On Monday, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton tweeted, “lets see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division,” and “No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists rioters, and looters.” No quarter means no living quarters; as in, no arrests or detentions; as in, kill them all. As lawyers and bystanders noted shortly thereafter, this has been outlawed as a war crime since before the World Wars, so Cotton’s comment is as extreme as it sounds. This is a call to cross the Rubicon, and America would enter a radically new chapter if this call were heeded. Examining how we could defuse this situation now, in my estimation, could pull us back from that precipice, but will require a political vulnerability that most of us rarely practice.
I think it’s a given that Senator Cotton would not have made those comments if they were politically unwise, so the obvious question is: how can this be a popular sentiment amongst conservatives? How could a conservative be comfortable saying this? The answer depends on your affiliation: if you are liberal, it’s because conservatives are racist and authoritarian, and cannot stand the sight of so many people standing in solidarity with black lives. If you’re conservative, it’s because the demands of the protestors, sparked by the tragic and unjust killing of George Floyd, are impossible to meet. Protestors want to reduce the deaths of black people by law enforcement through a program of antiracism, but conservatives believe that law enforcement is largely fair, and that police kill large numbers of black people because black people commit far more violent crime.
Is this claim true? Liberals have decided it isn’t true or relevant, but conservatives have decided it is true and it does matter. To me, avoiding that conversation in circumstances like this is just childish. Frankly, the country will never overcome its race issue if we are not willing to face ugly truths and have civil discussions with people we disagree with. “The time for civil discussion is over,” said the protestors. I say it isn’t, both because of my commitments to peace, as well as desire to actually solve the problem at hand. We, as a country, have never had this conversation, so maybe now is as good a time as any.
First of all, there is a political disagreement in our culture about crime and violence. Conservatives claim that black people commit violent crime at substantially higher rates, as well as fostering a larger culture of criminality. Their crime argument centers on, frankly, undeniable statistics collected by the Department of Justice and FBI, which do clearly demonstrate that the black community has an issue with violent crime- something any sociologist or criminologist could confirm. The conservative argument that follows from that observation focuses on specific critiques about black family structure and hip-hop culture.
Their position on family is that black families are too often tragically broken, and it is well known that the strongest predictor thus far discovered for incarceration is whether or not an individual was raised in a single-parent home. Single-parent-raised children make up the vast majority of long-term inmates in the US correction system, as well as being responsible for the majority of violent crime in the country, according to some experts. Worryingly, black families have been undergoing a silent destruction: nationally, between 1960 and 2010, the proportion of black children raised in single-parent households jumped from less than a quarter to more than half- sometimes even as high as 80% or higher in some major cities. Compared to less than a quarter today for white families, it’s clear that the black community deserves special attention in trying to solve this problem, and this is not just a fantasy of racists. Hip-hop culture has also long been identified as promoting violence and gang activity; gang activity being responsible for half of all murders in some major American cities.
Liberals have a series of responses to this perspective. Firstly, many liberals outright reject those underlying presumptions and statistics. They will say that the discrepancy in recorded violent crime rates is a result of racism, either in the courts or in the police themselves, which is always plausible. Rarely, some liberals will say that law and order is an inherently, white, racist concept, and that accepting black culture demands that we accept organized crime and street violence. I don’t buy that at all, and I don’t think most liberals do either. Another response is that black violence is a response to a condition of economic repression, which I partly agree with. Cross-sectional studies have parsed out the correlations between poverty and crime, and found that it has a noticeable effect, though it is not the largest factor.
Secondly, liberals will point to the nation’s long, blatant, and obvious history of racism- often accompanied by the accusation that much of the country is still racist, either consciously or subconsciously. Conservatives will typically deny that America is racist anymore, but the reality is that a racial project like ours has never been undertaken, and whether the result is a co-republic or complete integration, we still have a long way to go. So do black lives matter to American police?
A Sober Assessment
Why are cops shooting black people so often? Let’s try considering the perspective of the police. Being a police officer is an especially dangerous profession in a well-armed country like ours. Gun crime is the number one worst-case scenario for a police officer to try to resolve safely, for obvious reasons. When a gun is involved, a police officer has to rely on his or her intuition. He or she is in a heightened state of awareness, looking at every detail to try to get more information about the person he or she is interacting with: Is the subject uncooperative? Does the subject seem like they’re hiding something? How is the subject dressed, work clothes, gang clothes, or tattoos? Do they act like they are calm around someone with authority? Are they speaking clearly? These are the only hints an officer gets that they may be fatally ambushed while interacting with someone.
When a cop mistakenly judges that someone is a threat, and ends their life, all of those questions play into that miscalculation. With that in mind, is the justice system racist because that miscalculation happens more often with black people than with white people? It seems that all of those factors would need some kind of cross-analysis so we can know whether the conservative or liberal narrative is the correct explanation.
It’s possible that 99% of the black people mistakenly killed by police are killed because the cop doesn’t value black life. But it’s also possible that only 1% of mistakenly killed black people run into that racist cop, and the other 99% are wearing gang clothing, reaching into their pockets, and resisting arrest. If I do all of those things, even as a white person, I’d be lucky to be alive after that interaction, so we know those particular deaths aren’t because of skin color. Really, there are many conceivable explanations for the racial discrepancy in the justice system, most of which can be easily validated or debunked with existing data- it’s just too sensitive a topic for most people to approach. I think the death of George Floyd demands that we finally face reality and get concrete resolution to these conflicting perspectives.
Stop the Tweets
Before we riot, before we call in the 101st Airborne, we need to do a statistical analysis of this question. If the vast majority of deaths are from resisting arrest or otherwise legitimately raising the stakes of life and death for the officer, conservatives would be vindicated, and we could then go down the road of reuniting black families and trying to enact strategies that reduce the appeal of violence and gang life to young people more widely. If the vast majority of people wrongly killed had no violent criminal history, or were not resisting arrest, and there is a clear discrepancy when controlling for other factors among races, then liberals would be vindicated, and a national movement to purge racists from positions of authority, per Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, would be given a green light by conservatives.
This is the impasse at which we find ourselves. No amount of shaming or handwringing will convince either side that they need to abandon their goals or strategies. Two options lay before us. The first option is to escalate the situation with violence, intimidation, or legal persecution. Liberals have decided that censorship, rioting, and social intimidation will be their tactics, while Senator Cotton articulates the conservative strategy well. To avoid that fate, which would tear this country apart and do nothing to solve racial traumas that are as old as the republic, we must be strong enough to choose the second, slightly less painful, option: we must listen to each other. That would mean accepting that family is important for social stability, something liberals hate admitting, and that our country still has not made the kinds of transcendent change that equal rights demand- something conservatives hate admitting. Perhaps the tragedy of George Floyd’s death might eventually contribute to reminding us all how important it is to understand people with whom we disagree. I hope after all this is still over, we will recognize the value in applying that skill more often.