A cancer that produces racism

December 17, 2014

Mass incarceration and bloated police departments are major incubators of some of the most reactionary ideas in society, writes Todd Chretien.

IN THE wake of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island, tens of thousands have marched, occupied city halls and university buildings, and blocked city streets and highways in the biggest wave of direct action since Occupy.

Caught off guard by the scale of the protests against racist cop violence, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder rolled out well-worn promises for reforms, such as body cameras for officers, sensitivity training and federal oversight commissions. All of these "reforms" actually funnel more money to the police, and do nothing to challenge their material power.

In the city where I live, the Oakland police already have body cameras, and they undergo mandatory sensitivity trainings as part of a federal consent decree that supposedly aims to diminish the corruption and brutality dished out to Black and Brown residents.

None of these "reforms" saved Alan Blueford, an 18-year-old African American student shot dead by Oakland cop Miguel Masso in May 2012. Or Oscar Grant, or Raheim Brown Jr., and the list goes on and on.

New York police search the pockets of a man stopped on the street
New York police search the pockets of a man stopped on the street

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote at SocialistWorker.org, according to FBI statistics, white police officers have killed Black men in recent years at almost double the rate that African Americans were lynched in the heyday of Jim Crow segregation.

This level of sustained violence in the streets goes hand in hand with mass incarceration, a system which hunts down and entraps one out of three Black men at some point during their lifetime, and which currently holds in prison or on probation or parole a stunning 7 million people, or one out of 31 people over the age of 16 in the U.S.

Michelle Alexander's groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow details how mass incarceration "emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow."

Alexander and Taylor are absolutely right to emphasize how today's institutions of racial violence and control reinvent and reinforce some of the most devastating obstacles to freedom and equality that Black people have faced throughout U.S. history, just as the tens of thousands of people marching in the street are right to demand radical change.

To win that change, we must examine the machine we are up against.

THE NUMBER of police and prison guards--and the economic and political clout they wield--is almost as shocking as the numbers of people they brutalize and jail.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are approximately 1 million police officers and 500,000 prison guards in the U.S. today.

This is a conservative number and doesn't count any of the more than 1 million security guards--most of whom are unarmed and poorly paid, but a significant percentage of whom are armed and function as private police. Nor does it include any of the military or intelligence forces working on domestic spying. Further, it's unclear whether those who are employed by the escalating number of privately run prisons for undocumented immigrants are counted in these statistics.

But 1.5 million is a solid number to start with. This means there are twice as many police and prison guards as there are autoworkers in the U.S.

The BLS reports that there are around 135 million economically active adults in the population, of whom somewhat more than 100 million are non-managerial wage workers. So about one out of every 90 people with a non-managerial job in the U.S. is a cop or a prison guard. That in itself is an eye-opening ratio, demonstrating just how policed we are as a society.

How much does all this cost? According to BLS figures, each of these 1.5 million cops and guards get an average yearly salary of $65,000--50 percent above the median wage for non-managerial workers--plus benefits. So we can estimate that police salaries cost society about $150 billion per year.

We can safely double that cost for other budget items (prisons, cars, guns, etc.) for a grand total of some $300 billion per year, which is more than four times the federal education budget as a whole.

Thus, it's not the case that the police and prisons simply enforce conditions of poverty and racism. Instead, it is increasingly the case that police and prison budgets contribute to poverty by sucking local, state and federal money out of schools, health care and the budgets for social services.

OPPONENTS OF police violence have to come to grips with this question: What kind of social power will we have to accumulate in order to do more than make the tiger change its stripes (or wear a body camera)? What will it take to actually redirect resources away from police and prisons, and begin starving the beast itself?

This won't be easy, and not only because the police-prison-industrial complex shovels enormous sums of cash into the pockets of Democratic and Republican politicians alike.

The police and prison guard lobbyists don't have to push very hard to secure policies in their favor, since their interests generally align with those of neoliberal corporations--the real masters of the state and its police and prisons. It's the bosses who give the police their marching orders, not the other way around.

In his book State and Revolution, the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin quotes Frederick Engels to explain that the state--or, loosely speaking, the government, as it is more commonly called today--is:

as a general rule, the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which, through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class, and thus acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class.

