While America Burns

Perhaps it was inevitable; it’s starting to look like 1968 again. According to press reports, at least 15 of America’s large cities have recently experienced what we decorously refer to as “civil unrest”. Needless to say, politicians—the people who are supposed to be passing laws and administering them—are confronting the situation by engaging in Twitter wars. 

The proximate cause of the unrest (we’ll return to definitions later) was the death of a 46 year old African-American male named George Floyd, while in police custody. The encounter between Mr. Floyd and police officers was captured on camera. In the video it seems reasonably clear that, at the every least, the police officers at the scene used excessive force that resulted in his death. 

The officers at the scene were quickly fired by Minneapolis Mayor Jeffrey Frey; Officer Derek Chauvin was charged with third degree murder and second degree manslaughter. The difference between the two charges is that third degree murder requires that the prosecution prove that the  officer’s behavior caused the death and that he acted with depraved indifference. On the other hand, the lesser manslaughter charge involves “culpable negligence creating an unreasonable risk of serious bodily harm”. The difference in the two charges is the potential sentence. The more serious murder charge carries a maximum sentence of 25 years; the homicide charge 10 years. It will be up to a jury to determine which (if either) charge fits the facts of the case. (More detail on the legal aspects of the case can be found in an article by Andrew McCarthy here). 

Let’s return to definitions, because the slippery among us will use deliberately sloppy language as they attempt to frame the “narrative” via Twitter, the press and other types of media.

There are thousands of people across America who have taken to the streets to protest the way George Floyd, a fellow human being, was treated. Good for them. They have exercised their first amendment right to peaceably assemble and petition their government for a redress of grievances. Another group, in all probability a small minority, has taken to the streets to commit violence. They are not protesters. They are simply thugs and should not be lumped in with protesters. 

It is clear that this case encapsulates long-held grievances within the African-American community. In a narrow sense the grievances center around how they are treated and how they perceive they are treated by police. More broadly it touches on how African-Americans believe they are treated generally. Moreover there is a wide and persistent gap between how whites and blacks perceive how fairly black people are treated by police, courts and other institutions relative to white people. See some typical survey data by Pew Research and Gallup here and here

With compelling evidence at hand, both with respect to polling data and behavior on the ground, it is hard to avoid coming to a rather straightforward conclusion. We are facing a massive failure of governance and government. Why government failure? Let us not forget that the purpose of government as conceived at the American Founding is to secure unalienable natural rights. Differential treatment of citizens as a result of race is a pretty strange way to do it. So is turning over control of the streets to mob violence.

Is there actually differential treatment or is it “merely” a question of perception? Well, it is hard to imagine an upper middle class white man from Scarsdale being treated the same way. Admittedly the evidence of this case is anecdotal; but mysteriously enough the vast majority of anecdotes of this sort seem to involve African-Americans being victimized. On the other hand it also seems safe to say that the vast majority of Americans were appalled at the behavior of the Minneapolis police.

Let’s go beyond the police and take city school systems for a moment.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 85% of blacks in elementary and secondary public schools were in either large or midsized cities. And, according to a 2017 report published by search firm Advocate Staffing, in the 50 largest cities in America only about 53% of the students graduate from high school. Another study published in 2020 by the NCES reported that the national cohort adjusted graduation rate for black students was 79%, which suggests that the graduation rate falls off sharply in city schools. 

The graduation rate is only the tip of the iceberg. There has been a persistent black-white school achievement gap. While this is certainly not monocausal, it is hard to argue that the scores are not related to the quality of the schools these students attend. 

What do big city public schools and police departments have in common? First, they are two of the biggest responsibilities of city governments. Second, they (police and teachers) are highly organized and powerful political interest groups. Third, those interest groups exert a tremendous amount of pressure on city hall. They do so by turning out the votes in return for privileged treatment of their members. That is why machine politicians fight charter schools and vouchers. It is one reason why police officers are shown deference in investigations that civilians don’t enjoy.

In one sense it almost doesn’t matter if the perception of unfairness by a large group of citizens is accurate or not. The mere fact of its existence represents a failure of governance. And at the end of the day, it is hard to conclude that African-Americans are getting a fair shake when it comes to schools and other social services. 

The obvious question is: Where does responsibility for this lie?

The answer is equally obvious, although it isn’t one the majority of people wish to hear. It is the failure of a progressive, collectivist ideology that privileges groups and ignores individuals. Consider: of the 50 largest cities in the United States, 35 or 70% are run by political machines with liberal or progressive Mayors. And for the most part it has been that way for the better part of 50 years, and in some places, longer. 

The last time Chicago elected a Republican as Mayor it was William H. Thompson. That was in 1927. Milwaukee last elected a non-Democrat as Mayor in 1948. He was a socialist.  Washington DC has had a Democratic Mayor since 1956. New York City’s last nominally Republican Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, ran for the Democratic nomination for President. The one before him, Rudy Giuliani, in 1994 supported incumbent Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo for reelection over Republican George Pataki. And the one before him (John Lindsay) also ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 1972. 

When it comes right down to it, a few facts stand out that are indisputable. First, America’s large cities have been run by Democratic political machines for at least 50 years. The Mayors perched on top of those machines have been (for their time) liberals or progressives.  Second, they have failed to provide decent schools for at least a large minority, if not a majority of their citizens. Third, at least a large minority of the citizenry is distrustful that the police will protect their rights, and many believe that they are especially vulnerable to abuse by police. About that they may very well be correct. 

Liberal Administrations run by Democrats have presided over virtually all of this for at least a half century. But they always blame the results on somebody or something else.

This is the very definition of failure. Progressive governments–and that is what big city governments mostly are–have failed to provide essential services to large proportions of their populations. They have also failed to protect citizens’ lives and property. And so while the cities burn, the failed ideology that produced the fires continues to make the same tired arguments undaunted by the destruction it has unleashed.

JFB

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Joe Benning