Recent events in the United States where unarmed black men were killed by police officers shows that the country has serious problems regarding racism in institutional and social relations. This is on top of a presidential campaign charged with nationalist and racial rhetoric by the Republican candidate.
But simply blaming racism, as in the belief that one race is superior to the other, is a shallow analytical concept.
This is because the recent racial tensions are actually not new.
In March 1991, Rodney King, a black man in Los Angeles, was beaten by a group of police officers after being subdued. The incident sparked massive protests by black communities against the police in that city. Understanding the problem of racial tensions requires drawing from the past and analyzing it structurally.
Structural racism means biases against a certain race or races on a a systemic level. Hence, we are not talking about a few racist cops, but the various situational conditions that lead the entire criminal justice system to show a bias against black communities. This bias is evident in the statistics for police shootings; blacks are over-represented in such statistics and very few cases are investigated.
Youth in black communities and the criminal justice system
Alice Goffman wrote an insightful study of black neighborhoods and interactions with the criminal justice system. It is a good starting point to understanding structural racism. Goffman delivered an impassioned TED Talk entitled, “How we are priming some kids for college – and others for prison,” where she summarised the main points and conclusions of her study. Please make time to watch. It’s 15 minutes well spent. There are some surprises in there.
She applies ethnographic methodology to the study of race and police relations. This means long-term immersion in the community to capture the small and big details of such dynamics from the perspective of the subjects: youth in black communities. The main conclusion is that this group is over-represented in criminal statistics due to being disproportionately targeted by police officers, who are predisposed to viewing them as violent criminals.
The causes of structural racism
The causes of structural racism are too complex to review in one article. However, one can add a little bit of theory from criminology to approximate a structural understanding of the race-police dynamics described by Goffman.
First, police offers equate poverty with crime.
Hence, they make the causal link between black communities, which tend to suffer from poverty, and criminality. This is actually done by both police and other sectors of civil society, which speaks to the structural reach of racism. It leads to disproportionate rates of arrest within and targeting of these communities. This, is turn, reproduces the poverty and the criminogenic (crime producing) aspects originally present in these communities.
In other words, harsh policing of black communities increases criminality instead of decreasing it.
Second, there is no direct link between poverty and crime.
There are many communities and countries around the world that are very poor, and show low crime rates. However, there is a type of poverty that tends to become criminogenic: the one found in Post-Fordist economies. The term pertains to de-industrialized or post-industrialized economies that have moved primarily to service sectors. Wages tend to be decently high, but so are skill requirements.
Communities whose members, for diverse historical reasons such as segregation, are often unable to acquire the necessary high skills to get a job in the service sector, end up in a cycle of reproduction of poverty. They are victims of creative destruction. Crime becomes a rational choice to gain economic success, unless a robust welfare state provides alternatives to illegal means of obtaining wealth.
Black communities have been victimized by police discrimination due to the reproduction of their low socioeconomic status under post-Fordist economies.
And with that, we round out this brief analysis into some of the factors contributing to structural racism. Of course, a lot more research and discussion still need to happen, so that appropriate public policies can be put in place to deal with structural racism and its society-shattering effects.