By Jacob Derin
Last Thursday, fans booed players on the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans for taking a moment of silence to protest police brutality, recalling the reactions to Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem.
America is burning, and we can’t seem to agree on what started the fire. If we want to put it out, we must confront widespread inequality and desperation.
After the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, two narratives emerged. Stories of racialized police brutality were juxtaposed against the breakdown of law and order.
I have learned to be skeptical of such binaries, for they often obscure deeper truths. Lethal police action against Black Americans is the symptom of a much uglier disease, and societal cohesion cannot be separated from our fundamental values of justice and self-determination.
The great rallying cries of our time have become “Black Lives Matter” and “Make America Great Again,” with these slogans seen as somehow mutually contradictory –– just as protests during the national anthem are seen as somehow un-American.
Unfortunately, we see so much evidence that some lives truly matter more than others.
Research strongly indicates that the disproportionate levels of lethal interactions between the police and Black Americans ultimately reflects deeply rooted economic inequalities.
A 2020 study by Lucas Mentch, published in the Statistics And Public Policy Journal, analyzed the rates of lethal police interactions by race at the level of individual counties across the country. There were wide disparities, especially between Black and Caucasian Americans, even after accounting for the smaller absolute population of the former.
However, these disparities did not exist when arrest rates were accounted for as Mentch states,
“On one hand, the reasonably close agreement between observed and expected victim totals when the resampling is done with respect to local arrest demographics might lead one to believe that no such bias exists.”
“Thus, if certain races receive increased attention from law enforcement, then this could, at least in part, potentially explain both higher arrest rates as well as higher proportions of shooting victims,” Mentch continues, “Stated differently, these findings would support the notion that whatever biases may exist on the arrest level also carry through to the level of fatal shootings.”
Mentch leaves open the possibility that these disparities are the result of some kind of implicit or explicit bias. What seems to cause these differences, however, are the number of interactions between police officers and members of a particular racial group.
Some counties, typically those populated by racial minorities, are more heavily policed than others. The question then becomes: why does this occur?
When I saw the verdict returned by the grand jury against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, I was not angry at the jurors. I was struck with the tragic dissonance between the way our legal system treats people like Wilson and Kalief Browder, a black teenager of 16 who was held on Rikers Island for three years, without trial, over baseless accusations that he had stolen a backpack.
The truth is that the game really is rigged for some Americans.
In fact, the difference between the median accumulated wealth of a white family when compared to a Black family is approximately tenfold ($171,000 vs $17,500).
There is also ample evidence available to support linking social cohesion and criminality with wealth inequality. One study done at the Harvard School of Public Health by Ichiro Kawachi found that income inequality can explain 74% of the variance in homicide and about half of the variance in aggravated assault.
However, “social capital,” a measure of an individual’s self-assessed engagement with their community, is an even more powerful predictor and explains 82% of the variance in homicides and 62% of assaults.
Kawahi theorizes that there is a lot of overlap between these two factors, suggesting that high levels of income inequality are contributors to feelings of cynicism and a lack of engagement with one’s community.
This theory finds strong support from a 2016 study conducted by the International Monetary Fund, which identified a very strong correlation between economic inequality and lower levels of social capital.
Additionally, the study found that 82% of the variance in social capital could be attributed to income inequality.
This is the primary reason why there are so many more interactions between the police and Black Americans. Inevitably, some of those interactions will be lethal.
What we see on the nightly news or on YouTube is yet another act of police violence, expressing levels of tense frustration and a failure to understand where it comes from.
Violent crime is often committed by people who feel as though they aren’t being given a fighting chance.
This problem runs so much deeper than a few “bad apple” cops, or even corrupt police departments. It may run even deeper than race itself. Justice and liberty have become commodities, bought and sold.
In that context, I admit that I do not understand the men and women who are so offended by silent protests during the singing of the national anthem.
George Takei, known for his portrayal of Sulu on Star Trek, often speaks openly about this experience as a child imprisoned in America’s Japanese Internment Camps during the Second World War.
In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in 2015, Takei tells a particularly striking anecdote, concerning his feelings when reciting the pledge of allegiance in the camps, stating, “It became routine for me to line up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall.”
“It became routine to go with my father to bathe in a mass shower and begin the school day, ironically now, with the pledge of allegiance to the flag,” Takei said, “I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my schoolhouse.”
And, with that symbol of imprisonment within his field of view, Takei was made to mouth the words, “with liberty and justice for all.”
Is it any wonder that today, those crushed under the weight of our pay-to-play system similarly resist affirming its barbed wire fences as “the land of the free?”