Two Narratives About the Racist Carceral State

The consensus seems to be that there is a now a consensus that police brutality towards Black people, and the treatment of Blacks by the criminal justice system more generally, is out of control. Those arguing this case only have in mind the pundit class, of course. There is no clear indication that non-pundit whites and conservatives are actually on board with this new consensus. Indeed, in the Mike Brown case, recent polling suggests that whites, conservatives, and the rich approved of the whole affair by very large margins, while liberals, poor people, and people of color disapproved by equally large margins.

Even within the pundit class though, the claims of a new consensus are deeply misleading. Though pundits on the right and left have expressed dismay over recent events, their underlying narratives and theories about how we got where we are dramatically diverge from one another. And this divergence tracks the same fundamental disagreements that normally keep conservatives on the other side of these issues.

The Right

The right's narrative on this has not been totally monolithic. There has been the normal array of distractions and naive confusion. For instance, there was Rand Paul's claim that the bigger issue is cigarette taxes. There was also the dumbfounded Sean Davis who rather innocently claimed "It defies reason. It makes no sense."

If we push those superficial takes to the side though, the narrative on the right that seems to be unfolding is that the massive carceral and police state cheered on by law-and-order conservatives in the last few decades was good and justified when they were pushing it. But now things have changed and we should consider revising it. Ross Douthat's various posts have been leading this charge. Rather than saying that building out mass incarceration and police aggression to a level unparalleled in the world was always a bad idea that would always predictably destroy black communities and families, this take suggests that back in the day this tactic was called for, but now since things are calmed down, it is worth revisiting.

The Left

On the left, however, the narrative is much different. The left's take, perhaps most prominently put forward by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is that racist policing is an intentional outgrowth of white supremacy more generally. The system has not suddenly run amok, nor has it found itself in its present position because of some unwise policy choices a few decades ago. Rather, the system is operating precisely how it is designed to operate and precisely for the principles that this country has always stood for: white supremacy and black subordination.

Under this narrative, it is argued (e.g. by Michelle Alexander) that the rise of mass incarceration and criminal justice abuse after the Civil Rights victories is no coincidence. Slavery maintained white supremacy and black subordination for the first 350 years. Then, once slavery was defeated, Jim Crow and overt racial apartheid maintained it for the next 100 years. Then, after explicit racial apartheid was defeated, mass incarceration of Blacks quickly took its place. This was also coupled by a rather quick reversal of desegregation efforts (residential and schooling segregation are just as high as they've ever been) and continued widescale economic discrimination.

The white supremacist impetus at the core of the society is still present, just channeled through new institutions. When one channel is closed, another is opened. As they say, the spice must flow, and it does.

Why It Matters

On certain reform questions, the choice of narrative may not matter that much. If the right insists on soothing itself into believing that their law-and-order mass incarceration agenda was good policy on the merits back in the day but not anymore, that doesn't foreclose them from supporting closing certain criminal justice channels (e.g. long sentences, jailing for drug offenses) or supporting certain deterrent devices (e.g. body cameras and a better process for charging cops). But the right's narrative does keep them from fixing the "spice must flow" problem.

If it is in fact the case that white supremacy and Black subordination is steeped into the society more generally, closing one particular mechanism by which it is currently realized does not necessarily fix the problem. These impulses adapt and find other channels. Banning segregated schools just stoked residential segregation to achieve the same thing. Banning Jim Crow terrorism just stoked an escalation of "legitimate" policing to achieve the same thing. And so on.

If the left's narrative is right, and I think it clearly is on the merits, then solutions offered by conservatives in the new "consensus" (which again there is no indication rank-and-file whites and conservatives even support) will just invite the same white supremacy whack-a-mole this country has been playing for 500 years.