To End Police Violence, End Racial Capitalism

A Reply to Dustin Guastella

July 20, 2020

Apparently, we on the left cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. Or at least we shouldn’t try, according to Dustin Guastella.

His recent piece, misleadingly titled “To End Police Violence Fund Public Goods and Raise Wages,” argues that movement-initiated calls to defund and abolish the police are counterproductive.

“[D]efunding the police is wrong,” he claims, “because it will result in more people dying.” By which he means, cops are more likely to kill civilians when they are paid less or there are fewer of them. Instead, the best and seemingly only way to support Black lives is by “provid[ing] adequate jobs, housing, education, health care and so on, to everyone.” No targeted assault on racism is necessary—it doesn’t really inform police violence in any case—and we certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression we support austerity. In fact, we should continue and probably increase funding for one of the world’s most violent police forces in the hopes they don’t kill more of us.

How did we get here? How is a prominent figure in the Democratic Socialists of America arguing against key demands from the largest, most militant social movement in recent US history?

In this piece, I argue that Guastella takes three pathways to reach his reactionary endpoint: bad statistics, faulty logic, and bad politics. First, his argument relies heavily on debunked secondary analyses of police violence, as well as specious inferences from highly aggregated data. Second, it equates any and all calls to defund or abolish police with austerity, as if activists couldn’t possibly demand shrinking repression alongside expanded social support. Though it’s no coincidence he published in a venue that can’t imagine the simultaneity of race and class oppression.

And third, it is entirely based on electoralist conceptions of change and pluralist conceptions of the state, or in other words, milquetoast liberalism. In contrast to demands for defunding and abolishing the police, Guastella’ caricature notwithstanding, it is in fact his perspective that is counterproductive to a growing multi-racial left. Do the DSA and its leading publications want to be associated with such a thoroughly inaccurate brand of movement-scolding class reductionism?1To be clear, Nonsite.org, which published Guastella’s article, is not affiliated with DSA. But Guastella lists his own affiliation simply as “DSA” and is a regular contributor to another publication, Jacobin, that is arguably the leading forum for DSA debates and perspectives.

To start, Guastella opposes activists. Every time he mentions them, they are wrong: “Many activists point to what seem like high dollar amounts”; “activists seem to believe that city governments have no choice”; “Bayard Rustin once warned about activists’ psychic inability”; “Rustin… was roundly ignored by the youth-dominated activist Left”; “Convincing causal explanations… require us to question the analysis and solutions offered by activists.2Emphasis added.

What are these “convincing causal explanations” that today’s woolly-minded activists refuse to heed? Apparently they are limited to those denying that US police brutality is racially disparate. Guastella suggests these disparities are merely illusory. Let us take a closer look.

He concedes that “black Americans make up 24% of the victims of police killings” whereas non-Hispanic “white Americans… account for 46% of police killings.” Given that Black Americans make up 13% of the US population and white Americans 60%, this demonstrates vastly disproportional violence. The average Black person in America is two and a half times more likely to be killed by cops than the average white person.

Guastella doesn’t deny this but tries to obscure it with dubious statistics. He states:

  1. There are also large income disparities among the victims of police violence;
  2. the Black and white shares of those officially deemed poor are roughly equivalent to Black and white shares of police victims; and
  3. some predominantly white places have higher rates of police violence than some predominantly Black places.

Therefore, according to Guastella, “police kill the poor” rather than Black people per se, and racism is effectively negligible as a cause. From this, he concludes we should support continued funding for this poor-killing machine.

How did we get here? How is a prominent figure in the Democratic Socialists of America arguing against key demands from the largest, most militant social movement in recent US history?

But even his weakest claims are misleading on three grounds. First, the fact that there are also income disparities in police brutality does not negate the existence of racial disparities. The data Guastella deploys is highly aggregated and not individual-specific—it doesn’t measure personal outcomes and characteristics. He points to a single study in the American Journal of Public Health whose basic units are census tracts (of which there are approximately 74,000 across the US) which were then divided into quintiles based on residents’ incomes. It turns out, he tells us, that “a person in the poorest quintile of census tracts is 3.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than a person in the wealthiest quintile.” This says nothing about the actual wealth or poverty of individuals killed, though it seems fair to infer that police kill poor people more often than wealthier folks.

The problem is that the same study actually finds

police-related death rates were highest in neighborhoods with the greatest concentrations of low-income residents (vs high-income residents) and residents of color (vs non-Hispanic White residents). For non-Hispanic Blacks, however, the risk was greater in the quintile of neighborhoods with the highest concentration of non-Hispanic White residents than in certain neighborhoods with relatively higher concentrations of residents of color.

