Racial equality and ethical consumerism

Hey Folks. I think we all have different ways of dealing with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. The first thing for me was to start looking back – to Rodney King in LA, 1991, Oscar Grant in Fruitvale station in Oakland, 2009, Eric Garner in New York, 2014, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, less than a month later. The number of black people who have lost their lives at the hands of police seems to have only accelerated over the last 6 years. The second layer of all of this was dealing with the daily updates on use of force during protests, egged on by the US president and his prop bible. Then, third, I started to do some reading on the subject because, as a scientist, that’s how I usually deal with stuff. And, since this is the Green Stars Project, I want to draw your attention at the end to the importance of ethical consumerism for racial equality.

Racial equality and ethical consumerism. A mural of the words 'Black Lives Matter" painted in yellow on a road in Washington DC, 2 blocks from the White House, pointing to the Washington Monument.
A mural painted in Washington DC sends a message to the White House, 2 blocks away. – The New Yorker

An article in The Conversation, The  racist roots of American policing, provides a succinct overview of law enforcement in the US, from the slave patrols that ended with the Civil War to the “Jim Crow” segregation laws that ended in the late 1960’s. The unrest in our streets is calling for another step forward – an end to racism, excessive use of force and injustices in law enforcement and support for programs that help our communities.

When a Stanford University research team analyzed data collected between 2011 and 2017 from nearly 100 million traffic stops to look for evidence of systemic racial profiling, they found that black drivers were more likely to be pulled over and to have their cars searched than white drivers. They also found that the percentage of black drivers being stopped by police dropped after dark when a driver’s complexion is harder to see from outside the vehicle. – The  racist roots of American policing.

The nuance that the percentage of black drivers pulled over drops after dark established that the bias here is real. And it’s prevalent in most areas of life – a scientist colleague shared a study published last week in Science showing that racial bias creates disparities in funding awarded by the US National Institutes of Health.

The US is one of the only countries using a cash bail system

You’ve seen American movies and TV shows where a suspect is released from jail after paying bail. Think about how unfair that system is – you will be released from jail as long as you can pay a “deposit” ensuring that you’ll turn up for your court date. If you can’t make bail then, guilty or not, you’ll sit in jail until you have to appear in court. There are only a couple of places in the world that rely on a cash bail, dominated by commercial bail bondsmen, and the US is one of them (the Philippines is the other).

As part of his election campaign in 2018, California governor Gavin Newsom proposed a bill that would replace cash bail with a system of “risk assessments” that sets out non-monetary conditions for release. In April this year, thanks to pressure to reduce crowding in jails because of Covid-19, this law went into effect – California’s Judicial Council set bail to zero for non-violent crimes.  However, the majority of the US states still rely heavily on a bail bond system – this has to change because it links justice directly to income.

The number of people imprisoned in the US has risen dramatically

Around 0.7% of the US population is living in jail or prison. That’s an incredible statistic – the US has by far the highest rates of incarceration on the planet. It’s around 4 to 10 times higher than the vast majority of other countries, including neighbors in Canada and Mexico. When researching the stock market, I’ve been shocked to see how often prison stocks are recommended as good buys – it’s a successful business here, I guess. Rates of imprisonment increased significantly in recent decades, from around 400,000 people in the 1970’s to around 2.2 million people currently imprisoned, out of a population of 328 million.

Increasing incarceration while ignoring more effective approaches will impose a heavy burden upon courts, corrections and communities, while providing a marginal impact on crime. Policymakers should assess these dynamics and adopt balanced crime control policies that provide appropriate resources and support for programming, treatment, and community support. – The Sentencing Project.

Police departments occupy significant percentage of city budgets.

In 2017, New York police tried something new – they reduced their “proactive policing” activities (i.e., stopping people for suspected low-level offenses). By the end of the year, they found that major crimes were the lowest in decades – the murder rate was down around 14% compared to 2016.

The Freedom to Thrive report from the Center for Popular Democracy took a look at the percentage of city budgets spent on police departments – typically around 30% of the entire budget – and found that communities would prefer if some of that money was spent on other community safety priorities such as mental health services, youth programming, and infrastructure such as transit access and housing.

