Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The End of Policing by Alex Vitale


Source of book: Borrowed from the library


The last few years have been...not good at all for police in this country. They themselves have been making a compelling argument that they are corrupt, racist, violent, and out of control. Even someone like me, who is conservative by temperament, a rule follower, and the relative of lots of cops, have been pushed strongly in the direction of supporting defunding. It’s stuff all the way from the local, where an old man with dementia and a crucifix was shot dead, to the national, where police are using tear gas on middle aged women - while ignoring right wing terrorists using pepper spray and paintballs on protesters, letting an illegally armed teen openly carry a military-style weapon and kill people. And it isn’t a problem of a “few bad apples” either. When police shoved and knocked unconscious an old man peacefully protesting, fracturing his skull, the aftermath was damning for the police. The perpetrators were - correctly - placed on administrative leave. The entire unit resigned in protest. It isn’t a few bad cops. It is a culture rotten to the core. 


So, in the aftermath of all this, I decided to read this book, and it is a real eye-opener. It expresses a lot of what I have felt, starting decades ago when I first got my driver’s license and found myself the target of police enforcement because of my youth, gender, and old car. (Those are some stories in and of themselves - and I realize how lucky I was to be a white kid.) There is a serious problem in policing itself, and it has gotten far worse during my lifetime. Alex Vitale takes a look at the underlying problem, which is not about how we police, but why. As the cover of the book states:


The problem is not police training, police diversity, or police methods. The problem is the dramatic and unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the last forty years, a fundamental shift in the role of police in society. The problem is policing itself.  


To start with, Vitale brings to the reader’s attention some disturbing truths. The United States, while not the only nation with problems in policing, is uniquely bad among first world nations. Even with incomplete reporting from many jurisdictions (seriously, we do not actually know how many people are shot or killed by the police - because many jurisdictions do not report them), it is clear that police in the United States use their weapons more than police in other developed democracies. And it isn’t close. Likewise, we incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than any other country in the world. And again, it isn’t close. We are far worse than any other first world country. By the way, as the author points out in a later chapter, these incarceration numbers do not include the tens of thousands of immigrants we have imprisoned. Again, we imprison more of our population than any other country including dictatorships like North Korea and China


So why is the United States so addicted to mass incarceration? Vitale takes a tour of the underlying ideology that leads to our approach to social dysfunction. In essence, after the end of Jim Crow as a result of Civil Rights Movement, a number of conservative theorists put forth the idea that social disorder was due entirely to moral failings on the part of those who failed to abide by the law. The reason for the disorder, therefore, was that insufficient violence and punishment had been done to the “bad people,” and that the cure was increasingly punitive social control mechanisms - aka policing. 


This, naturally, went hand in glove with some other rather nasty ideas. I won’t list all the names (in part because I had to return the book and am relying on my own notes and some photocopied pages), but many of these theorists were closely associated with Charles Murray, author of the openly racist The Bell Curve, and the ideas overlap greatly. The theory was that certain personality traits and cultural ideas combined to create the “criminal class,” people who would naturally be criminal no matter the circumstance, and that only punitive control would get through to them. 


Corollary to this idea was the related one that the long-understood causal link between poverty and crime had gotten it all wrong. People didn’t turn to crime because they were poor and desperate, but they were poor because they were morally defective. 


Broken-windows policing is at root a deeply conservative attempt to shift the burden of responsibility for declining living conditions onto the poor themselves and to argue that the solution to all social ills is increasingly aggressive, violent, invasive, and restrictive forms of policing that involve more arrests, more harassment, and ultimately more violence. As inequality continues to increase, so will homelessness and public disorder, and as long as people continue to embrace the use of police to manage disorder, we will see a continual increase in the scope of police power and authority at the expense of human and civil rights. 


And that is exactly what we have seen. 