So neighborhoods that are both poor and predominantly non-white see the most police killings, but Black people in particular experience more murders by police when they live in the income swath of neighborhoods that are predominantly white.

How does any of this negate racial bias? It doesn’t.

Second, even if we were to grant that officers’ racial biases are not the main driver of lethal targeting (which we really shouldn’t) and that poverty instead does all the explanatory work, we might also ask: how did it come to be that far greater shares of Black people than white people are poor?

It hardly bears repeating that Black people in the US have been systematically inhibited from accruing wealth, and industrial decline and outright racial exclusion have compounded such deficits.3See, for example, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019). These processes were both economic and racial-political and were quickly followed by a revolution in law enforcement that sent armies of cops into Black communities, increasing contact and the likelihood of victimization.

So even if cops were uniformly “colorblind”–which they of course are not–these structural factors would go a long way toward explaining heightened Black victimhood. This is structural and institutional racism pure and simple. Guastella seems completely unaware of this, despite his being a graduate student in sociology.

Third, he references three studies in defense of his claim that “racial disparities in police killings are greatly diminished.” Of these, none convincingly corroborate his claims, and one of them has been widely criticized with even its own authors requesting retraction. The first of these papers is by Roland G. Fryer (2018) and the second is by David J. Johnson et al. (2019).

Fryer’s paper uses four non-compatible datasets, two of which don’t measure police lethality but do reveal statistically significant differences by race in non-lethal police brutalization:

[A]s the intensity of force increases…racial difference remains surprisingly constant…These are rare events. Yet, the results indicate that they are significantly more rare [sic] for whites than blacks.”

The third dataset only includes “incidents in which an officer discharges his weapon at civilians” and thus does not provide the necessary denominator: all police interactions grouped by civilians’ race. Without this information, we cannot possibly assess racial bias in the application of deadly force.

In reality, the struggle for Black lives against repressive police violence is but the leading edge of a growing upheaval against a racialized capitalist death cult—vividly displayed by the US government’s disastrous, profit-before-all-else response to COVID-19. It is not a narrow, single-policy movement by any stretch.

The fourth includes only those interactions that resulted in arrest for one of the following reasons: “attempted capital murder of a public safety officer, aggravated assault on a public safety officer, resisting arrest, evading arrest, and interfering in arrest.” It is thus a biased sample, limited to more hostile police encounters and comes only from a single precinct in Houston.

The author himself cautions that Houston PD may have “only supplied the data because they are… not concerned about what the analysis would reveal. In essence, this is equivalent to analyzing labor market discrimination on a set of firms willing to supply a researcher with their Human Resources data!” Analysis of such data can hardly support nationwide claims of negligible racial bias in police lethality.4Though it does not bear directly on the validity of this study or others by the author, it is worth noting that Roland Fryer has since been suspended from his post at Harvard for a series of sexual harassment claims. See Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley, “Harvard suspends Roland Fryer, star economist, after sexual harassment claims,” New York Times (10 July 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/10/business/economy/roland-fryer-harvard.html.

The second article Guastella references has been thoroughly repudiated, even by its own authors. Why? Because much like the latter two datasets used by Fryer, it selects on the dependent variable. This means it only includes those cases (police interactions) that had a particular outcome (police killing) rather than all the possible cases with different outcomes. As the authors admit in their retraction request, “the mistake we made was drawing inferences about the broader population of civilians who interact with police rather than restricting our conclusions to the population of civilians who were fatally shot by the police.” Thus, their claims of officer non-bias are even more bogus and should be rejected out of hand.

The third article he references, John Clegg and Adaner Usmani’s recent Catalyst piece “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration,” is so riddled with empirical and logical errors that it requires its own lengthy rebuttal, forthcoming in the second print issue of Spectre (out November 7).

Guastella then takes us on a whirlwind tour of seemingly random comparisons between some largely white places that have higher police killing rates and some largely Black places. None of this holds up to analytic scrutiny because we don’t know why he chose some places and not others for comparison.

He then asserts (without evidence) a correlation between low officer-to-population ratios and high police killing rates, centered on “lax gun laws” and “high levels of poverty” as connecting features. The upshot? “Defunding police budgets, far from a solution, could in fact be one of the major causes of police violence.”

