Over the course of the past week, the discourse around police violence against Black communities has once again taken the stage and vital discussions are being had because of it. Radical and necessary solutions like defunding and ultimately abolishing the police state have rapidly gained popularity, and we are even seeing the city of Minneapolis begin to take steps in that direction. Despite these positive developments, there are two reactions developing to the nationwide uprisings and the problem of police violence that I really want to address because I think they endanger our goal of liberating people in marginalized Black and brown communities.
On one hand, a great deal of the conversations being had are focused on police violence against marginalized Black communities and how to stop it. And on the other hand, there is a narrow critique being made by the class-reductionist left that makes it seem as though the disproportionate violence that Black communities experience is simply a function of larger societal economic inequality.
This offensive and reductive take was best displayed in the statement released by the Philadelphia chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America regarding the murder of George Floyd. In the statement they referred to explicitly racially segregated communities as having a “clear racialized character” and said this about the police state and mass incarceration, “unable and unwilling to invest in production and social services, municipalities relied on comparatively cheap measures like police and prisons to govern”. This statement sidestepped, and at certain points, wholly ignored the intricate relationships between racism, residential segregation and police violence in order to neatly fit police violence against Black communities into their reductive narrative.
Whether it is the sometimes well meaning people who fail to go beyond this specific issue of police brutality, or the class-reductionists on the left, the failure to talk about residential segregation and the racism that still fuels it is disappointing and ultimately harmful to the movement. In order to have a holistic understanding of its functions on a systemic level here in the United States, any critique of disproportionate police violence enacted on Black communities needs to be placed within the context of residential segregation. In her book “The Color of Money: Black Banks And the Racial Wealth Gap” law professor Mehrsa Baradaran writes:
“The North maintained strict racial segregation through a series of tools used consecutively and simultaneously, including violence, zoning laws and racial covenants — much of which was organized by neighborhood associations and realtors. The color line — the place where the black ghetto met the white community — was a highly contested space and the scene of much race rioting and violence. As the swelling ghetto pushed against the white community, the white community pushed back forcefully.”
As Blacks fled the horrors of the Jim Crow South and settled in cities across the country in increasing numbers between 1915 and 1970, the refusal of whites to accept them as neighbors and their steadfastness in maintaining racial segregation had an incalcuable detrimental economic impact on migrant Blacks. For potential Black homeowners, their mere presence in or near white communities resulted in an extreme decline in home values, which meant that as Blacks (or in many cases, just one Black family) were able to break the color line and buy a home in a white community, they were forced to buy homes at exorbitant above market prices as the homes immediately lost value. In the case of the rental market for Blacks Baradaran paints a harrowing picture:
“In the densely packed black ghetto, the low supply of tenant housing coupled with high demand meant that rents skyrocketed by 50 percent or more in comparison to rental properties outside the ghetto. Tenants were paying very high prices for increasingly dilapidated housing…Both sides of the black income scale lost wealth due to segregation.”
This enforcement of segregation through interpersonal means such as housing covenants, mob violence and white flight in conjunction with its enforcement at the federal, state and local levels of government through tools like redlining worked to drain wealth and other vital resources from Black communities. The result has been intentionally created ghettos burdened by engineered poverty, and even in Black communities that have been able to “overcome” this state-sanctioned looting to any identifiable extent, the resource and outcome gap between those communities and white suburbs remains immense. In a report published by The Century Foundation, they shared research published in The American Journal of Sociology which found that:
“persistent racial residential segregation (and the wealth gap it creates) means even middle-class black families are more likely to live in concentrated poverty, and thus are more likely to send their children to high-poverty schools than are low-income whites. In fact, sociologist Patrick Sharkey finds that middle-class African Americans earning $100,000 or more per year live in neighborhoods with the same disadvantages as the average white household earning less than $30,000 per year ,”
The era of “colorblindness” that dominated the pre-Trump era may have worked to obscure the fact that the country is as segregated (if not more segregated) as ever, and it is vital to understand the integral role that police play in upholding that segregation. Before examining their role, it is important to understand that it is the residents and property owners in whiter, wealthier communities who act as the primary drivers of the maintenance of residential segregation.
One can point to Section 8 housing vouchers, which were created with the intention of helping low-income people move to communities with greater material resources. Despite the good intentions, the program has been a massive failure in achieving its intended goal. In a piece published by ProPublica called “How Wealthy Towns Keep People With Housing Vouchers Out”, author Jacqueline Rabe Thomas writes:
“In Connecticut, the problem is especially acute. An analysis of federal voucher data by The Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica found that 55% of the state’s nearly 35,000 voucher holders live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. That’s higher than the national average of 49% and the rates in 43 other states. The segregation results, at least in part, from exclusionary zoning requirements that local officials have long used to block or limit affordable housing in prosperous areas.”
While landlords are able to keep low-income Black folks out of rental properties in affluent communities at their own discretion, there is also the issue of wealthy communities simply refusing to allow the creation of low-income housing in their communities. In a particularly ugly recent example from 2016 illustrated in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Forest Hills neighborhood of San Francisco, California vehemently opposed 150 units of housing for low-income seniors with some residents being quoted as saying , “What resources are you going to provide to make sure my 11-year-old girl is safe?”, “As a parent, I am concerned about people with mental illness and drug addictions,”, “I want my kids to be able to play outside — that’s why we bought a house here.” Knowing nothing about these potential low-income renters besides the fact that they were low-income and likely Black or Brown, it is clear that it is exactly those qualities that cause residents of Forest Hills and other wealthy enclaves around the nation to associate low-income housing residents with danger.
De facto racism and the complete refusal of our federal government to enforce fair housing rights deserve the most blame here, but police play an important role in maintaining the walls of segregation. Within this dynamic, the police effectively act as the border patrol between segregated Black and white communities. This often manifests itself in the phenomenon that is often referred to as “driving while Black” where police will often accost Black drivers who happen to cross over to the “wrong” side of these borders, these interactions can lead to embarrassment for the Black driver at best, with death at the hands of an officer representing the worst end of the spectrum.
In a 2016 report conducted by law students at Seton Hall Law’s Center for Policy & Research, the researchers found that , “Our study revealed what essentially amounts to ‘a wall’ of police action erected against the Newark (New Jersey) and East Orange border areas and their predominantly African American and Latino residents,”. When it comes to the policing that actually occurs within segregated Black communities, police act more like an occupying force seeking to keep colonized people under strict surveillance and control.
The mission of police in relation to segregated Black communities has not been to protect and serve, but to contain and subjugate. Through this lens we can see why the violence is so extreme, disproportionate and unyielding. Police brutality has been a necessary enforcement mechanism in the system of racial residential segregation. Reducing the issue to police brutality and police departments themselves limits us from going as far as we need to go in order to extend liberty to all people & willfully ignoring the fundamentally racist character of police violence in the name of class-reductionism is no way to build solidarity on the left.
I wholly agree that we need to defund police departments and eventually abolish the institution itself, but it is vital that we make sure that we also address why this violence happens. White, materially secure communities that have refused to allow integration for generations share a larger burden of blame for police violence against Black communities than individual officers or even entire police departments ever can. If we are to solve the problem, simply addressing the tools of oppression are inadequate, we must also work to address and criticize the people that police violence against Black people is often enacted on the behalf of.
Failing to make these radical critiques allows for liberals and even reactionaries to co-opt the movement and blunt its revolutionary momentum. This is still the beginning of the fight for a better world, and we cannot create easy opportunities for those hostile to the ultimate aims of the movement to defang it.