Vitale goes on to look at the origins of the police, which are not as benign as many of us were taught. On the one hand, as Steven Pinker points out, giving the state a monopoly on the use of force is an improvement on private retribution as a means of justice. On the other, the police were never intended to be a neutral, fair and colorblind entity. From the beginning, they were designed to put down social unrest from the poorer classes. (There is a whole chapter on the origin of the police in England and the US for the purpose of breaking worker strikes - it’s untold history that we really should be taught.) This is why Vitale believes that meaningful police reform will not happen until we acknowledge the reality of why the police exist in the form they do. 


At root, they [liberal reformers] fail to appreciate that the basic nature of the law and the police, since its earliest origins, is to be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo. Police reforms that fail to directly address this reality are doomed to reproduce it.


And later in the book, he fleshes this out even more:


More than anything, however, what we really need is to rethink the role of police in society. The origins and function of the police are intimately tied to the management of inequalities of race and class. The suppression of workers and the tight surveillance and micromanagement of black and brown lives have always been at the center of policing. Any police reform strategy that does not address this reality is doomed to fail. We must stop looking to procedural reforms and critically evaluate the substantive outcomes of policing. We must constantly reevaluate what the police are asked to do and what impact policing has on the lives of the policed. A kinder, gentler war on the poor is still a war on the poor. As Chris Hayes points out, organizing policing around the collection of fees and fines to fund local government undermines the basic ideals of democracy. And as long as the police are tasked with waging simultaneous wars on drugs, crime, disorder, and terrorism, we will have aggressive and invasive policing that disproportionately criminalizes the young, poor, male, and nonwhite. We need to push back on this dramatic expansion of police power and its role in the mass incarceration at the heart of the “New Jim Crow.”


What we are witnessing is a political crisis. At all levels and in both parties, our political leaders have embraced a neoconservative politics that sees all social problems as police problems. They have given up on using government to improve racial and economic inequality and seem hellbent on worsening these inequalities and using the police to manage the consequences.


And yes, this is a political crisis, brought on by forty years of social darwinist economic policies on the part of both major parties. (Although the GOP is far more at fault in this, to be clear.) The fact that, for example, universal healthcare and affordable higher education are considered radical “socialist” ideas, rather than the basic infrastructure the rest of the first world considers them, is a sign of just how ingrained this idea of solving social issues with violence against the poor really is in our country. And, as we have seen from the last forty years, the unprecedented growth of policing and mass incarceration has most certainly NOT solved the problems. Rather, cruel and selfish political policies have cause ever worsening inequality, leading predictably to social problems like homelessness and addiction. It isn’t rocket science - this stuff has actually been well known for hundreds of years.


Any real agenda for police reform must replace police with empowered communities working to solve their own problems. Poor communities of color have suffered the consequences of high crime and disorder. It is their children who are shot and robbed. They have also had to bear the brunt of aggressive, invasive, and humiliating policing. Policing will never be a just or effective tool for community empowerment, much less racial justice. Communities must directly confront the political, economic, and social arrangements that produce vast gulfs between the races and the growing gaps between the haves and the have-nots. We don’t need empty police reforms; we need a robust democracy that gives people the capacity to demand of their government and themselves real, nonpunitive solutions to their problems. 


Vitale fleshes out a lot more of what our society needs to address social problems in the individual chapters on homelessness, the War on Drugs, sex work, and gangs, and there is insufficient space to discuss them in a post like this. In addition, there are many fine books on the subject of what a functional society looks like, with a living wage, universal access to public infrastructure including education and health care, a functioning safety net, and so on. Ultimately, a society with increasing inequality, third-world poverty, and structural racism is going to be dysfunctional, and no amount of violence by the police is going to fix that. And we should not expect the police to fix these problems. 


