In a recent Huffington Post piece entitled “Police Shootings Are About Class as Well as Race,” Jesse Jackson argued that the specific issue of police violence, alongside an unjust and excessive criminal justice system, disproportionately affects the poor, irrespective of race. “While African-Americans are at disproportionate risk from the structural and human biases of our criminal justice system,” he wrote, “we should not forget that working and poor people of all races suffer from police excessive use of force. Police kill more whites than blacks.” Citing statistics from 2015, he went on to explain that “95 percent of police killings occurred in neighborhoods with median family incomes under $100,000,” while neighborhoods with median incomes over $200,000 experienced none at all. Based on these numbers, he concluded, “excessive force puts white lives at risk, as well as those of blacks and Hispanics.”
This discourse is nothing new and is certainly not limited to discussions of policing. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, scholars and commentators alike have debated whether racism or class inequality was to blame for the lost lives, shattered dreams, and poor rescue and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. These debates are important, yet they so often imagine race and class in distinct terms, failing to account for history, intersectionality, and the dehumanizing realities of anti-black racism. For example, to understand the poverty of the 9th Ward in New Orleans, or how the inability of many to evacuate the city on the eve of Katrina was about having access to a car, one must consider the connection between race and class. To evaluate the effects of the storm, one must look at the history of racial segregation, housing discrimination, and a race-divided labor force in that city. Likewise, one must identify mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and blue-on-black shootings as issues with anti-black racism at their core.
As Jackson notes, power and privilege are assuredly class-bound. While he acknowledges that the class divisions are imprecise in the statistics that he cites–all neighborhoods with median incomes under $100,000 are lumped together–he effectively highlights the class component in the culture and practices of the criminal justice system. Militarized policing and the war on drugs have been directed at poor communities, particularly African American, Latino, and Indigenous communities.
Class matters, and policing the poor is business as usual in America, but anti-black racism cuts across these lines.
Yet race, too, is always at work. Hyper policing and entrenched ideas about black criminality are grounded in racial and class stereotypes. The label of “thug” and the signifiers associated with “ghetto” embody the ways that race and class work together. NFL star Richard Sherman, notwithstanding his Stanford education, his multimillion-dollar income, and his celebrity fame, found that even he could not outrun the “thug” label. When we examine countless studies about implicit bias and the criminalization of black bodies, not to mention frequent reports of workplace racism and the profiling of black celebrities, it is easy to see how anti-black racism infects the experiences of African Americans across class lines.
While excessive and violent policing takes place in working-class and poor communities across racial lines, research points to how black communities across class lines are confined to neighborhoods defined by depleted resources and hyper policing. A recent study from Stanford, discussed in the New York Times, found:
Even among white and black families with similar incomes, white families are much more likely to live in good neighborhoods—with high-quality schools, day-care options, parks, playgrounds and transportation options. The study comes to this conclusion by mining census data and uncovering a striking pattern: White (and Asian-American) middle-income families tend to live in middle-income neighborhoods. Black middle-income families tend to live in distinctly lower-income ones. Most strikingly, the typical middle-income black family lives in a neighborhood with lower incomes than the typical low-income white family.
Similarly, according to Professor Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at NYU, 62 percent of African Americans born between 1955 and 1970 were raised in poor communities; a generation later, this has not changed. Despite growth in the black middle-class, increased access to better-paying jobs, and higher educational attainment, black families are still confined to the poorest communities. Sharkey found that black families making $100,000 lived in neighborhoods in which whites were making $30,000.
Though hyper policing and “poverty penalties” target “poor” communities, their impact is felt collectively by the black poor, the black working-class, the black middle-class, and the black upper middle-class. In other words, structural violence—manifesting itself in segregation, wealth disparities, housing discrimination, the unfulfilled promises of the benefits of attaining a college degree, and countless other indices of systemic racism— is still often experienced by the black middle-class.
In the end, a narrative that sees police violence as only directed at the poor reinforces the idea that class mobility, professionalism, and respectability can and have protected black America—that a new car, fancy clothes, and a well-paying job can allow an African American to transcend race. As we look at the headlines, from Sandra Bland to Christian Taylor, from Trayvon Martin to Jonathan Ferrell, it is apparent that class mobility and access to middle-class neighborhoods are not protectors from the deadly consequences of racism.
The idea that violence, whether street violence or police violence, is unique and exceptional to poor communities of color inadvertently recycles a narrative that blames the victim. Implicit is the idea that a culture of poverty leads to hyper policing, cultural practices (the hoodie, loud music, etc.), and lack of respect for authority, which contribute to blue-on-black shootings.
In looking at the criminalization of all black bodies, the costs and consequences of excessive and militarized policing across class-based communities, the illusive security and safety resulting from a “better” zip code, and most importantly, the lives lost to police violence, we begin to see how race and racism are at the core of these issues. Yes, class matters, and policing the poor is business as usual in America, but anti-black racism cuts across these lines.
Image Credit: “Photo from the Million Hoodies Union Square protest against Trayvon Martin’s shooting death in Sanford, Florida” by David Shankbone. CCBY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.