JS: Last week President Trump was asked about the epidemic of Black people murdered by police in the United States. His response was: “So are white people. More white people, by the way.”
TA: I have heard this argument before, including from a student of mine. The point I always make is it’s about the disparity. Yes, in terms of numbers, more white people get shot by the cops. But if you look at the percentage of the Black population, which is 13%, there’s a huge disparity in that they are shot at a rate that is more than twice as high as that of white people. Black people are overrepresented in instances of police violence and police shootings. So it’s a racialized problem, but that also doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect white people.
ZK: For me the argument is twofold. First, when Trump says this, he means to dismiss any discussion of racial disparities in police killings. In general when anyone says “white people are also killed by police,” they almost never do it to say: “Look, white people also have something at stake in police violence like Black people do.” They almost always bring it up to dismiss Black Lives Matter. Trump’s statement also begs the question: if white people get killed by the police so much, why aren’t they up in arms about it? And is it all white people or poor whites specifically? Why aren’t they angry that this is happening? Why don’t they see this organic connection with Black people getting killed by police? Why don’t they want to do something about police violence in America?
TA: That’s a really good point. I feel like a part of it is, to white people, the idea of being white has made them invested in this system like nobody else in this country. They are willing to believe that this system is for them — and to a degree, there’s truth to that. White privilege is real. At the same time, there’s almost no discussion of class at all in the United States. The Bernie Sanders campaign was the first time in my lifetime I saw lots of people talking about economics, although Sanders had a lot of issues with his campaign, because you can’t talk about class without talking about race. The ideology of race, and the construct of race, goes so deep in the United States that it is the dividing line. Even when there’s a class system dividing us, race is the only thing that we tend to see. Whiteness is a hell of a drug! It just blinds people.
JS: I’m glad you mentioned that. Trump says outrageous things all the time, but I brought up this particular statement because it seems to be something a lot of white people privately believe. To be clear, I feel a bit uncomfortable talking about lots of people in the abstract like this, and do not want to replicate the largely vapid armchair sociology about the “white working class” we were buried in after the 2016 election. The comrades at Viewpoint have put together an excellent collection of essays meant to steer us away from considering these questions as individual psychology, for all the right reasons. But as organizers, we are condemned to be concerned with individual people and the messy business of their individual consciousness. OK — as Tony Soprano would say, “Enough with the preambles.” I can state with reasonable confidence that white Americans are likelier to say: “A lot of white people get shot too, therefore Black people should stop complaining,” than to say: “A lot of white people get shot too, and that’s really terrible, what can we do to solve this problem together?” Tanzeem, you raised a great point about how white people tend to be more invested in the legitimacy of the United States, to which I would add, to such an extent that you can see otherwise intelligent people supporting fiscal austerity, capitalist medicine, gutting environmental regulations, and other policies that are literally killing them.
ZK: I totally agree. I would just add that since the 1960s, whiteness has also been enmeshed in rhetoric about the worthy and unworthy poor. This political rhetoric that politicians spew from time to time is always racialized and constantly pits poor and working class white people against Black people. That’s always in the background and both parties have been heavily invested in it. What is interesting to me about this particular moment is that it seems that, across America, a lot of white people support Black Lives Matter. We still do not know what all of this outpouring of support means — it is still unfolding. But it is important I believe. And I think the multiracial protest movement also gets at something that is important to keep in mind about the role of police in America: they maintain the color line but that’s not all that they do. They also maintain property relations. The Black Lives Matter protest movement has emphasized the racist police violence and that is a very important point but the police also maintain and reproduce the social order.