Racial equality and ethical consumerism. A graph showing highlights from the 2017 budget for Oakland, California. The police department received 41.2% of the budget, compared to 2.9% for parks and recreation. 1.1% for human services, and 0.5% for public works.
2017 budget allocations for Oakland, California – Freedom to Thrive report

All of these scenarios stack the odds against black people, especially those with low income: Bias in law enforcement, a cash bail system, a thriving commercial prison industry, and a lack of funding for community support programs.

George Floyd wasn’t merely killed for being black – he was also killed for being poor. He died over a counterfeit banknote. – The Guardian.

Here’s a good list of organizations to support and actions to take, including an update on which organizations have already been flooded with donations and suggest donating elsewhere. Consider the Mayor pledge on Obama.org, lobby your local representatives to remove cash bail in your state and to push for reallocation of city budgets.

Racial equality and ethical consumerism

Going back to the slave patrols that were the first form of law enforcement in the US – their function was to maintain a way of life that was built on the suffering of others. The empires that colonized America, such as Britain, were also built upon the exploitation of minorities – whole industries such as tea and chocolate depended on it and, even today, many of the largest multinationals are not changing fast enough. To take one example, Nestlé was boycotted in the ’70s and ’80s for pushing infant formula as a replacement for breastfeeding in Africa, but has reportedly crossed that line again and again since then.

The largest, most controversial multinationals have put a lot of money into cleaning up their images but for some of them this is 90% PR and 10% actual progress. Socially-responsible, mission-driven companies are more deserving of your support. Although it may not be the first thing that people think of, ethical consumerism has a huge role to play in addressing social injustices.

I’ll refer you to a few posts for more on the subject.

12 thoughts on “Racial equality and ethical consumerism

  1. I guess you can tie police reform in to ethical taxpaying if not consumerism. Do we want to continue to pay rough guys to thump heads, keep the lower class down, and fill up prisons, rather than help citizens achieve their potential and contribute to society? Is that a sustainable model?

    Closer to home, Oakland PD was a disgrace for years, under court supervision since the days of the “Riders”, basically a gang with badges. The force was mainly white, Central Valley guys with a weekend warrior mentality. Their homicide clearance rate was pathetically low, ~5% IIRC, so criminals knew they could literally get away with murder. You can’t solve crimes if people don’t trust the police and won’t talk to them. They went through many police chiefs and failed attempts at reform. I haven’t checked in with them lately, but I hope they moved to a more progressive, community-policing model.

    It works! In neighboring Richmond, which had similar problems in the past, but became the most progressive city in the East Bay, they changed their PD into a more sane model, with a new chief, new hires, retraining, and community-based policing, and lo and behold, the crime rate went down and case clearance went up, by doing exactly the opposite of what right-wing authoritarians say we should. And police shootings dropped to none.

    The elephant in the room is gun control; it’s unfortunately all-too reasonable that cops think anyone they see on the street probably has a gun. But we need to get less jumpy & trigger-happy cops on the beat, and also change the laws on the use of deadly force from “reasonable fear for my safety” to “absolutely necessary” for self-defense or the defense of others. And these amped-up military types who act like an occupying enemy force, ready to shoot anyone who doesn’t obey them instantly, have got to go. Soldiers are trained to subdue an enemy, not the same as policing. Aren’t “conservatives” sick of paying out millions in tax dollars to settle civil suits when cops kill and injure citizens?

    Authoritarianism has always used the identification of an out-group and dehumanization of the enemy. In the past, White America was mostly OK with that as long as the enemy was POC, but that’s changing; racial lines are blurring, the majority of the public is more liberal, and as authoritarianism circles the plughole of history, the powers that be see enemies everywhere. Whites are getting “lit up” by occupying soldiers for standing out on their front porch. We need meaningful discussions with our leaders about the proper role of government, the history of policing in the US, institutional racism, gun ownership, etc., but we also need to take specific steps now to reform the increasingly authoritarian and militaristic police culture in these areas:

    Funding: Hire more social service specialists for homelessness, drugs, mental illness, and domestic problems so the police don’t have to be the first & last resort for every incident.

