The Moral Bankruptcy of Law and Order Politics
Shayok Chakraborty | April 14, 2017, noon
On April 6, Heather Mac Donald was scheduled to speak at Claremont McKenna College. Mac Donald has emerged as the academic center of the anti-Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Despite her repute, a close analysis of her claims reveals that Mac Donald peddles a morally bankrupt and deeply racist ideology, rooted fundamentally in half-truths and sometimes outright lies.
Mac Donald’s central thesis is that crime is a greater threat to black lives than police, and that police are in fact the most “pro-Black Lives Matter” institution in America, because they fight crime. If we look at the numbers in a vacuum, it is true that more black people die from homicide than to officer shootings.
However, this fundamentally misses the point of BLM and oversimplifies the issue of crime. Several studies point to the role of concentrated poverty, unemployment, and general deprivation of opportunity in creating high crime rates. These socioeconomic factors erode informal social controls, community cohesion, and collective efficacy that would ordinarily control crime and deviant behavior.
The source of this poverty and unemployment is fundamentally in systemic racism. One extremely influential example of this is the steady leak of manufacturing jobs from black urban neighborhoods, and the systematic denial of educational and worker retraining opportunities to black people which left many of them jobless.
BLM stands firmly against such systemic racism — according to their website, their mission is to “[broaden] the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state.” Mac Donald simply prescribes more police, ignoring the systemic causes of crime and poverty in favor of more punishment.
Mac Donald makes other severely inaccurate claims about police violence. For example, she claims that the disproportionately high amounts of police shootings and use of force on black people are a result of higher crime in those neighborhoods. However, studies by the Center for Policing Equity in 2016, and by UC Davis in 2015, have found “no relationship” between rates of levels of violent crime by race and racial bias in police shootings, and that high-crime cities did not necessarily experience more shootings than low-crime cities. A 2016 Harvard study found that police officers were significantly more likely to use nonlethal force on black citizens, whether the black person was compliant with the officers’ orders or not.
This is only the violence that is recorded in some way by police. Police departments across America have a severe lack of accountability structures and effective civilian oversight, the “blue code of silence” that encourages officers not to “snitch” on each other, and a lack of transparent, reliable use of force data.
This cultivates a highly permissive environment for misconduct. Mac Donald ignores the abusive culture and lack of community control of so many police departments, which has its most severe effects on marginalized communities that cannot fight back.
Mac Donald also claims that “Broken Windows policing” is a necessary crime-fighting tactic that saves black lives. Broken Windows has a definitively racist impact, punishing poor communities of color for activities virtually decriminalized in white neighborhoods.
Broken Windows aggressively targets low-level offenses like drug possession, marijuana usage, biking on the sidewalk, turnstile jumping, etc. to send a deterrent message to would-be criminals. However, these “offenses” occur virtually everywhere, meaning police have broad discretion in who they target.
The racism in police departments at both a policy and individual bias level guides officers to use their discretion to target poor communities of color. The Police Reform Organizing Project reports that in 2015, 92 percent of farebeating arrests and 92.5 percent of marijuana arrests were of people of color, and a CUNY Law School study found that between 2008-2011, there were eight court summonses for biking on the sidewalk in white Park Slope, but 2,050 in black Bedford-Stuyvesant. Unless we are prepared to believe that for every white sidewalk cyclist, there are 250 black sidewalk cyclists, Broken Windows is clearly applied in a discriminatory way.
There is also no reason to believe it is particularly effective in eliminating crime. Mac Donald cites the favorite example of Broken Windows advocates — Mayor Giuliani’s use of Broken Windows in the 1990s, when crime dropped precipitously in New York City. She neglects to mention that crime began to drop shortly before Giuliani came into office, and kept dropping long after he left; that similar crime drops were occurring nationally, for example in cities like San Diego that used a totally different policing strategy; and that a 2016 Inspector Generals’ report found that while Broken Windows-style quality of life arrests have dropped dramatically from 2010-2015, felony crime has continued to drop as well.
What is most astounding is Mac Donald’s utter lack of historical awareness regarding the problem of racialized police violence. Black people have been calling attention to police violence against their communities from the origins of American police departments in slave patrols, to the Black Panther Party and the Watts Riots, to Black Lives Matter today. MacDonald’s twisting of the data and narratives implies something quite dire about her: she willfully and callously blinds herself to those most targeted by racist state violence in this country for the sake of making a point.
Shayok Chakraborty PO '19 is a Public Policy Analysis-Politics Major from Los Angeles, California. He has a pretty good beard.