What does this social order entail in the United States? We know that race and class divisions are central to it. Many activists have written about the history of police emerging from slave patrols, but the economy of the United States in the 19th century was also based on industrial wage labor. Police certainly maintained the racial white order and policed Black life especially during and after Reconstruction and Jim Crow to the present moment. But police also controlled workers and protected capitalists. The racist and class roots of American policing are both important to highlight, and it’s not to equate the experiences of Black working class people with that of white ethnics or Latinx workers but it’s to realize how race and racism shape the uneven ways in which the police deal with the working class. Also its important to recognize that historically Mexican and Black workers have faced more racial violence (both state and vigilante) than white workers. Today, some whites encounter the police because their behavior is often criminalized theft, drugs, poverty. But for Black people this criminalization is far more broader and more pervasive and it extends beyond class. Also, the immiseration and interpersonal violence makes it appear that the police are a necessity and that they protect working-class people. And then there is the ideology of good cops that we are all brainwashed with constantly.
TA: When you talk about police with most people, the first thing you hear — not only from white people, but also people of color — is “it’s not all of them.” We go through life as individuals. Most of us don’t think in terms of larger structures. It makes sense; that’s not how we experience the world. It’s important to make the distinction: is every single cop and abusive piece of shit? Of course not. I know people who are cops, and they’re not bad people. You can be a good person, a good father, a good neighbor, a good friend, whatever. But the disconnect with most people is they’re not thinking about policing as an institution; what are the requirements of this thing? What does policing require you to do? When a few cops do speak out, what happens to them? Usually, you stop being a cop! You will lose your job because you get forced out for speaking up. So you can’t actually be a good cop, even if you’re a good person, because the institution won’t allow that.
JS: You raise an interesting point. What is it about the work that police are required to do, that makes violence such an omnipresent reality?
ZK: That brings us back to the question of why so many white people don’t see police murder of white people as something to protest or even question. If we just look at police murders alone we can see that police in the United States are far more violent than any other so-called developed country. This has to do with a mix of factors including but not limited to the development of the American state (and imperialism abroad), access to firearms and heightened racial and class inequalities. Police murder in the US has more in common with Brazil than the UK for instance (the same goes for racial disparities in COVID related infections and deaths). And beyond the more calculable forms of police violence like shootings, there is also the everyday violence resulting from street level policing. I think often the focus on renumerating the families of those killed by police doesn’t allow us to see the full picture of police violence, which is often an everyday phenomena and doesn’t always end in murder. Race and class come together in interesting ways that shape the way Black people experience the police. Even when we control for class, Black people get stopped by police at far greater rates than whites. This is not to say that poor white people don’t get stopped by the police, that they don’t get harassed. For God’s sake, we have a whole show dedicated to it: Cops! You see so many poor white people on Cops! So even in popular culture, we know it exists. But poor whites do not get stopped by the police for being white, they get stopped for other reasons. Black people and by extension Latinx immigrants experience policing in a totally different way — it is based on skin color but especially tied to ideas about race and criminality. Lets not forget that criminal law, courts and prosecutors give police an extraordinary amount of discretion about who to stop and what to do during and after stops.
TA: We have to think about the way that criminality is conceived. What is criminalized? Things that poor people do! And this reinforces the idea of the underclass: people who are not worthy, everything is wrong with them. This goes back to the “culture of poverty” ideology; there are so many things in our collective consciousness that point to certain people — Black, brown, poor — being criminals. When you are a cop, that is your training! The police I’ve spoken to say: “You don’t understand, we deal with these people everyday. We deal with criminals everyday. The language is so dehumanizing and essentializing: this is all you are. When you’re a cop patrolling the hood, think about all the things that have been put into your head about “these people”, even if you’re from the neighborhood! I had an ex who wanted nothing more than to be a cop, and when I would talk to him about it, his response would be: “I don’t want to be like the rest of these people, I’m not like that. I’m trying to do something positive, I’m trying to do something good.” It’s framed in this way that you have more value than the people around you because you are a part of this institution. So much of it stems from the criminalization of poverty, and the criminalization of Black people in particular but also brown people and also immigrants. While there are real material aspects to policing, and I’m not denying that at all, I think the ideological aspect also needs to be thought about.
