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.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 1, 2015 at 12:01 am

3 Responses

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  1. Each case of unlawful death needs to be addressed separately from all other cases.

    The number of police misconduct allegations/complaints from those found warranted should provide a ratio of the extent of the problem of police not following procedures or being improperly supervised. Also, the context of the degree of criminal activity in a jurisdiction should be considered as affecting relationships with police by community residents.

    At some point, the question becomes why is there more crime “here” than in other places? Or, why are the police being accused of brutality in one jurisdiction than in others, and what do jurisdictions with higher reportage of police misconduct have in common … which may be poorly functioning police departments. But, the degree of provocation of police merely by high rates of criminal activity which police must respond to, should also be considered.

    It may be false, but if police misconduct is increasing then either the police administrators are expecting their policemen to be more forceful or they are not supervising them properly.


    Fredrick Welfare

    May 1, 2015 at 1:38 am

  2. I think what also needs to be taken into account is the cognitive side, including stereotypes, schemas, bias etc that result in racial profiling, where Black men are viewed as suspicious and dangerous because of the color of their skin. There should be mandatory yearly training for police officers on these things and how to overcome them. I also think that the option of creating a federal police oversight organization should be explored.



    May 1, 2015 at 2:50 am

  3. It might be useful for those who wish to discuss improvements in police training to spend some time talking to young police officers about the training they received. At least in some departments, a good portion of that training is about inflicting violence and suffering through pain. The suggestions I hear about how to reform the training are lovely and all, but we might want to start by reducing the value placed on officers’ ability to injure one another.



    May 1, 2015 at 8:57 pm

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