Racial, Ethnic & Religious Equality Policy Center

WHY BLACK LIVES MATTER MATTERS TO JSPAN (approved December 2015)

Prologue

In the aftermath of the controversial deaths of Black men and women at the hands of sworn officers of the law in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Charleston, South Carolina; Baltimore, Maryland; Waller County, Texas; and elsewhere, a national movement called Black Lives Matter has risen in protest against injustice against African Americans.

JSPAN’s Aim

Black Lives Matter is a diverse, national movement, with many centers of activism across the country that have different goals and purposes. JSPAN cannot endorse every statement, idea, perspective, analysis, or policy proposal that flies under the banner of that movement.

But, there is a long history of injustice against Blacks in America, a history that, contrary to the views of many, is not over. And there are critically important debates going on now about how American political institutions and public policies, especially those connected with the provision of law and order, affect Black lives. 

The unjust deaths of Black men and women in the last year have been horrifying. But without a movement dedicated to explaining, in passionate detail, the sources of injustice, most of us would not be able to put the pieces together and see the larger picture of the world in which we live. And without a movement dedicated to bringing about the changes in the institutions, practices, and policies necessary to end systemic and structural racism in our criminal justice system, it will continue.

That is why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important. And it is why, as an organization committed to social justice, one that is powered by Jewish teaching and our own experience of discrimination at the hands of political authorities, JSPAN offers this statement in support of the central concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement and commits to seeking concrete ways to take action, in conjunction with other groups, to bring about the necessary education and political, social and public policy changes that alone will end racism’s stranglehold on our political community.

Systemic and Structural racism

The central problem the Black Lives Matter movement addresses is systemic and structural racism. There is little question that America has made some progress in decreasing what we might call interpersonal racism. But there remain many ways in which American institutions and policies systematically discriminate against Black men and women.

This is true in many areas of life and especially in the still limited economic opportunities open to Blacks. But the most important one in the current public debate involves the criminal justice system. There is little question that Black men and women are today subject to being harmed and killed by police officers at rates that far exceed those of whites.

And that is why, though all lives certainly matter equally, there is good reason for us to focus on the ways in which Black lives do not, but should, matter in our criminal justice system.

To say that there is structural or systemic racism in the criminal justice system is not necessarily to say that a police officer violated the law or public duty in every case where a police officer has killed Black men or women. We have not investigated each of those cases in sufficient depth to reach that conclusion. But the sheer number of prominent cases and the statistics about police shootings—statistics which no doubt underestimate the number by far—give all of us reason for extreme concern.

Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System

How does this systemic and structural discrimination in the criminal justice system work? We cannot do justice to the intricacies of the criminal justice system here. But we can briefly point to seven areas of concern.

First, police officers bring to their work the latent stereotypes of Black Americans that have for too long dominated our culture. Black police officers may share the same sentiments as white police officers. Given those stereotypes, Black people’s actions are far more likely to be interpreted as aggressive, dangerous, and powerful than those of white people doing the same things. Police officers that believe, sometimes wrongly, that they may open fire when they believe their lives or bodily integrity are threatened by a suspect, are far more likely to do so when he or she is Black rather than white.

Second, the tactics employed by police officers in America often affect the lives of Blacks and whites very differently. And because they are not sensitive to the cultural differences between Black and white communities—including the effects of those very tactics—these tactics are likely to lead to unfortunate results. Police officers are sometimes trained to escalate their reaction to those who disobey or threaten them by a show of physical or verbal force. But, because they fear or expect trouble from Blacks, escalation tactics are more likely to be used against them than whites. And Black people, who have seen or experienced excessive force used against people like themselves, react out of fear or anger to that escalation in ways that are understandable but contrary to what police officers expect—for example, by running from or challenging the police. In doing so, they may, unwittingly, cause a further, and possibly fatal, escalation on the part of police.

Third, the strategies used by police officers in America are often discriminatory in effect. While police officers may intend to use stop-and-frisk tactics to monitor likely criminals in high crime areas, police officers’ judgments about who is a likely criminal and which areas to monitor result in Blacks being stopped at much higher rates than whites. Similarly, “broken windows policing,” which aims to reduce the level of perceived “disorder” on the streets, often leads to minor laws being enforced more frequently and more harshly in Black than white neighborhoods. Marijuana laws are enforced far more often in Black communities than white ones, even though there is no racial difference in the rates of marijuana usage. When police departments are used to generate revenues for a local government, the burden of excessive policing usually falls on Blacks because they are least likely to have the standing or resources to object. And recent efforts to strengthen the capacities of local police forces have led to a massive increase in police firepower and the adoption of para-military tactics that lead to more aggressive action in Black communities.

These police strategies create more opportunities for the kind of escalation of violence described above. And they increase the fear of the police in the Black community, resulting in the bad consequences to which we have pointed. At the same time, these patterns of police action also undermine the vital cooperation that police officers need both to better evaluate the people they meet on the street as well as to apprehend suspects of crime.

Fourth, while all laws are formally meant to apply to Blacks and whites equally, they often have disparate racial effects. For example, the penalties for the use of the inexpensive crack cocaine more often found in Black neighborhoods are far higher than those for the more expensive powdered cocaine found in white neighborhoods. Yet, physicians have found no difference in the effect of these drugs on the behavior of users.