In the chapter entitled “The Police Are Not Here To Protect You,” Vitale illuminates an inconvenient truth: the police are not intended to protect you, and they are really, really bad at it. Most officers will never be involved in apprehending a violent criminal in the act. This is actually an extremely rare occurrence, despite what you see on TV. For the most part, the police show up after the fact, do some paperwork, and nothing gets actually investigated, let alone solved. In my own experience, having had my office broken into a few times, stuff stolen out of my vehicles, and so on, the police are pretty much useless. The only reason to call them is to get a report so that the insurance company can document that the loss was the result of a crime. That’s it. In the one case where someone was caught, it was because he tried to pass a stolen check. It was the skeevy “check into cash” place that actually caught the perp. And more often than not, the bank just eats the loss, and the perp walks. 


Instead, like most of us, my contact (outside of the courtroom for my job) with the police has mostly been traffic policing. (As I said, that’s its own story.) And not once has public safety been enhanced - it was mostly harassment and revenue generation. There is this myth that the police prevent and protect against crime. And this is baloney. In reality, extensive studies have shown that there is zero correlation between the number of police and crime rates. We are not getting any return on our investment, so to speak. Again, this is because the actual purpose of policing is social management of the symptoms of poverty and inequality. 


Vitale takes a look at the fact that policing is overwhelmingly directed at the poor. 


[T]he criminal justice system excuses and ignores crimes of the rich that produce profound social harms while intensely criminalizing the behaviors of the poor and nonwhite, including those behaviors that produce few social harms. When the crimes of the rich are dealt with, it’s generally through administrative controls and civil enforcement rather than aggressive policing, criminal prosecution, and incarceration, which are reserved largely for the poor and nonwhite. No bankers have been jailed for the 2008 financial crisis despite widespread fraud and the looting of the American economy, which resulted in mass unemployment, homelessness, and economic dislocation. 


Just one egregious example is when Wells Fargo fraudulently opened accounts without customers’ consent, thus stealing billions in fees. If a poor person had stolen billions, he would never get out of prison. But nobody did time at Wells Fargo. It’s okay to steal from the poor, after all. Yet surely this was a far more serious crime than, say, selling cigarettes on the street. 


One theme which keeps coming up in this book is that of “effectiveness.” Or, more accurately, the utter lack of effectiveness that policing has in what it is supposedly there for. The most obvious example, of course, is the ludicrous “War on Drugs.” How many billions of dollars - trillions perhaps - have been spent on this worthless war. And millions of humans have been incarcerated as a result. And yet, there is zero evidence that it has made one even tiny bit of difference in the availability of drugs. I could walk out my office door and get high in a matter of minutes. And so can anyone who wants to. All this money, all this mass incarceration, all the lives ruined, and I can get any drug I want in minutes. That is not effective in any possible way. Rather, it is just another war on the poor. (I cannot emphasize that enough. The poor bear the brunt of both crime and policing, to say nothing of austerity policies.) 


The chapter on mental illness and disability is pretty eye opening. A shockingly high percentage of those arrested are mentally ill, and usually have zero meaningful access to treatment. So we arrest and imprison them. This is extremely costly, and does not improve outcomes either for the mentally ill or for society. 


Reducing social services and replacing them with punitive social control mechanisms works less well and is more expensive. The cost of housing people and providing them with mental health services is actually lower than cycling them through emergency rooms, homeless shelters, and jails, as numerous studies have shown. The drive to criminalize has more to do with ideology than effectiveness: the mentally ill are seen not as victims of the neoliberal restructuring of public health services but as a dangerous source of disorder to be controlled through intensive and aggressive policing. Any attempt to reduce the negative effects of policing on this population must directly challenge this ideological approach to policing.


I think this may be the most powerful statement in the book. Our choice as a society to use policing to solve social problems is an ideology. It is not grounded in reality. It is not grounded in economic factors - we could save money with a different approach. It is not grounded in compassion. It is grounded in an ideological belief that people who suffer do so because of their own moral failings, and that what is necessary is to increase punishment and violence against them until they “decide not to be bad anymore.” Alas, this ideology runs in the conservative side of our culture, from the inherently abusive teachings on childrearing (children are wicked and must be beaten to save their souls) promulgated by evil men like James Dobson (Now revealed to be seriously racist as well...surprise, surprise), to the dog-whistle of “black kids are out of control because they aren’t disciplined by their parents.” It is a deep soul-sickness in our society. In my opinion, it is born out of both a hyper-individualistic bootstrap mythology and out of a need to find a justification for our 400 years of oppression and violence against nonwhites. Conservative whites in America seem to live in terror that a brown-skinned person might get something they “don’t deserve” - a fear that dates back to the Civil War, and probably before that. 