JS: A recent study released by Northeastern and Harvard found that in cases where the victim posed a “minimal or less threat” to police, Black people were three times as likely to be killed as white people. To build on your point Zhana, the killing is only the tip of the iceberg when you talk about police interactions on a day-to-day basis. It might not be productive to look just at police murder. There are all kinds of ordinary everyday indignities meted out by police that could not only account for a larger gulf in racial experiences of police, but also help explain a widespread hatred of police seen in the present rebellion.
ZK: Many scholars and activists have related race and policing to the postwar transformation in urban cities. Since the 1960s, Blacks and Latinx live in a far greater concentration of poverty than even poor whites and these neighborhoods also tend to be more heavily policed and criminalized, popularized by terms like “million dollar blocks.” In large cities, police constantly patrol the streets. One of the most baffling things about living in Tennessee has been not seeing cops around all the time. In the Bronx, not a day would go by without seeing police officers walking around. Of course there are parts of New York City that do not witness such heavy police presence. But police patrol is especially prominent in large cities and in heavily segregated and poor neighborhoods of color.
TA: We need to look at how race and class began in this country. Barbara Fields has a great piece called “Slavery, Race and Ideology in The United States.” When you look historically at the way slavery impacted how Black people were seen in this country in terms of class, you see that to be Black was to be the underclass. Black was a class position. Being a slave was a class position. We don’t often think about it like that, which is why we see race and class as separate. If you were an enslaved person, you were subhuman, you were not even a human being, and looking at the class structure, you were all the way at the bottom. But it was because of your skin color that you were at the bottom. This is something that has a history in the United States, and it hasn’t changed. There are Black people who are middle-class, upper middle-class, and they’re not going to experience the same things poor and working-class Black people experience, but you can still be subject to racism, because Blackness is still seen as part of the underclass in this country. Race and class developed in a unique way in this country. It was similar in other places, due to colonization, but the difference is that, as a colonial subject, you were not dehumanized in the same way you were not tied to slavery. The only place where I have seen a similar development is with the British and their treatment of the Irish during the period when the English first colonized them. If you look at the way they spoke about the Irish, it can be seen as a precursor to what was done here in the United States with enslaved Africans. This is not to say it’s exactly the same. But looking at the thought patterns of the English, the language that they used to talk about the Irish, I see a lot of similarities. They most definitely used what I would call racialized language to describe them in very negative terms.
I also think a big thing we don’t talk about in this country is fear, and particularly on the part of white people, where there’s a fear of everything! Somebody’s always trying to do something to you, somebody’s trying to rob you, somebody’s trying to hurt you, you always feel like you need protection. And this isn’t every individual white person, but as a whole. There’s a good argument I read recently in an article but I can’t remember the name. It says that to understand white fear and hostility you have to go back to the founding of this country. It says that if you are living in a settler colonial state — which is what the US is, and you look at the history of this country and how Western expansion happened, with the idea of the “rugged individual,” you went out there and fucking killed whatever native American you came across, and felt like you were always being attacked — that mentality was a part of the construction of whiteness in this country. It created aggression, fear, mistrust and hostility.
ZK: Thinking about policing in terms of race and class is very important, as this is the bind we find ourselves in: on the one hand, “Black Lives Matter” is an interesting slogan. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says “All lives will matter when Black lives matter.” This gets to the important point that no revolution will be made in the United States without the participation and leadership of the Black proletariat. But at the same time, Black Lives Matter will not be successful without significant participation from whites. What’s so amazing to me about this moment is that the protests are so multiracial— they involve Black and white youth but also Latinx youth, Asian youth, brown youth, etc. This has been so amazing to witness. This multiracial force strikes a lot more fear in the hearts of the ruling class. Of course, we do not know yet what this will translate to. We don’t fully know why so many white people are participating and what their intentions are. But nonetheless being united under the banner of anti-racism in this way is important. Because anything and everything can happen at a protest. Four years ago, the white suburban women in Portland would have been protesting Trump and now they are fighting alongside Black Lives Matter and against federal troops. And the protests are far from over in my opinion. And the fact that continuous forms of state violence against Black people are making so many ordinary Americans lose faith in the cops and the state is crucial.