    Recruiting and retention: Be careful when recruiting former military, do a psych eval much earlier in the process, and stop rehiring bad cops who’ve been fired from other PDs. Recruit police from the community, so they know and look like the people they’re supposed to be serving. Subsidize affordable housing so police officers can live in their community. Tie continuing education and performance to advancement over seniority.

    Training, methods, and gear: More training in nonlethal response techniques and de-escalation strategies. Stop giving surplus military equipment to police departments. Discourage officers from unsanctioned training and self-equipping with “tactical” methods and gear. Reform the asset seizure laws, so PDs don’t profit from highway robbery. Celebrate a culture of machismo for cops subduing violent offenders with their hands and wits rather than shooting. Remember the old 70s cop shows, when the cops would chase a suspect down and tussle with him, then cuff him? Still the norm in Sweden, apparently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izdfnHBMwSs

    Discipline: Any police officer who shoots any person is automatically placed on leave while an outside agency (with civilian oversight) investigates. Don’t allow officers to turn off their body camera. Institute drug testing to prevent steroid abuse. Mandatory training for officers displaying ignorance of the law. Fire and if warranted prosecute serious law-breakers.

    Labor relations: Reform or abolish police unions. I’m pro-labor and dismayed by the downfall of unions generally, the only real power working-class people ever had. But unions have one purpose: to protect their members. We need to move policing into a more professional model, with professional societies enforcing codes of conduct and license to practice, like doctors and lawyers have. Screw up too badly, and you can’t work on any PD. Here in the Bay, we pay these guys 6-figure salaries; they need to start earning it instead of acting like thugs with immunity. The culture has to change, and police unions are a major impediment.

    Berkeley is not much better than Oakland. Not long ago, UC PD was roughing up Occupy protestors, including ageing professors who’d lived through the 60s, sticking their hands out to be cuffed saying “arrest me!”, which was the unspoken social contract back then for the white protestors. A sitting protest used to mean the cops would pick up and carry you into the paddy wagon; now they just pepper spray you or worse.

  2. Hey Dave! Your comment is longer than my post 😀
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the useful info.
    I agree that gun control is a big issue – I was going to mention that the regular cops don’t carry guns in Ireland and I guess that’s in large part because so few residents own them.
    When guns are involved then misjudging a situation (like 12 year old Tamir Rice playing with a toy gun) can become lethal in an instant.

  3. This old hippie chick has her thoughts – you’ve shared some and dluber, others – but I don’t have much energy for this debate anymore. I’ve listened and acted since the mid sixties and know all to well that the roots of racism still fester. And it’s not all in the US for goodness sakes, it’s a global plague. Until we address societies’ systemic biases as whole we’re spitting in the wind. However, enough. I’m not here to debate only to say that I’m bolstered by the likes of you and your posts. I can rely on your recommends etc., switch allegiances and support progressive and sustainable businesses and so on. So, thanks. Keep up the great work. xx

    1. Thanks Frances.
      Definitely a global problem – especially when you look at the impact of many global corporations.
      There are some issues that are specific to, or worse in, the US – the cash bail system, imprisonment rates, etc., that could be changed with legislation, as California just did with the bail system. And often the best movements start with a look at something local – it can expand outwards from there.
      But you’re right – the change needs to happen on an individual level until it become systemic.
      Hope you’re doing well 🙂

  4. Of course, you’re right about particular issues and that the need to address them is necesary and helpful. I was generalising. I am well, thanks for asking. I hope you are, too. Btw, are u in the US right now?

  5. I lived in Oakland for twenty-five years, before moving to Sonoma, and then, home to Michigan. I loved Oakland–but I was well aware of serious problems in the Police Department. A good friend was an Oakland officer–he was drummed out of the force for reporting on violations by his fellow cops. What is obviously needed is a complete change in the culture. Richmond did well.

  6. I really like your beautiful blog. A pleasure to come stroll on your pages. A great discovery and a very interesting blog. I will come back to visit you. Do not hesitate to visit my universe. See you soon. 🙂

  7. The cash bail thing is probably a centuries-old tradition dating back to debtor’s prisons which also never made sense to me. How can you get out of debt if you are rotting in prison. We definitely need reforms, James. Have you seen “13th”? Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

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