Back to the issue of cost. Vitale goes through a number of examples showing just how incredibly inefficient our approach is. In Florida, for example, a mere 97 “chronic offenders” - all mentally ill - cost the state an estimated $275,000 EACH per year. This is craziness. Likewise, a USC study of homelessness found that it cost the state far more under the current approach than it would to pay for housing and support services. As in, two years of living on the street cost $187,000, compared to the $107,000 to put a person in permanent housing with support services. We are throwing money down the toilet because of ideology. 


Not only is this wasteful, it is also unethical. Our treatment of the homeless is beyond evil - it is cruel and spiteful and a disgrace to us as a nation. We essentially criminalize homelessness. This is not really debatable. The UN Human Rights Committee has already called the US out on its failure to abide by human rights treaties we signed. 


“The Committee is concerned about reports of criminalization of people living on the streets for everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, sitting in particular areas, etc. The Committee notes that such criminalization raises concerns of discrimination and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” 


Vitale goes on to discuss the problems with our approach. 


This is an official finding about a treaty that the United States has signed and to which courts must adhere. It also lays out a framework for judging the criminalization of homeless people as cruel, inhuman, and degrading, which draws parallels with our constitutional ban on cruel and inhuman punishment as well as international restrictions on torture. 


Even if criminalization was successful, legal, and cost effective, it would still be unethical. We live in an economic and social environment in which the market is unable to house people at the bottom of the economic order and government is unwilling to make up the difference. Given this reality, how can we justify treating homelessness as a criminal justice issue? The law appears to be applied universally, but this fails to take into account the fact that the poor are always under greater pressure to break it and at greater risk of being subjected to legal action. As Anatole France pointed out in 1894, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” 


This is at the heart of the problem. The cure for homelessness is most certainly not more punishment to make the homeless “stop sinning.” It is also not to lecture them to be better. The key need is housing. Permanent, affordable housing, with support for mental health and the other issues they face. (Again, this would literally cost less than what we are doing now.


Moving on, Vitale looks at the criminalization of sex work, which is yet another area in which we spend way too much money, get zero observable results, and instead increase hardship to sex workers. 


What does it mean to criminalize sex work? When we allow police to regulate our sex lives, we inflict tremendous harm on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Young people, poor women, and transgendered persons who rely on the sex industry to survive and even thrive are forced by police into the shadows, leaving them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and diminished health outcomes. 


Ultimately, this too is unjust and unethical. There is nothing just about telling impoverished people that they should stick to degrading, low paying jobs, rather than find alternatives. The whole chapter is excellent. 


Next up is the big one: the War on Drugs. So much has been said about this in the last few years, but it bears repeating. 


The War on Drugs is the most damaging and ineffective form of policing facing us. Whether we date this war from the 1914 Halstead Act, President Reagan’s famous all-out offensive, or President Clinton’s massive expansion of federal drug crimes in the 1990s, there is no evidence that our country’s drug problems have been improved by driving millions into prison. Since 1982, drugs have become cheaper, higher quality, and more widely available than ever before. Millions of Americans have tried them; high-school students have easy access to them. While ending the War on Drugs by itself won’t transform policing, it would be a major positive step toward radically redefining the role of police in society and improving racial justice. 