JS: That’s a very important point. I’m really interested in police ideology, the way that they see themselves. A lot of police view themselves as having a thankless job, where they’re not accepted by the ruling class or polite society, which looks down on them, while they’re also hated by the people they arrest and the people they imagine themselves protecting. In their minds, they have this thankless and impossible job of keeping a very disordered society from exploding, and nobody understands this. I think there’s something to that! Police are the shock troops of mediating capital’s most violent contradictions.
TA: They’re the overseers! The whole country is a goddamned plantation, one big work camp, where we’re now being told: “you have two choices: you can go to work and risk dying from this virus, or you can not go to work and we’re not going to give you money and you’re going to die from starvation!” It’s one giant work camp and the police are here to oversee all of us. They come from the same poor ass backgrounds as most of us do, but they take these jobs policing us on behalf of the people at the top, who don’t give a shit about them or us, so of course we hate them, because we see what they’re doing!
JS: There’s a recurring scene in Chester Himes’s Harlem Detective Series where the two Black detectives are called into their white superior’s office, and he says: “You know, Grave Digger and Coffin Filler, we really appreciate the work you do up in Harlem, but do you really have to kill so many people?” To this, one of them will reply something like: “You have given us the task of protecting affluent white New Yorkers from the crushing violence, poverty, and misery concentrated within the borders of Harlem, so yes, it is actually necessary for us to use all the violence you have seen, and more.” This is an honest police response to something like the Black Lives Matter movement, and unsurprisingly, it’s what the most honest reactionaries are saying. This is why we must go beyond the figure of the police and take aim at the social order they uphold, which is of course wildly disordered and in need of radical redress.
TA: I want to go back to something you said Zhana, because I think you made a really good point: when white people are killed by the cops, they don’t see it the same way as Black people. When Black people are killed by the cops, it’s because they are Black. When white people are killed by the cops, it is not because they are white. I would venture to guess they are poor — I doubt that many rich or middle-class white people are attacked and killed by the police. Now, think about the way that we think about identity in this country. When you ask somebody their identity, what’s the first thing they say? Race, or ethnic background. How many people will say something about their class background? Not many people will say I’m poor, or working-class, or middle-class. Black people know that when they’re being harassed and killed by the cops. They know that it is as Black people that they are being attacked. When white people are attacked by the cops, they’re not likely to see this within a class framework. White people are able to separate it out from being part of their person, they don’t really see it as part of their identity.
JS: It seems like there’s a division in the rebellion between folks who are calling it an issue-based campaign — against racism, racist policing, policing, etc. — on the one side, and then on the other side there’s this generalized rebellion against the misery and insanity of American life that has not found any coherent articulation besides lighting a cop car on fire and saying: “I don’t know what I’m for but I know what I’m against, and it’s literally everything I fucking see.” Now, I don’t want to pose these two elements of the movement as enemies, and force people to choose whether it’s about Black lives or overthrowing American capitalism…
ZK: Generation Z ain’t having none of the empty rhetoric of police reforms. But also this time around, the policing killing of a Black man coincided with other forms of state violence: the response to COVID-19. The elites are sacrificing millions of people for the “economy.” Thirty million Americans claimed unemployment benefits. Soon with extra pandemic relief money running out and no commitment by either party to financially helping ordinary working class people, millions of people will face evictions. I think police violence and COVID has exposed the fact that America is a terrible country. The US is leading the COVID related deaths worldwide. The number of COVID cases is surpassing 5 million. The American ruling class is trying to keep these forms of state violence separate, and stop them from engaging with each other. I would say the Portland NAACP president’s response to the street activity there, saying that these white moms are taking the movement away from Black Lives Matter and making it about something else, is a really good example of fomenting divisions. So, anyone who is not the most authentic protester is treated as potentially dividing or taking away from the movement. When in reality for the first time in a long time the crisis of policing and COVID can organically connect struggles.