Because clearly, and this is said with peak irony, no one is advocating for any other changes besides pure dollar reductions in police budgets. Is he willfully ignorant? What about demands in all kinds of mainstream and left-wing venues? Disarm the police. Abolish the police. Decarcerate. Divert funding from the carceral-repressive apparatus to further healthcare and education. Tax the rich to enable more of this. Socialize the economy. These are just some of the demands that “silly” activists have advanced alongside and in concert with calls to defund.

In reality, the struggle for Black lives against repressive police violence is but the leading edge of a growing upheaval against a racialized capitalist death cult—vividly displayed by the US government’s disastrous, profit-before-all-else response to COVID-19. It is not a narrow, single-policy movement by any stretch. As Haley Pessin argues in New Politics,

If the previous upsurge of anti-racist struggle helped expose the systemic racism of policing and the criminal “justice” system, then today’s protests are delegitimizing the economic and political actors who enable and abet those systems. After all, when the government responds this quickly to quell mass protest but cannot find the will or resources to fight a mass pandemic, it is clear that our health and safety are not its priority.

Guastella, however, can’t think in these terms. He’s not an activist in the burgeoning struggle for racial justice, as he implores us to remember throughout his essay, but a sideliner who epitomizes, even parodies, empiricist detachment and cluelessness.

Challenging or changing such a system requires concerted disruptive action led by Guastella’s bete noire: activists.

Yes, US police are far more murderous than the vast majority of their international peers. Yes, they clearly have an anti-poor and anti-working-class mission. Yes, both police institutions and large swaths of officers target Black people more for arrest and violence. None of these claims contradict the others, and the practical response to them shouldn’t be, as Guastella proposes, to keep funding cops lest they kill us more.

Only in a counterfactual world where activists were demanding total maintenance of the racial capitalist status quo other than cop shrinkage and, furthermore, where police were neutral arbiters of order in a pluralist, meritocratic society would this even possibly obtain. But that’s not the world we live in.

Yet Guastella thinks we do live in such a world. He claims:

[I]f defunding the police were to result in fewer beat cops, more poverty wages for officers in already poor districts, less police training and effectively no change in the presence of guns or the rate of poverty, then the defunding “solution”… would likely result in more, not fewer, incidences of police lethality.

This parrots the standard liberal worldview that police are a purely instrumental arm of an otherwise class-, race-, and gender-neutral state.5To be fair, Guastella is not alone in this. His combined views of class reductionism and state instrumentality (essentially being a “neutral” institution that can be wielded by different groups to serve various ends) stand in an established tradition of reformist “socialism” that feeds from the same conceptual trough—pluralism, nationalism, Rawlsian contract theory—as mainstream bourgeois liberalism . They exist to “serve and protect,” a task for which they need proper training, living wages,6Nevermind that the average annual salary for US police officers is currently $67,600—about $15,000 more than the average for all US occupations. Guastella’s cherry-picked examples of “poverty wage” cops are thus far from representative. See Andrew DePietro, “Here’s how much money police officers earn in every state,” Forbes (23 April 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrewdepietro/2020/04/23/police-officer-salary-state/#35a97a052010. and accountability to prevent deviance or malfeasance.

This is the opposite of a Marxian or critical understanding of the state. Again, it hardly bears repeating, but that perspective holds that police, along with the military, prison, and court systems, are the repressive arm of an inherently class- as well as race- and gender-biased state (capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal).

They do not exist to serve and protect all but to serve the powerful and protect their property. Challenging or changing such a system requires concerted disruptive action led by Guastella’s bete noire: activists. We’ve seen how hostile he is toward these folks, mainly because he’s worried their demands and actions are “unpopular… among black and white voters alike.” Elsewhere, Guastella makes clear his nearly exclusive commitment to electoral models of change, using the Democratic Party as his key site of activity.

None of these would be significant problems if Guastella weren’t posing such views as if they were socialist. But he is. It is thus crucially important for a resurgent left and its organizations to demarcate this difference.

Healthy debate should continue across the US left as to the balance of electoral v. mass action strategies. The same might be said about the question of participation in the Democratic party—the ongoing clean break v. dirty break v. realignment debate—or the relative weight of international v. domestic or “class-wide” vs. special-oppression mobilization in specific conjunctures.

Debate, however, as to the class or race character of the US state and its repressive forces, and more specifically whether left partisans should advocate for their maintenance or destruction, should be utterly alien to the left. The same can be said for whether activists and extra-parliamentary pressure have a role to play in achieving racial justice.

Guastella is clear where he falls on these questions. The DSA and the wider left should make it equally clear where such anti-activist sentiments and class reductionism belong: in a goddamn trash can.

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