Vitale doesn’t downplay the harms of drugs, but merely highlights the fairly indisputable fact that our current approach has incarcerated millions with no observable benefit to society. Furthermore, the War itself has always been rooted in racism and xenophobia, starting with the Halstead Act which targeted opium on the grounds that it encouraged white women to associate with Chinese people. The act gave the police grounds to harass and brutalize an already vulnerable minority. Ditto for the association of cannabis, renamed “marijuana” to associate it with Mexican immigrants. Cocaine was associated with African Americans (ironic, since enslavers used it to get more work out of their enslaved.) The first “Drug Czar,” Harry Anslinger, openly targeted immigrants and people of color, and was personally involved in harassing and arresting singer Billie Holliday - and her death in police custody may have been connected to him personally. It’s a really sordid history. And that is before Richard Nixon. His drug policies were connected with his “Southern Strategy” of appealing to Southern white racists, and his dog whistle to “law and order” is still in use today by the Right. The War on Drugs were created specifically as a means of social control of politically undesirable (to the Right) movements, as John Ehrlichman (Nixon’s chief domestic policy advisor) later admitted. I will quote that interview, because it is so damning. 


“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left, and black people. You understand what I’m saying? … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”


We see this still today, of course. The whole Brionna Taylor murder is an example. Why did the cops get a “no knock warrant” to smash their way into her home? On the grounds that there might be drugs there (there weren’t, by the way) and if they had to knock before entering, the drugs might be flushed. 


I am not making that up. That’s “standard procedure.” To literally do a violent entry in the middle of the night, risk violence and endanger both the residents and the cops. Why? To get evidence to imprison someone for using drugs. This is morally ludicrous. And ineffective for anything other than harassment of people of color and increasing incarceration. 


And just a thought: how many middle class white homes do the police do this to? Not many if any. We wouldn’t put up with that kind of violation of our right to live at peace in our own homes. And this despite the fact that we middle class whites use drugs at the same rate as blacks. 


So why DO we insist on this heavy handed, ineffective and brutalizing approach to drugs? Why do we resist any policies that might reduce the harm caused both by drug use and policing? Vitale believes that it is yet another symptom of our “moral absolutism that is completely divorced from reality.” Again, it is the “suffering is caused by the victim’s sin” thing all over again. Addiction is a sin, and should be punished as brutally as necessary, even though this is completely ineffective. 


Among other real solutions, Vitale advocates for a return to what he calls “informal social controls” of the worst antisocial behavior stemming from addiction. In what really resonated with me, he mentioned that countries like Italy and France, where alcohol is largely unregulated, and people drink in public all the time. (As did we, when we went to Paris a few years ago.) Ironically, alcoholism rates are lower, and public intoxication is quite rare. We noticed this during our visit. You can literally by a beer from a street vendor anywhere. You can (and we did) picnic in the Louvre gardens with a bottle of wine. Heck, the Euro Soccer Championship was going on in Paris at that time, and Wales unexpectedly won a match. There were a LOT of drunken fans - and the Welsh party hard, from what we saw. But we never felt endangered, because the informal cultural controls were in evidence. The loudest guys (and gals) were corralled by the less intoxicated, and redirected in ways that deescalated anything antisocial. And, come to think of it, we see this a lot in white middle class communities, where drug use is carefully kept from being out in the public most of the time. Without the heavy-handed policing, it kind of flies under the radar. (Seriously. I know people who had drug problems - including relatives. It wasn’t no-knock warrants or 50 year sentences that helped them. Just saying.) Again, so much good stuff in this chapter. 


Another great chapter is the one on gangs. So much of what we (meaning middle class whites) “know” about gangs is the result of misinformation from the police (who have to justify the existence of heavily armed “gang units”) and television shows. But I grew up in an area of Los Angeles that had gangs, and Vitale is more right about the actual dynamics than the pearl clutchers. It’s complicated, shall we say. Gangs are not really the centralized organized crime syndicates like the Mob, which is why imprisoning the “kingpins” doesn’t really change anything. A lot of the violence isn’t from the older members, but from young wannabes. And, ultimately, the dynamics of poverty and the need to find support and protection drive gangs. (Also, the police act more like gangs than we would like to admit, including the “no snitching” culture…) 


Like with drugs, the War on Gangs has been laughably ineffective, and has mostly resulted in mass incarceration of young men of color. A couple of passages on alternatives to invasive policing stood out. 


