By Navin Bapat.
Is the United States waging a war against its African American population? Most would likely dismiss such a suggestion. However, imagine what we would think about another state whose institutions are dominated by a majority with a history of slavery and overt discrimination against a minority group. In present day, the minority group is overrepresented in the state’s prison system, has nearly twice the unemployment rate of the majority, and has considerably less wealth. Since the start of 2013, the state’s security forces killed over 1,000 members of the minority group. These observations would lead most of us to strongly consider the possibility that this state is in some form of armed conflict, perhaps state failure or civil war. However, many do not consider police treatment of African Americans to be ‘war.’ But we should not ignore large-scale police violence against any minority community if we are studying conflict scientifically. So let us examine the evidence.
A civil war is typically defined as a political conflict involving at least one non-state actor that creates at least 1,000 fatalities in a one-year period. These conflicts are fought over control of the center, to alter a policy, or for separatism. We can examine each of these components to see if the US case qualifies. First, is the conflict political? If politics is defined as the social use of power, certainly. Few may see it that way, but the fact is that police systematically search, arrest, and punish African Americans more than whites. In 97% of the police killings in 2015, no charges were brought against the offending officer. This indicates that the justice system is more likely to privilege the word of police officers over empirical evidence. If the judicial system seeks to protect itself in this way, and continues to incarcerate African Americans at higher rates than whites, it is easy to draw the conclusion that the system aims to maintain the majority’s social, economic, and political domination, or at least it would in any other context. Further, few politicians even notice the disparity in policing until high-profile cases occur, and after these cases, nothing gets done to make any meaningful changes to the status quo. Clearly, there appears to be two sets of laws, and politicians appear disinclined to alter the status quo given their desire to be perceived as tough on crime.
However, the characterization of this conflict as a civil war falls short on two dimensions. First, based on recent data on the use of force by law enforcement, it took three years for various police to kill over 1,000 African Americans. Although that isn’t terribly comforting, it falls below the threshold, which requires 1,000 deaths in a twelve month period. Second, it is difficult to identify an organized non-state group within the African American community that serves as the ‘rebels.’ We might naively consider the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but this organization is mainly pursuing the incorporation of blacks into the polity. Some politicians are now eager to blame Black Lives Matter for the violence, though there is almost no credible evidence that this group advocates for or uses violence. In short, there are few clear, organized actors that can be counted as the ‘rebels,’ so again the definition of a civil war against African Americans falls short.
But this should give no-one comfort. If police violence produces twenty-five civilian deaths per year, we might better characterize this case as an instance of One-Sided Violence. The definition of One-Sided Violence is: “the use of violence by the government of a state or by an organized group against civilians, which results in at least 25 deaths. Extrajudicial killings in custody are excluded.” Notable perpetrators include Guatemala, Serbia, Croatia, Russia, Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, Burma, Ethiopia, and Bahrain, among others. Have American police killed 25 African Americans over the last two years? Yes. 299 in 2013, 301 in 2014, and 346 in 2015. Is the violence perpetrated by the state? Since these are police killings, yes. As uncomfortable as this may make us, the US is in the company of other perpetrators of state terrorism, which certainly isn’t something to be proud of.
I don’t doubt that many will still be skeptical of characterizing the situation faced by African Americans in this way. It is possible that the rules that define an episode of state terror can be interpreted differently. That is what the scientific debate should be about. However, there is one aspect of this that should not be in debate. The fact that it is even possible to raise the discussion of whether or not the US is engaged in a campaign of one-sided violence against African Americans means that police violence against this community is both shameful and deplorable beyond any words I can express. Many prefer to see the US as the shining city on the hill, a model of exemplary democracy and protection of human rights, and the champion of liberal international order and the democratic peace. However, if we examine the evidence, police treatment of African Americans puts the US in terrible company. The individual cases of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile are all horrific individually. What is also horrific is that these killings are normal in terms of American policing. Perhaps we should look in the mirror before giving ourselves too many pats on the back.