police abuses, mass incarceration, and the racial wage
For me, one of the most insightful writings of DuBois comes from his history of the Reconstruction. In that work, he introduces the idea of the “racial wage”: low income Whites are placated with their domination over Blacks. In other words, poor southern Whites post-Reconstruction received psychological benefits from harassing and intimidating Blacks, which distracted them from their own poverty.
I’d like to make a connection to modern America. Usually, when we think of protests such as those in Baltimore and Ferguson, we think of police departments that are out of control, which is clearly true. We also tend to think of racism. Laws are passed that will have, intentionally or unintentionally, disproportionate effects on Blacks. What is missing, I think, from this conversation is a discussion of a possible racial wage in law enforcement.
When there are charges of police brutality and police shootings, we also see some reporting about the racial attitudes of police officers. For example, the press has reported that police in Ferguson wrote racist emails. See this Huffington Post article for details. The press also reports on police message boards that sometimes fill with racist comments (see this business insider article). Describing these behaviors as racist underplays the issue. Yes, some police do have racist attitudes. Might it be the case that police are extracting a racial wage from their work? Police work, even in the best of times, can be very difficult. Is it possible that part of the compensation comes from incarcerating people from other ethnic groups? More broadly, does seeing minorities jailed and deported provide a modern racial wage?
If it’s true, then it suggests that reform is much harder than we might suspect. If part of the culture of policing, and mass incarceration in general, is enjoying the punishment of minorities, then you have to do more than simply point out the injustice of police brutality and mass incarceration. Nor will it end as a result of the courts or legislatures who are often dependent on public opinion. Instead, there has to be a mass cultural movement where by a large portion of the population must assert that it is immoral to enjoy the suffering of others and insist that our police and penal system reflect those values.