Fifth, because the effectiveness of our prosecuting attorneys is heavily dependent on the cooperation of the police, prosecutors regularly accept the word of police against the word of citizens victimized by police officers. This makes investigation of, let alone conviction and punishment for, police violence unlikely. Prosecutors and judges also share some of the same latent biases as police officers, leading them to be far less concerned about Black victims of police violence as they are about white ones.

Sixth, police tactics and strategies are embedded from time to time in larger, politically inspired efforts to “crack down” on crime. But because these efforts are brought about by political pressure that comes from the white majority, they often arise not so much in response to real changes in crime rates but to political tensions between Blacks and whites or to white perceptions that are ungrounded in facts. The civil rights movement and racial disorders resulting from protests against inequality in the 1960s, as well as general fears about the sexual revolution and the growing use of recreational drugs, led to “wars” on crime and drugs. These “wars” led to a larger and more aggressive police presence in Black neighborhoods that, in turn, has led to a massive and racially discriminatory expansion of the prison population in the United States. Of course, some of this response was also directed at a high rate of crime in the Black community. Yet, instead of addressing the economic and social distress, the health issues like lead poisoning and its effect on behavior, and the demographic changes in neighborhoods abandoned by the middle class—just some of the factors that created these high crime rates—the United States responded with a massive expansion of the criminal justice and prison system, again with discriminatory effect if not always with intent.

And, seventh, all of these factors operate against a background of economic and political inequality which in turn is sustained by structural racism. Blacks unjustly harmed by the police, or who are caught up unjustly in the criminal justice system, have far fewer resources with which to protect themselves than whites. They are less likely to be able to afford private attorneys. They are less likely to know reporters who can shine a light on their travail. They have fewer contacts in the political system they can call on for support. Economic and political inequality often means that the usual checks against abusive policing are missing when the victims are Black.

Solutions

There is much that can and should be done to address structural racism in the criminal justice system. We can point to only some of them here.

First, efforts must be made to ensure that police forces more closely represent the racial make-up of the community, where they do not do so now. Given that Black police officers often come to share the latent biases of white politics officers, this is no panacea. But it would help.

Second, far more training must be done to ensure that police address and recognize the latent biases that affect their behavior. And it is critical that police officers are trained in techniques to reduce rather than escalate tension between themselves and members of the community.

Third, police officials must change their strategies to emphasize forming closer bonds between the police and the community. In particular, community policing should become the norm, not the exception.

Fourth, local governments should not rely on police departments to generate revenues, as this creates incentives for excessive and unjust policing.

Fifth, funds must be provided to expand video monitoring of police-community interactions. All police officers and police vehicles should be equipped with video equipment. All interchange between the members of the community and the police should be video-recorded.

Sixth, communities should create citizen police review boards that have subpoena power to investigate and report on police misbehavior.

Seventh, to take the investigation and prosecution of police shootings out of the hands of prosecuting attorneys who must work closely with police, states should create permanent special prosecutors that work with the state police to investigate all police shootings.

Eight, the federal government should ensure that basic data about police shootings and other forms of violence are collected from all police forces and also by means of population surveys. We will not be able to fully address the structural and systemic racism of the criminal justice system in America if we do not know its extent.

A Crucial Caveat: Systemic, Not Personal

In pointing to the ways, in which the criminal justice system suffers from systemic or structural racism, we do not intend to demean the officers of the law—the police, the prosecuting attorneys, and the judges. The work they they do is difficult and challenging—none more so than that of the police officers who risk their lives to protect the public. They should be honored for their efforts.

And, make no mistake, that work is critical. Indeed, because they tend to have lower incomes and live in more crime-ridden neighborhoods, members of the Black community sometimes need the help of th               e police more than members of the white community. Black citizens often complain, rightly, about the failure of politicians to provide the same level of police services in their communities as they do in white ones.

The point of the Black Lives Matter movement is not primarily to cast aspersions against the character of judges, prosecutors, and police officers or to accuse them of bigotry. Just the opposite is true. For what is striking about racism in America today is precisely how often it is not the product of racist intent but of latent beliefs as well as structures and processes that have a racist outcome no matter what individuals intend.

Summary: Why “Black Lives Matter” Matters So Much

JSPAN believes that excessive police force is used too often against Black Americans.  The majority of police officers, Black and white, treat Black Americans with dignity and respect in their lives outside their official capacity and inside it as well. But they are caught up in system-wide structures and processes that lead to racially discriminatory uses of force that are contrary to our fundamental principle of civil liberty and equality. This must be rectified.

JSPAN believes that justice demands not only that we treat others properly, but also that we stand up for changes in public policy that address remove deep-seated sources of injustice, including the structural discrimination that afflicts Black Americans. More and more white Americans try to treat Black American fairly in their interpersonal relations. (At this point in our history of racism and separate lives, however, conscious effort by whites is sometimes required to overcome prejudice.)  But that is insufficient.  We must advocate for a system of justice that is no longer structurally racist.

JSPAN believes that many white Americans do not understand the extent to which systemic and structural racism afflicts our society.  As white Americans, we are the beneficiaries of “white privilege” which blinds us to the injustice in a criminal justice system that is unfamiliar to us. Many of us still live in essentially segregated communities and are not exposed to the daily indignities that Black Americans face.  We do not distinguish between the principle of fairness, and the imperfect and uneven way that principle is applied to Black Americans.

It is for these reasons that JSPAN supports the Black Lives Matter movement.  We are part of a tradition that teaches that the legal system of society must be equal for all, rich and poor, resident or stranger, and, in this context, Black or white.  The establishment of this kind of fair and equal justice is an urgent matter for our political community.

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