When American children are taught about the Civil Rights Era, the focus tends to be on laws like Jim Crow, people like Bull Connor and Martin Luther King Jr., and issues like equality and justice.
The thinking goes today, to simplify the reasoning on the right and among libertarians, that those times were long ago, the laws are gone, Bull Connor and his ilk are long dead, and we have fairness before the law and everything else is just a matter of applying oneself now.
But the changes from those times have, in fact, been gradual. There’s nothing to indicate, and certainly no defining moment, when racism ceased to be a problem for blacks and other minorities in America. Coming as far as the nation has in a relatively short amount of time is impressive, given the way racism was ingrained in the American culture, politics, and education. But part of that progress was due to the explicit societal and governmental acknowledgement that laws and society made life very unfair for a segment of the population. We’re getting to a point where that recognition is becoming less and less obvious, and the remnants of centuries of racism linger and continue to affect millions of Americans.
After all, if equality were simply a matter of codification, Jim Crow never would have happened. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments should have rectified the legal disparities that affected black Americans, but it took more than a century for Congress to pass legislation to say “No, we really mean it.”
But then, given the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence—that all men were created equal is a self-evident truth—why were those amendments necessary in the first place? Though the Declaration was never legally binding, its opening lines became the primary and guiding principle of the nation. What gives?
The answer is simple: American rhetoric and law has been hypocritical since its inception and nowhere has this been more evident than in legal protections and law enforcement for black people.
Black Americans have, for the entire history of this country, faced a legal system that treats them differently than white citizens. It’s gotten better, sure, but this enduring legal double standard demands closer examination.
Let’s start with why rights are important.
As we’ve seen over the years, property rights, even more than tax rates, are more important to the development of markets and growing economies. Simply, if a nation-state wants investment—of both capital and effort—people who make those investments must have a reasonable belief that a return on that investment is possible in a successful venture. A state with shaky property rights—whether expropriated by the state, such as Venezuela, or seized and distributed to the kleptocratic oligarchy, like Russia—is much less likely to draw foreign capital because property can be seized at the whim of the elites. Places where investments are protected by the rule of law, on the other hand, attract capital because investments are protected from state-sanctioned theft.
Civil rights are really no different.
If civil rights protections are widely denied, particularly to one group of people, because they are routinely ignored and capriciously violated by police officers, those rights lose all tangible meaning to that population. Mistreatment by authorities—whether official policies like Stop and Frisk, or tolerance of police brutality, corruption, or homicide—corrodes the integrity of a community. The government loses credibility by effectively nullifying its own authority by arbitrary enforcement of laws (government powers) and the protections for citizens (civil rights).
Cooperation with law enforcement must suffer as the trust required between a police department and its citizens is eroded by the rightly perceived unbalanced enforcement. Criminals become emboldened through weakened law enforcement capabilities, and the citizens become less safe. The community divests itself from the relationship with the police and societal norms become threatened.
In absence of civil rights protections—in tandem with the limited educational and economic opportunities among certain populations—the incentive to play by the rules of society naturally decreases. A person still has to survive, and absent decent job opportunities or avenues for self-improvement, illicit means for income become more attractive.
More troubling, aggressive policing can fuel more violence (e.g., in the drug trade) and mistrust of the police may result in outright antipathy, as neighborhoods come to view police as an occupying force. Police naturally redouble their efforts to quell the violence and, in so doing, may increase the mistreatment of citizens because the antipathy is mutual.
Such is the plight of many black neighborhoods in America today. What happened and continues to happen in Ferguson, Missouri is a breakdown of the social order. This is not caused by an ethereal and undefinable “black culture.” It’s a government-driven problem that manifests itself in a rightfully fed-up mass of people who know the protections of society don’t really apply to them and those they care about—young black men, specifically.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s was a multifaceted effort by a group of people that were sick of legal and extralegal mistreatment by its government and the white-dominated society from whence that government came. The symptoms of that mistreatment took many forms, and one of the most prominent was citizen abuse by law enforcement.
Today, we still have this same problem. Law enforcement is more aggressive across the board, but particularly in poor, minority communities. Black people make up a vastly disproportionate percentage of arrested, convicted, and incarcerated in the United States—the most carceral nation on the planet. The Drug War is the most effective tool to harass and incarcerate young black men, but the underlying problem—that black people are treated differently, and thus fundamentally unfairly—is as old as America itself.
This is not to excuse criminality. Individuals are ultimately responsible for their own behavior and should be held accountable for their actions, particularly those of violence.
However, a population subjected to regular abuse by police, with little hope of economic success or anything but the most modest personal achievement, will have predictable outcomes. The proposed remedies for what is broadly called “black uplift” so often involve working strictly from within the ‘black community,’ without taking into account the pressures and inputs forced upon many of these communities by aggressive policing and discarded civil rights.
A recent book along these lines and against liberal government intervention in black Americans’ lives is titled “Please Stop Helping Us.”
“Please Stop Killing and Abusing Us” would be a better start.
As it is virtually impossible to maintain stable growth in a developing economy without property rights, it is similarly difficult to maintain a flourishing community in absence of civil rights. Those rights must be secured by a police force that engages and respects the community it serves. For many communities, that requires explicitly recognizing and rectifying the rift between the police and its black inhabitants.
The law may be colorblind. But, in America, law enforcement never has been. It’s time that police come to terms with that.