TA: I disagree a little bit. I don’t think the average Black person sees this as a larger struggle that goes beyond race. I think the average person in this country — Black, white, or otherwise — sees this as a struggle against racism and policing, and that’s as far as it goes. There are of course some who see it as a larger structural issue, but that’s not a majority. This is because of the way we have been taught to think about race versus class. But honestly, isn’t this the fucking issue with every movement? I just keep thinking back to Occupy. I remember going down to that shitshow. There were some people screaming at the top of their lungs: “Burn it all!” But there were a lot of people who later got involved, who were like: “Corporations are the problem, we have to regulate corporations. Bring back the Glass-Steagall Act.” I’ll never forget it, there were so many fucking people saying: “Bring back the Glass-Steagall Act,” like that would take care of everything!
JS: The good old days!
TA: This is always the issue with movements: how big is your view of what the issues are? Because if you think the issue in this country is only race, and nothing else, I don’t know what to tell you, you’re confused. Equally, I will say, because this is very common on the left, if you think the issue in this country is class only, you are also very confused. I think this is always the tension that has existed.
ZK: I agree with Tanz that most people want to resolve racism in policing, and a lot of the support is about that, but the reality is that it will never get resolved as long as capitalism continues. That’s the beauty of these tensions. There could actually be good reforms, but eventually they will run their course. And today because of technology and social media, police violence is difficult to ignore. Mainstream America is becoming aware of something that has been happening to Black people for a long time. We can certainly be desensitized to them to some degree. But in certain moments, the protests against police violence will start again. So the movement, whether people want it or not, will be pushed toward something greater. And as long as COVID rages on, all sorts of things can happen. In the next few months as federal aid declines, more people will face unemployment, evictions, etc. But my fear is it will be pushed to a point where the repression will be greater than its potential to connect to other struggles.
JS: Marx teaches us that the decisive factor is not what individual proletarians think they are, but what they are in actuality, and what this social being compels them to do. Right? So how much does it really matter what people think about this rebellion, as they are participating in it, versus what the rebellion is going to force them to do as it unfolds, and how these choices will transform them?
TA: That’s a good question, and I’ve grappled with it. The first night they were rioting in the Bronx around Fordham, I went up there with my friend. We walked around, we went to Grand Concourse where it was also happening. First of all, the feeling was like a party. Everyone was having mad fun. Small businesses were getting looted, which I don’t agree with, but I understand the sentiment. One of my friends I was with was saying: “I wanna loot, I want stuff!” Now, before this, when we had spoken about what was going on, she was indifferent. This is a girl, mind you, who grew up in the hood her whole life, lives in the projects. I said: “You are who they want to kill! You, specifically, are who they want to kill!” She just had this indifference. But when we got up there, she was so elated. But her focus was: “I want stuff. Let’s go hit that spot, let’s go hit that spot!” And I got so mad. I said: “You’re not taking shit, because you didn’t care earlier!”
JS: Ha ha ha, peace police!
ZK: Tanzeem turned into 5-0!
TA: I really did! I was like: “Bitch, you not taking nothing, you don’t get to do this, because you didn’t give a fuck about that man dying!” I started to think about how many people out here right now are doing this because they feel “fuck this system, fuck the police, fuck what they did to him,” versus my friend. And there are people out there who are just like “I want shit,” and are not making the connection. But does it matter? I came home and I started crying, thinking: “Yo, this man got killed on camera, another Black person murdered by the cops, and there are people out there just to get shit, they just want free shit.” I definitely think that participating in something like that can change you. And to expect that everyone is going to have completely perfect politics around everything is fucking stupid. We live in a shit society, how are you going to get that? But struggle will change you. I was having a conversation with a friend, and he reminded me: “Who do you think makes revolution? It’s fucked up ass people who get challenged and changed in that process.”
JS: We don’t want to fall into the trap of so-called anti-racist educators who think we’ll get over the hump just as soon as a critical mass of white people sit through the “invisible knapsack” workshop critiqued so deftly by Asad Haider, who stands, as we do, on the shoulders of Noel Ignatiev. I therefore wonder how important these ideas even are, versus pushing the struggle that will force their rectification?
ZK: Ideology is very important. But materially, a lot of the things whiteness was based on at least in the last four decades— access to the middle-class, safety from cities, safety from poor Black people in cities — are dramatically changing for a lot of white people. Many of the young white people participating in these protests are going to have so much college debt, no access to healthcare, and no access to any kind of middle-class standard of living that their parents and grandparents did. Generational wealth that formed an important part of whiteness is falling apart today. I think this will bring up all kinds of contradictions and tensions. I will give you an example. I interviewed this woman recently for Hard Crackers, a white woman whose husband was locked up in Trousdale Correctional Facility, a prison which is also the number one COVID hotspot in the state of Tennessee. Half of the people in the prison are infected. It’s owned by CoreCivic which is one of the largest non-profit prison companies in the nation. She put together a campaign herself to organize the families of incarcerated people against CoreCivic. We did this amazing interview. Then I went on her Facebook, and she has all this anti-BLM stuff! She has a video of somebody driving into a BLM protest, and she said: “If they block me on my way to work I would do the same thing.” These are the kinds of contradictions we’re going to see more and more of, and I don’t have a solution, but this is why I still believe participating in struggles and movements is so important. These are big and important contradictions that I’m not just going to let that rock! Having those discussions where you are at, organizing with people through that. Sure, some white people are real racists and will not join in, but many will.
TA: Material conditions will absolutely push people forward. We’re going to see a lot of what you described. And it goes back to race, and the way Blackness is thought about in this country, where white people think: “Black people: who do you think you are to protest anything?” Whiteness was created to maintain this racial hierarchy, and we still have it in place. Blackness is still at the bottom, and Black people are seen as not having a right to speak out. Even if they’re not thinking about it this way, and I don’t think most white people who think this way think in these terms, but there’s the underlying sentiment that: “I have more value than you.” There’s also a crazy hostility from a lot of white people toward blackness, and why? Why? What did Black people collectively do to you? Why are you so angry?
JS: Growing up in a place where there was a ingrained culture of anti-Black racism, and having to unlearn a lot of it myself, I’ve come around to thinking that the real nasty animosity that working-class white people have toward Black people is not based on the belief that they are different, but the fear that they are basically the same, and “there but for the grace of God go I.” Absent multi-racial solidarity, there’s nowhere for most white Americans to go right now but down, and perhaps their greatest fear is being treated the same as Black people. After all, historically, being treated at minimum a little bit better than Black people is the basis of whiteness as a social pact. The challenge for us is channeling this fear into disgust at the conditions which necessitate such a nasty contest for the lower rungs of society.
ZK: That’s a big part of the white ethnic immigrant experience. You come to the United States and your job is the same as a Black person, but at the end of the day you are not Black. You see this among the Irish, Italians, Albanians, who demand the distinction. And besides police violence, there is also the fear of real racial terror. And with the rise of Black Lives Matter we will certainly see a lot more white supremacist violence. And this is why debunking Trump’s claims are so important. And the protests are certainly doing this work, but it will also have to go beyond the burning of precincts and blockading of streets. It will be having these conversations and facing these contradictions and organizing in all aspects of American life: work, school, entertainment. And I think there are important shifts happening. I grew up in New York City, and I never really realized this about America, but white people and Black people really do live in two different Americas. Class brings them together some ways for sure. But the way American society is experienced, even by poor whites, is different from Black Americans. I realized this while watching sport games down here in Tennessee. Now, that’s also changing, and I’m happy for some of these changes. I know it’s liberal, but seeing Spiderman as a half-Black half Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx — I love it! Those are things movements do. I doubt it would have happened outside people protesting in the streets. So there’s a shattering and a recomposing of the division between these two worlds.
JS: But enough from us. Let’s see what our readers have to say. Check out our Facebook page to join the discussion.