There Is Something Well-Meaning White People Can Do, But You May Not Like It
Fairness in policing starts with & requires integration
In the wake of yet another week of highly publicized police violence against black men, left-leaning people of all races seem beside themselves with anguish and frustration. We ask ourselves, Why does this keep happening? How can we change police training and criminal justice and, well, everything, to make this stop?
Here’s the secret that isn’t a secret: police training is a problem, but it’s not the problem. The mechanisms of accountability — body cameras, independent oversight, criminal trials — are a solution, but they’re not the solution. The problem, the one from which all the day-to-day symptoms flow, is bigger and deeper than that: ongoing, voluntary residential segregation.
Defenders of the police point to higher rates of crime in black neighborhoods. Critics of the police talk about higher rates of warrantless stops and usurious traffic enforcement in black neighborhoods and majority black towns. The obvious question should be: Why are there black neighborhoods?
Why are there whole municipalities, like Ferguson, MO, that are essentially non-white, and where the tenor of official behavior can be so pervasively different than it is in neighboring, predominantly white towns and cities? Why is our nation carved into race-based administrative units that facilitate the unequal provision of public services, whether policing or education or municipal water and sewers?
There are no laws that make it so, yet it is so. White people live mostly apart from people of color. We school our children separately and, by and large, administer our public services separately, funding them with taxes assessed on the basis of the values of the homes we can afford. We insulate ourselves politically, economically, and geographically from people of color.
White people live mostly apart from people of color.
We can support education and criminal justice policies at the state and national level that will seldom affect our children because we still control the local mechanisms of enforcement. And because we live at a remove, because the young men perennially detained and released under stop-and-frisk policies are not our friends, and the children expelled under zero-tolerance policies are not our children, we can keep their human suffering abstract and embrace preposterous explanations of it.
How did we arrive at this situation? Better thinkers and writers than I have explained it in more detail than I can, but here’s the TL;DR: when a deeply racist nation, starting from a position of radical inequality, embraces economic policies that encourage the intergenerational accumulation of wealth, it will have segregation forever. That segregation will undergird a set of policies and attitudes that train police nationwide to enforce laws unequally, to the detriment of the minority.
We were that nation in 1964, when explicit legal segregation effectively ended, and we are living the results of our ongoing, multigenerational, voluntary segregation. That’s where we are, and where we will remain, unless we take steps to make voluntary segregation by white people morally unappealing or economically impossible.
The movement of white people away from majority-minority neighborhoods and schools over the last fifty years — even when couched in the race-neutral language of doing the best for one’s children — is the movement of white families into separate communities from which they can project fear and the policing tactics that fear inspires onto communities of color. Moving to the suburbs so your white kid won’t be the social justice experiment is making someone else’s black kid the oppression experiment. Except, of course, it’s not an oppression experiment, because to call something an experiment is to suppose that it tests an uncertain hypothesis.
So let’s call things what they are. White people’s openness and protest and allyship are valuable and necessary, but they are not sufficient. White people who want to fight racist policing need to fight segregation with our voices, our votes, and most of all, our personal choices.
And it needs to be hard and uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable like an awkward conversation; uncomfortable like buying a house somewhere where your kid will be in the minority at the neighborhood school. Uncomfortable like standing up at a suburban town hall meeting and speaking out in favor of the construction of affordable housing or a methadone clinic or something else that could bring down the property values on your block.
White people who want to fight racist policing need to be fighting segregation with our voices, our votes, and most of all, our personal choices. And it needs to be hard and uncomfortable.
Now, I am not so naive as to think that mere individual action, or even concerted private action by many individuals, will undo what centuries of personal choice and government policy have wrought. Without government intervention to control housing prices and supply, a sudden influx of middle class white people can be just as damaging to a black neighborhood as prolonged disengagement by those same white people. The fact that I, a white person, live in a non-white neighborhood in a non-white city and send my white kids to non-white schools will never, by itself, undo Connecticut’s system of town government, which is as well-crafted an implementation of facially neutral segregationist policy as you could ever hope to find.
Nor do I pretend to say all this from a place of purity. I bought a house in the suburbs once! I recently inherited a portion of my grandparents’ wealth from my aunt, and the first thing I did was pay off my law school debts. I could craft arguments about why that is morally defensible — law school taught me to craft arguments in favor of just about anything — but I must concede that $70,000 could have done more justice elsewhere, and I could have paid off my debts on my own. (In about 20 years, but still.)
We will not, any of us, always be able to do the most moral thing. There are a million ways that people of good intentions become staked to endeavors of questionable moral good, from necessary jobs in morally questionable industries to unsellable houses that contribute to sprawl and segregation to the overwhelming desire (in my case) to discharge burdensome debts. But we should look with clear eyes at these circumstances and recognize them as detrimental to the cause of racial justice.
White people often argue that voluntary integration is too impractical, that the better policy goal is thoughtful policing and good schools everywhere. We should ask ourselves, when we make that argument, whether we really think that separate-but-equal is a just and workable policy, or whether we simply don’t want to be the ones at the forefront of a difficult realignment of privileges.
As the philosopher Peter Singer says,
If that makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way things are. If we don’t do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life — not because it is good to wallow in guilt but because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward heading in that direction.
None of this is easy. That is the point: we’re talking about voluntarily renouncing advantages, which is a fundamentally counter-intuitive thing to do. If, as you read this, you find yourself objecting to the impossibility of it all, well, I agree. People don’t generally renounce advantages, no matter how unjust, without a fight (see, for example, the Civil War). But what is the alternative that we have not tried in the last 60 years?
Last year, an essay in the Washington Post asked a number of Black Lives Matter activists what they thought white people could do to help the movement. The answers were wide-ranging, but one recurrent theme was that white people should take risks. That applies not only with regard to barricades and riot shields, but comfort and financial security, too.
To admit the ways in which we are part of the problem is a risk. To make changes is an even bigger risk, because it might be for naught: we might be the only ones; the change might not come; we might end up relinquishing advantages in vain. But the risks for which, as white people, we might opt in are invariably less dangerous, less crushing, less threatening to our existence than those from which people of color cannot opt out.
White people who want to break down structural racism in this country — especially middle- and upper-class white people — must keep the goal of undoing residential segregation foremost in our minds and actions. It should be the filter through which we view every choice we make and the benchmark by which we unflinchingly measure our complicity in the evil we claim to hate.
Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags. His views do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.
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