If the events in America since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson have taught us anything, it is that whites and blacks have very different encounters with the police.
As I pointed out in the last post, Romans 13 and 911 might be "good news" to a woman in Africa, but what about on the streets of Ferguson?
Last year I read the book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy. Ghettoside was an interesting, even paradoxical, book to read during the unrest America was and is experiencing over police shootings.
Let me describe the paradox by taking us back into the issues of Romans 13, where Paul describes the nation state as "God's servant for your good" because the nation state does not "bear the sword in vain" as "the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."
Ghettoside is the story of black-on-black murder in LA. Now, this is a difficult statistic to swallow, but in LA black males are more likely to be killed by other black males than by white police officers. And for far too many people, such statistics are often used get white law enforcement off the hook when it comes to police shootings.
Ghettoside, however, comes at the issue from a very different angle. Why is there so much black-on-black violence in places like LA? According to Leovy it's because black lives don't matter to law enforcement in LA. Specifically, black deaths aren't given the investigative attention they deserve to bring homicide charges against the murderers. When there is inner-city black-on-black violence the general feeling among many LA homicide detectives is that the killers "did our job for us," one gang-banger killing another gang-banger. The person who was shot probably deserved it.
And so there is no investigation. No charges. The killer walks. Black lives on the streets of LA are cheap.
And that's the paradox of Ghettoside. Black lives are costly, black lives matter, when there is functioning law enforcement, when killers don't walk.
Consider the value of two lives. One life is that of a white woman shot in Hollywood. How much law enforcement would be devoted to catching and bringing her killer to justice? A lot. That law enforcement effort makes the life of that white woman costly. Her life matters.
By contrast, consider a young black male shot dead in a drive by in South LA? How much attention is his death going to get from law enforcement? Especially if that young man had some gang affiliation?
In the eyes of law enforcement, the lives of black men in South LA are cheap. They don't matter. Especially compared to a white woman shot in Hollywood.
Here's how the argument of Ghettoside is summarized in a NYT review of the book:
As Leovy sees it, the problem in a place like Watts is not only the high homicide rate, but the fact that so many people who commit murder are never punished. In the 13 years before the homicide that opens her book, she writes, “a suspect was arrested in 38 percent of the 2,677 killings involving black male victims in the city of Los Angeles.” This lack of accountability is the primary cause, she argues, of the high homicide rate in some African-American neighborhoods: “Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death,” she writes, “homicide becomes endemic.”This assessment--“Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.”--brings us back to Romans 13.
There are more than 2.2 million people now confined in American prisons and jails, and yet, in her view, the criminal justice system is not only“oppressive” but also “inadequate.” “Forty years after the civil rights movement, impunity for the murder of black men remained America’s great, though mostly invisible, race problem,” she writes. “The institutions of criminal justice, so remorseless in other ways in an era of get-tough sentencing and ‘preventive’ policing” — like stop-and-frisk — “remained feeble when it came to answering for the lives of black murder victims.”
The paradox of Ghettoside is that it argues that the black community needs more rather than less law enforcement, and by more we mean more adequate and appropriate. From a law enforcement perspective, many of America's inner cities are functionally equivalent to the failed states in Africa. In many neighborhoods there is a vacuum of law enforcement. And where there is a vacuum of law enforcement the locust effect reigns. Lives become cheap. And where lives are cheap murder become endemic.
And in America the places that have been abandoned by law enforcement have largely been black neighborhoods. Black lives don't matter in Ghettoside.
Again, all this is a paradoxical assessment in the wake of Ferguson, leading one to think that the last thing black communities need is more police driving around. But I'd argue that these police shootings are, in fact, the direct product of police officers not driving around black communities.
When black communities are abandoned by law enforcement when the police drive to certain zip codes on a 911 call they are, functionally, driving into what they implicitly take to be a war zone, full of danger and hostile intent. And perhaps it is. Regardless, the police are driving to the call on alert and wary, their bodies pumped full of stress hormones and adrenaline. And that stress reaction affects cognition, making the police hypervigilant and prone to overestimate risk. It's not surprising that triggers get pulled in these situations with tragic outcomes.
But isn't the message of Ghettoside relevant here? Aren't these shootings at least partly caused by law enforcement functionally abandoning black neighborhoods, bringing white officers into contact with black bodies only under highly stressful and emergency situations?
Might these police shootings be due to a chronic lack of appropriate law enforcement in black communities? A lack of regular contact and engagement that breeds distrust between both parties? A distrust that goes tragically wrong when two paranoid groups come into contact in stressed and emergency situations?
All that to say, similar to my reaction to the locust effect, Ghettoside gave me pause in how I think about Romans 13.
Might a problem regarding US law enforcement be that some zip codes in the US are, like in South LA, functionally operating as failed states? Similar to the failed states worldwide that are prone to the locust effect? Don't we describe these zip codes as being "abandoned" by empire? And isn't a part of that abandonment a lack of functional law enforcement leading to endemic crime and violence?
Might a appropriate and functional law enforcement in places like South LA make black lives matter, even in Ghettoside?