This means that we are not simply challenging the power of 1.5 million police and prison guards, but the whole capitalist class and the trillions of dollars they can mobilize to bolster their political rule.

As bad as this all is, there is something perhaps even more insidious at work. As Alexander and others have long pointed out, policing and prisons under the New Jim Crow disproportionately target Black and Brown men, and increasingly women. People of color constitute 60 percent of the prison population, and they suffer a greater share of street violence and harassment from police.

Thus, the New Jim Crow acts as a sledgehammer in the Black community, breaking up families, destroying lives and disrupting radical Black political movements.

Conversely, of the 1.5 million police and prison guards, around two-thirds (1 million) are white men, even though white men are only about one-third of the U.S. population as a whole.

Thus, based on the BLS estimates that there are around 35 million white men out of the 100 million non-managerial workers in the U.S., we find that one out of every 35 of these white male workers is employed as a cop or prison guard.

Socialists don't consider the police to be part of the working class. Rather, they are torn out of it, becoming structurally part of the ruling-class state described by Engels, which oppresses the whole working class. But police overwhelmingly come from working-class backgrounds and families.

If a large majority of Black and Brown people have a brother, father, uncle, cousin or close friend in prison or on probation or parole, we can safely assume that perhaps one in 10 white workers is either a cop or a prison guard themselves, or has a brother, father, uncle, cousin or close friend who is.

Furthermore, the political clout, social prestige--think of the number of TV shows and Hollywood films about heroic, if flawed, cops--and legal impunity that cops enjoy means they exert a significant social power even beyond these numbers.

So the police are not simply a reactionary instrument in the hands of the ruling class, which exists sealed off from the working class. They also carry the attitudes they learn on the beat and in the penitentiaries--attitudes bound up with ruling-class ideology--back home with them. They form a racist pole of attraction within the working class as a whole, and especially within the white working class.

ACCORDING TO a Pew poll about the killing of Mike Brown:

Whites also are nearly three times as likely as Blacks to express at least a fair amount of confidence in the investigations into the shooting. About half of whites (52 percent) say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the investigations, compared with just 18 percent of blacks. Roughly three-quarters of Blacks (76 percent) have little or no confidence in the investigations, with 45 percent saying they have no confidence at all.

The disparities between how white and Black people viewed the events in Ferguson cannot be reduced merely to the direct influence of police officers and prison guards on public opinion.

Demoralizing defeats for multiracial unions, endless wars and state-sponsored Islamophobia, declining living standards, the war on drugs, attacks on affirmative action, and a conscious divide-and-conquer strategy engineered by the right have all played a role in promoting racist ideas that gain a hearing among white workers.

Politicians from both parties have gleefully vilified Black and Brown youth as criminals while building up the police-prison system,--famously with Bill Clinton's signature 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, passed when Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House.

All of this has created a reactionary current among the white working class--and even more so among the white managerial and business class--which spreads beyond those directly connected to the police and prison guards.

But it's important to recognize the specific role played in sowing racism by the outrageous numbers of people directly employed to repress working-class people and people of color. The police are not just a sledgehammer attacking the Black community, but also a needle injecting poison into the white working class.

The old Jim Crow relied on the public spectacle of frequent lynchings and mass membership in the KKK as a form of terror against the Black community and a reactionary disciplinary force inside the white working class. Today, the new Jim Crow relies on ever more frequent (often caught on camera) police murders in the streets and a mass police force.

The hope for our side lies in the inspiring protests led by a new generation of Black freedom fighters, as well as in the significant minority of white workers and youth, as well as other workers and youth of color, who are actively taking part or sympathizing with the movement.

In fact, the recent protests have demonstrated that there are militantly anti-racist layers within the white working class, as well as the deeply racist ones. Between these two poles lie the vast majority of white workers, and their opinions can be pulled in one direction or the other.

We've already begun to see an initial shift towards the anti-racist side as the protests have exposed the reality of police racism and brutality, replacing Fox News fantasy with facts.

These changes are positive and show there is a constituency for building a new civil rights movement. But to win, this new movement will have to develop both a clearheaded analysis of the institutions which must be broken down in order for it to advance--and a sober recognition of the repressive power and ideological influence held in reserve by America's mass police force.

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