Opinion | It’s Time to Dismantle America’s Residential Caste System



Another function of anti-Black policing is economic plunder. In 2014 alone, New York City received nearly $32 million from fees, fines and surcharges paid to the criminal courts by people facing misdemeanors, summonses or other low-level violations. Researchers estimated that, over two decades, the city’s take from its “zero tolerance” policing exceeded a half billion dollars. They concluded that most of these revenues were “extracted from relatively poor segments of the population, who live in heavily policed neighborhoods.”

Although aggressive policing produces some revenues for local governments while harming Black citizens, it also produces liabilities that harm all taxpayers. A UCLA law professor looked at payouts by large cities to victims of police misconduct over five years and found they totaled nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars. Perhaps the only beneficiaries of systemic anti-Black policing are owners and shareholders of corporations that profit from mass incarceration. In Chicago, there are 851 city blocks in which taxpayers spend more than $1 million per block to incarcerate residents who live there. Those blocks are concentrated on the West and South sides, in the ‘hoods that Chicago built to contain descendants.

Children, too, are swept into the carceral state. As with segregated neighborhoods, segregated schools facilitate an entirely different relationship between police and young citizens. One legal scholar found that a school’s percentage of minority students and of poverty is a strong predictor of the use of strict security measures, even after controlling for actual levels of school crime and disorder. In New York City, 5,200 full-time police officers patrolled public schools as of 2017, while the schools employed only about 3,000 guidance counselors.

Then there are the ways in which the state encourages private surveillance of Black Americans by self-appointed citizen patrols. Barbecuing by a lake in Oakland. Entering one’s own gourmet lemonade business in San Francisco. A registered guest at a hotel in Portland, Oregon, taking a call from his mama in the lobby. A child mowing lawns for candy money in a Cleveland suburb. These and other acts of “living while Black” resulted in calls to the police. This is what living in white space can do to some people. Those used to being dominant, or unused to seeing dark bodies around, become suspicious of Black people doing utterly ordinary things.

As with slavery, as with Jim Crow, law and social practice continue to allow non-Blacks to monitor and police Black bodies. The worst of these social practices is violent vigilantism. Ahmaud Arbery. Trayvon Martin. Emmett Till. Arbery’s killers were charged and prosecuted. But the state of Georgia enabled their vigilante behavior through permissive laws that make it easy to obtain a gun and encourage, rather than discourage, using it. Georgia, like nearly three-quarters of U.S. states, has a “stand your ground” law that eliminates any duty to retreat and entitles gun owners to use force when they “reasonably believe” it is necessary to defend themselves or others.

Other laws quietly enable surveillance of Black folk to protect white space. An estimated 2,000 localities in 48 states have adopted “crime-free housing” or chronic nuisance ordinances that make landlords responsible for the actions or nonactions of their tenants. Such ordinances often are adopted following an influx of racial diversity. They explode the range of activities that can cause an eviction, and, according to law professor Deborah Archer, they are enforced disproportionately against Black tenants.

When a tenant tries to seek protection from the state, calling 911, say, to control a violent partner, in places with chronic nuisance ordinances, she can be evicted if she calls two or three times. Faribault, Minnesota, for example, adopted one of the harshest ordinances in the country. The ordinance prohibits disorderly conduct by tenants or their guests and gives Faribault police the power to order an eviction without an arrest or conviction of any crime.

Descendants cannot win. They are surveilled, overpoliced and under-protected.

Healing a nation that began with, and still suffers from, white supremacy requires abolition of the processes of residential caste and repair in poor Black neighborhoods. The state is obligated to repair what it put in motion and continues to reify.

But understanding and acknowledging the role of geographic lines in structuring racial inequality presents an opportunity — a targeted mechanism for transformation. My theory of repair is that those most traumatized by the processes of residential caste most deserve care, as well as the chance to be agents in their own liberation. That means government can and must prioritize those neighborhoods that are at the center of anti-Black residential caste in America.

To begin, the state should dismantle and reverse current anti-Black processes of residential caste — through investment in Black neighborhoods rather than, rather than redlining and economic predation; inclusion, rather than boundary maintenance; equitable public funding, rather than overinvestment and hoarding for high-opportunity places; humanization and care, rather than surveillance and stereotyping.

I suggest three critical pillars to guide government action. First, we must change the relationship of the state with descendants from punitive to caring. Second, the state should see descendants as potential assets and empower them to be change agents. Finally, government must invest resources and transfer assets to support descendants and respected community institutions in Black neighborhoods.

Among the new processes that might be implemented would be a regular neighborhood analysis that looks critically at all the money being spent by a state across neighborhoods, with a constant evaluation of racial equity. Seattle, Minneapolis and a few other cities formally require a racial equity analysis in budgeting. Baltimore recently amended its city charter — by ballot initiative — to establish a permanent fund to advance racial equity in housing, education and capital expenditures.

Applying a humane lens to descendants frees policymakers to innovate and focus on evidence-based strategies that might be cheaper and certainly more effective than punitive strategies borne of racial dogma. Researchers at the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the University of Pennsylvania found that a program that gave Black teens in high-violence neighborhoods a summer job and an adult mentor reduced arrests for violent crime by 43 percent. A peer-reviewed independent study found that a “peacemaker fellowship” to support young men most vulnerable to violence in Richmond, California, was associated with a 55 percent annual reduction in gun-related deaths. The organization Advance Peace is helping other cities replicate the program. Other approaches, such as a universal basic income pilot program in Stockton, California, have had promising results. And several cities are responding to activists’ demands for collective ownership strategies to combat displacement of communities of color and create sustainable affordable housing.


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