is admittedly a little agenda-lite. Though their website does have a list of demands, keeping it updated obviously hasn’t been a priority. (Good news, though! You won’t have to scroll to read them all.) It’s unsurprising that the conversation with Hillary largely foundered over the issue of whether it’s wrong for a white woman to advise black activists to explain what, on a level of policy, they actually want.
I too am a white woman, but I’m going to go a bit further than Clinton. I’ve drawn up a practical agenda for Black Lives Matter, which would be beneficial to impoverished minorities nationwide. My advice? Pack it in.
Black Lives Matter Is A Blunt Instrument
There are real problems with our justice system, but Black Lives Matter isn’t going to fix them. It’s a blunt instrument, where precision tools are needed. It specializes in making an impact by flinging selected incidents into the public eye. But that strategy is of limited value in addressing the real problems of black Americans; indeed, it is far more likely to do harm. A prudent policy initiative is unlikely to take root in the shadow of Black Lives Matter’s surging indignation. (Note how many times Jones and Clinton fret over how everyone in the conversation is “feeling”.) Blunt force trauma can be an effective tool for stopping a zombie, but if you’re attempting open heart surgery, a meat mallet isn’t what you need.
Angry people are hard to placate, and in this case, the anger is understandable. In American cities today, blacks are disproportionately incarcerated and shot by the police. They are also disproportionately criminal. And they are disproportionately victimized by criminals. It’s actually somewhat remarkable that the same demographic could be on the unhappy end of law enforcement in almost every possible way.
If you look at the problem from that angle, and maybe squint just a little, you can almost see how it would make sense to suppose that our justice system is actually designed as a mechanism for keeping the black man down. After all, if the purpose of all this punishing “justice” were to secure public safety, wouldn’t you expect urban neighborhoods to be safe? Instead they are awash in drugs and crime. And didn’t we just “go to war with” and “get tough on” those things?
It’s puzzling. I don’t blame Black Lives Matter for being suspicious when politicians pledge their goodwill.
Want Less Violent Death? Hire More Police.
Black Lives Matters regularly reminds us that young, black men are being gunned down in in the streets. This is true. But most of the time, it’s not a policeman who pulls the trigger. Homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American males aged 15-34.
Black Lives Matter has responded to the situation by calling for “a decrease in law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal levels.” That would make sense if the police were actually an instrument of class oppression, but in the real world, it will mean more violent death.
This doesn’t need to degenerate into a kindergarten-level blame game. Of course, young men should not kill each other, but the fact that they do reflects badly on many people, and also on the system as a whole. America has something of a grim “tradition” of winking at black homicide, extending back to post-Reconstruction South when (as William Stuntz documents in his authoritative book on criminal justice) blacks who killed other blacks were rarely prosecuted or even pursued by the justice system. Similar cultural attitudes prevailed when Southern blacks started migrating in large numbers to the major cities. So long as black violence remained a localized phenomenon, elite whites weren’t greatly bothered about it. White privilege, of the most offensive kind, has indeed contributed to the creation a toxic, violence-riddled urban culture.
Poor blacks have paid the price for this indifference, as Jill Leovy illustrates in her gripping book, Ghettoside. In the absence of real law enforcement, Leovy argues, a reckless kind of honor culture tends to spring up, and young men embrace violence as a substitute for true order. This can easily spawn a vicious cycle; residents increasingly see the police as ineffectual, so their willingness to cooperate goes down. Few detectives will persist in the face of so many obstacles, and the incentives to do so are minimal. No one cares about the young, anonymous victims of “gang violence”. No one, that is, except the countless poor families that have been devastated by the scourge of urban homicide.
How Much Do Black Lives Matter, Again?
When police forces are large, both crime and incarceration rates drop. This is a reasonably consistent statistical trend across multiple decades and regions. If we want to atone for past mistakes, and affirm the value of black life, we should spurn the advice of Black Lives Matter and hire more policemen.
Of course it is also important to structure the police force properly, giving support to good detectives and ensuring that cops use their time appropriately. When the Justice Department investigated the Ferguson PD, they found substantial evidence of bureaucratic pressure to generate revenue through tickets and citations. Viewed through the lens of Ferguson’s ransacked streets, it seems obvious that these priorities were tragically misplaced. Yes, we want people to respect the law. But if policemen in poor neighborhoods aren’t clearing murders, and are issuing scores of tickets and fines, is it any wonder the residents become antagonistic?
