When I was doing research for How the Irish Became White, I looked at the prison population of Philadelphia from 1815 to 1824, and found, to no one’s surprise, that black people made up a far higher proportion of the prison population than they did in the city as a whole. However, when I controlled for income, the disparity practically disappeared: Of those in the poorest third, the group from whom the prison population was drawn, one out of twelve men, roughly the same among black as white, was in prison. (Routledge 1995, 44-48)
Were they in prison because they were black or because they were poor? The question is misleading. For historic reasons, a greater proportion of black people than whites were poor; even without “race” discrimination by the legal system, they would have gone to prison in disproportionate numbers. Yet it was their background as former slaves that led to their being classified as members of a distinct “race.” Do you walk to work or carry your lunch?
We may be facing a similar dilemma with regard to police killings today. Black people make up approximately 12 percent of the US population, but they make up about 25 percent of those killed by police. Simple enough, it would appear: they are being killed at a rate more than twice their representation. However, according to one study, the situation is similar to what I found in my study of Philadelphia: classification of people by “race” conceals an important aspect of truth. Appearance and essence?
The study “reviews all the data available on police shootings for the year 2017, and analyzes it based on geography, income, and poverty levels, as well as race.” Its presentation can be daunting; here I attempt to present its most important findings in a way accessible to the ordinary reader. For the most part I have reproduced the words of the study. In a few places I have reworded the text, but I have made no substantive changes. I encourage readers to consult the original, at https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/12/20/kil1-d20.html
The study divides the U.S. into zones where police killings took place and where they did not, and compares them.
According to the US Census Bureau, 328 million people reside in the United States. Non-Hispanic whites make up 60.7 percent, black or African American 13.4 percent, and Hispanics or Latino 18.1 percent of the population. The annual median household income in 2016 dollars amounts to $55,322 and the percentage of the population living in poverty stands at 12.3 percent.
The region [where police killings took place] accounts for 91,526,100 people. In other words, slightly more than one-quarter of the US population lives in a city or county where a police killing took place, and conversely, just under three-quarters live in cities or counties that were free of such killings.
The population [of the region where police killings took place] had significantly different demographics from the USA as a whole. Non-Hispanic whites made up 44.5 percent, blacks 18.6 percent and Hispanics 26.7 percent of this region. The median household income is slightly lower at $52,218 per annum.
If one compares the poverty rates in the two regions, the disparity is even more stark. The poverty rate is 19.5 percent in what might be called the police killing zone. It is only 9.5 percent, less than half that rate, in the rest of the country.
There are significant variations from state to state and from population centers like metropolises to small rural communities in how the demographics are configured. The Southeast states have large black populations in both urban and rural areas, the Midwest is predominately white, particularly outside city centers, and the Southwest has a very high Hispanic population. Metropolitan centers have higher minority populations while rural communities have a preponderance of white people. There are also considerable socioeconomic variations within these regions.
Police violence is focused overwhelmingly on men lowest on the socio-economic ladder: in rural areas outside the South, predominately white men; in the Southwest, disproportionately Hispanic men; in mid-size and major cities, disproportionately black men. Significantly, in the rural South, where the population is racially mixed, white men and black men are killed by police at nearly identical rates.
Blacks are killed in vastly disproportionate numbers in larger urban centers and continue to be over-represented in smaller urban centers. However, half of all police killings occur in rural areas where the majority is non-Hispanic white, though these areas represent a much smaller fraction of the national population. It is here where white deaths begin to “catch up” to black deaths, and ultimately surpass them.
In the state of Alabama, there were 25 people killed. Fourteen (56 percent) were identified as white, seven (28 percent) were black, and 1 (4 percent) was Hispanic. The actual state demographics are 65.8 percent white, 26.8 percent black and 4.2 percent Hispanic. There was no “preference” by the police for blacks as targets over whites. Similar “neutrality” by the police was found in Mississippi, an equally backward state from the standpoint of its history. The racial explanation of police violence falls apart in precisely the locations where it should be most blatant.
The number of whites killed by police in rural areas, 292, is just about exactly twice the number of blacks killed by police in urban areas, 149. The income and poverty rates in the two areas are comparable: both white and black victims of police violence live in lower-income working-class areas characterized by much higher than average poverty rates.
Poor whites are in essence invisible to the national discussion on police killings. The present data show that what whites and blacks who are killed by police have in common is poverty.
The authors of the study believe that “enormous resources have been mobilized to spread the ‘race, not class’ mythology of police killings.” They attribute the invisibility of poor whites to “pseudo-left groups [who] promote racialist conceptions to defend the capitalist economic system in which their own material interests are rooted,” specifically naming DSA and Black Lives Matter, which has gained the support of the Ford Foundation, Nike and other ruling-class institutions.
Assuming the survey is accurate, that must be at least part of the truth. Are there any other explanations? Why haven’t poor whites rioted, as black people have in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere?