Tuesday, November 25, 2014

My present thoughts about Ferguson and the drudgery of causation

The worst part about seeing fnords is that almost no one else does, so I find myself in conversations or making observations that not many people understand.  I find this frustrating so I shut up more often than I should.  What's the point of saying something when no one listens?

Anyway, here's the bit about Ferguson.  I'm not sure to what extent it is fair to take a specific incident and turn it into a referendum about broad social policy. While I understand the legitimate issues at stake in Ferguson, I find this specific incident far less touching and significant than the general trend that I don't think many people understand.  Here it is:

We have all been tricked by the "war on crime".  It has never been about crime.  Every other industrialized nation in the world has crime rates similar to the US without our crazy obsession with crime and punishment (and they all have a small fraction of our murders, due to the fairly strict gun control laws in every other country worth living in).  This very strongly suggests that crime rates in the US have been dropping due to outside factors (such as the fact we're a generally richer nation than we've ever been, leaving fewer people in utterly desperate straits).  No, no, the war on crime has never been about crime but about race.

As the social movements of the Sixties changed the attitude of Americans, it became unacceptable to perpetrate violence on minority communities merely because they were minorities.  Cops couldn't just go in to beat and kill minorities to satisfy the racist bloodlust.  Yet, all of these police departments and justice systems were top-heavy with brutally vicious racist assholes.  The cops and judges that came into power in the 60s were raised in the undeconstructed racism of the 50s and earlier.

It is likewise important to realize that this continuity extends forward - the cops and judges in power now arise directly from those people in the 70s.  It is very important to remember that there is direct continuity of personnel between then and now - that the people in charge of law and punishment are the chosen heirs to the people who played the trick I'm going to reveal.

The people in power of the justice systems in the US weren't cured of their racism simply because some hippies made it harder to bash in black people's heads.  So they invented the war on crime, which distributed the bulk of law enforcement assets in crime ridden areas.  Well, those crime ridden areas were poor and non-white neighborhoods, they were defined as crime ridden by those undeconstructed racist cops.  A bunch of laws and procedures were invented to rationalize this (and I'll talk about a couple of the specifics below) but the important thing to remember is that when you police a given neighborhood (even taking away stuff like racism, which was definitely a big player, but this is true even if you take that way), the neighborhood that is more policed will seem to have more crime.

This is easy to figure, right?  You take two identical neighborhoods and you put twice as many cops into one as the other, the one with more cops will tend to find more crime - because that's one of the key duties of the police!

In turn, this rationalizes even more police coverage of those neighborhoods in a vicious circle.  All the did was create the conditions through which the same behavior was permitted, merely changing the rational for that behavior to something that appeared less racist.  It also allowed police to characterize non-white communities as being inherently criminal, even though it was a condition they created in the first place.

I said I'd give a couple of examples.  They racists who set up this system consistently overplay their hand, but they aren't called on it because the more attenuated an argument becomes the less likely people are to pay attention to it in the first place.  It's easy to understand that cops beating and killing black people because they're black is wrong.  It's harder to understand that a bunch of racist people created a system to justify continued racist abuses under layers of statistically skullduggery.  Most people don't bother to penetrate the more complex argument and/or assume the people proposing the more complex argument "have a point" so they give violent racist assholes a pass.

Still, examples.  Both of them come from the major campaign of the war on crime, the war on drugs.

The first is that black people account for about 12% of the US population and about 13% of drug users and drug peddlers (the difference is due to wealth, by the way - poor people use more drugs and black people get paid about 3/5ths what white people do in another part of the complex and persistent pattern of racism in the US).  However, over half of the people arrested on drug related offenses are black.  This is what happens when you send your cops into black neighborhoods to look for drug dealers while ignoring the ones in white neighborhoods.  It is the natural consequence and it is racist, hidden under statistical skullduggery.  And it creates vicious stereotypes of black drug dealers and black drug users when the truth is that drug sales and use is almost perfectly evenly distributed by race.

(The sentences between black and white people for similar crimes is also greatly different.  In all, black people spend about eight times longer in prison than white people for drug related offenses.  Hella racist.)

The second clear and obvious example is crack cocaine.  Until very recently, 1 gram of crack cocaine (which tends to be sold in poor, black neighborhoods) was treated as 100 grams of powder cocaine (which tends to be sold in rich, white neighborhoods).  Now 1 gram of crack is as bad as 18 grams as cocaine.

The rationale behind this is that crack is some sort of superdrug.  It isn't.  The bioavailability of crack cocaine is about 15% more than snorted cocaine.  That's it.  It produces a short but intense high, but as with all narcotics how high you get is primarily a product of how much you take.  If you've got enough money, you can put as much coke up your nose to give you the same intensity of high as crack - and it'll last longer.  Likewise, if you don't have a lot of crack, you might smoke less, producing a less intense high.  Since the metabolites of crack are identical with powdered cocaine, there is no particular difference in the character of the high - it's the same high.  You just get it a little faster with smoking, per unit, though the high is shorter in duration.

Which is part of the reason why black people spend eight times as much time in prison vis-a-vis white people - when 1 gram of your drug is worth 100 times its weight in sentencing, you're going to be staying in the big house for a loooooooong time.

This isn't subtle, people!  But the essential trick is that the when blatant, overt racism became less permissible in the 1960s it wasn't like the cops stopped being racist.  They found a way to keep doing the same stuff, but buried under somewhat complex arguments.

Which is why it is vital to remember that the justice system of today is run by the hand picked successors to the guys who have always been running the show.  It is being run with the same eye towards permitting the overt racism of the 50s and earlier but with the new lingo.  They've had generations to tighten it up, to create the vacuous procedural bullshit that we've seen all over America, to solidify their "reasons" and cover up their racism with charts and shit.   But it's shit.  They're just racist thugs.

So, I very strongly feel for the people who have been trapped by the war on drugs.  But when I hear people talking about this specific indictment, well, Betty Bowers summed it up pretty well when she said, "Whether Ferguson and racism or 9-11 and terrorism, Americans always fixate on the theater of results rather than the drudgery of causation."  But the drudgery of causation is the important part!  Without discussion of that causation, no amount of riots over specific police actions is going to mean very much.

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