There are some racist cops in America, and sometimes they abuse their power. Black Lives Matter specializes in drawing the public’s attention to this phenomenon. (Of course it’s telling that they made their name on a case in which the evidence didn’t support their narrative. Do activists appreciate the irony of using frenzied media-mobs to persecute individuals before the facts have been gathered?) But before we bury the police under piles of restrictions, we should consider. What kinds of people are likely to end up on the force if it becomes a miserable, hyper-regulated job that nobody respects? By contrast, what sort of people do we need if we want to see crimes solved? Good detectives need to be smart, dedicated and tough. Black Lives Matter is hardly giving the police force the kind of profile it would need to attract that talent.
Before packing up, perhaps Black Lives Matter should consider apologizing to Darren Wilson for unjustifiably ruining his life. One way to value black life would be by assuring good cops that America has their backs, as they protect the people who are most at risk.
Wanted: A Justice System That Pursues Justice
After crime, there is punishment. Mass incarceration has become the other major issue on the agenda of Black Lives Matter. Why are so many black men incarcerated? What can we do to get them back home with their families?
One thing we could do, of course, is just open the gates and let the captives free. If indeed (following the logic of the “New Jim Crow”) our penal system exists primarily for purposes of racially-based class oppression, that is exactly what we should do. Realistically, though, most people are in prison for a reason. Even if that reason doesn’t always justify incarceration, it would be foolhardy in the extreme to start freeing inmates en masse.
What young men need is fathers, and that problem predates the surge in black incarceration. Looking at the system itself, though, what is really needed is stability. A system of law and order ought to leave the public with a sense of order. Ours is too moody, which is partly why people don’t trust it.
As Stuntz shows, our justice system suffers from a kind of bipolar disorder. Looking over the last century we can see that it has at times been too lenient, while at other times it is too harsh. How much time you serve for dealing drugs or offing your housemate will vary widely, depending on the year in which your malfeasance occurs. And, to be sure, other should-be-irrelevant factors may also come into play. Race can be one. Age, income, sex and education level might also make a difference in how you fare, once you find yourself in the belly of the legal beast. For instance, it’s a bad idea to get yourself arrested if you happen to be too poor to afford bail and a defense attorney. The dispossessed have a hard time navigating the ins and outs of our technocratic legal machine.
Clearly, these are not good justifications for denying people careful attention in bureaucratic decisions that will change the course of their whole lives. But mistakes happen, and one reason they do is because the court system is so overloaded. Neither public defenders nor district attorneys can afford to linger too long over a particular case. No doubt this will come as an absolute shock to Federalist readers, but overworked bureaucrats don’t always display perfect prudence and unimpeachable integrity.
Quite often, the system is “efficient” in exactly the place it should not be: pressuring poorly-represented detainees into accepting plea bargains without a thorough investigation of the facts. Stuntz also notes that while policing and courts are generally funded locally, the state picks up the tab for incarceration. Our prison system may be hugely burdensome for taxpayers, but for a local bureaucrat, there’s a fiendish logic to pressing for quick, lightly-investigated convictions.
These are all significant problems, and the list continues. Our penal system could do more to reduce recidivism and help people go straight. Better addiction treatment programs, combined with smarter sentencing, might enable more convicts to pull their lives together and become productive citizens. Some states are already working on this, with encouraging results. Saving money on incarceration might enable us to improve our policing and our courts.
Beat Your Sledge-Hammers Into Scalpels
It’s understandable that poor blacks are frustrated with our justice system. To make things better, however, we have to be realistic about the actual problems. The system needs surgery, not a full frontal assault. Nothing will be fixed with a sledge-hammer like Black Lives Matter.
If politicians are pressured into making some grand, sweeping gestures in the name of racial justice, it’s quite unlikely that we will end up with a system focused on criminal justice. That of course is what our nation actually needs, especially for the sake of impoverished minorities, who suffer the most from widespread lawlessness.
Lady Justice is meant to be blind. Black Lives Matter would have us fix her by donning black-tinted glasses. Does that sound like an effective strategy?