First, we must have a real conversation about the entrenched, racialized poverty concentrated in highly segregated neighborhoods, which are the main source of violent crime. It is true that crime has declined overall without major reductions in poverty or segregation, but the crime that remains is concentrated in these areas. Unlike aggressive policing and mass incarceration, doing something about racialized poverty and exclusion would have general benefits for society in terms of reducing poverty, inequality, and racial injustice.


Most young people would gladly choose a stable, decent-paying job over participation in the black markets of drugs, sex work, or stolen property. The United States is more segregated today than ever before. It allows up to 25 percent of its young people to grow up in extreme poverty, something that just isn’t tolerated in other developed countries. It is from that population that most serious crime originates.


Key here is the “stable, decent-paying” job. The usual prescription given by conservatives for young men of color is that they need to “learn how to work,” by which they usually mean hard labor in degrading and low paying jobs. As notorious white terrorist Cliven Bundy put it, “they didn’t learn to pick cotton.” (Two ironies here: (1) anyone other than a white terrorist would never get away with armed invasion of a government building, holding hostages, and demanding special privileges. A person of color would have never made it out alive. (2) For someone claiming people of color are welfare queens, interesting that his entire business model relies on mooching off the public in the form of well-below-market access to public lands.) 


I should mention a few other things in passing. The chapter on school policing is outstanding - again, no evidence of benefits, but plenty of harm. 


The chapter on immigration policing is worth an entire post, if I had time. (Although you can read my immigration series here.) Since President Clinton militarized our border, ICE has vastly expanded, and we have incarcerated tens of thousands of men, women, and children for the “crime” of fleeing poverty and violence.) And, of course, our immigration policing has ALWAYS been about racism. ALWAYS. Oh, anyone remember “Operation Wetback”? Ah, the good old days when government used racial slurs to dehumanize people. Good thing we don’t do that anymore, right? [cough cough] Really excellent in this chapter is the thoroughly documented point that our immigration policing is much more about ensuring a cheap workforce that cannot protest violations of their legal rights than about actually regulating immigration. It maintains the racialized caste system. Hey, that’s a central theme of this book! Here’s a good quote:


One of the mistakes that Trump supporters make is imagining that their own economic conditions will be improved by continuing to exploit foreign lands while excluding those who suffer as a result. That analysis assumes that the wealth generated by the process will somehow trickle down to American workers. The last twenty years have taught us that these global economic arrangements do not include national allegiance on the part of corporations or sharing wealth within national economies. The wealth of the United States has increased dramatically in the last two decades, but all of that growth has gone exclusively to the richest 10 percent. The rest of us have seen wages and government services decrease. Our standard of living is not declining because of migrants but because of unregulated neoliberal capitalism, which has allowed corporations and the rich to avoid paying taxes or decent wages. It is the system that must be changed. 


Finally, and particularly chilling, was the chapter on the history of political policing. Which is very much going on today, with police around the nation not even pretending to protect “leftist” protesters, while allowing right wing terrorist groups to walk around with weapons. And this is nothing new. 


The myth of policing in a liberal democracy is that the police exist to prevent political activity that crosses the line into criminal activity, such as property destruction and violence. But they have always focused on detecting and disrupting movements that threaten the economic and political status quo, regardless of the presence of criminality. While on a few occasions this has included actions against the far right, it has overwhelmingly focused on the left, especially those movements tied to workers and racial minorities and those challenging American foreign policy. More recently, focus has shifted to surveillance of Muslims as part of the War on Terror.


Vitale also gets into the bigger picture of how US foreign policy has created a lot of the problems we see from foreign terrorists, including our support of despotic and violent regimes (that conveniently happen to agree with us on oil prices…) and our support of the unethical and destabilizing practices of Israel. 


Two closing thoughts from the book stuck with me, and serve as a bit of a summary of the basic premise, that our policing isn’t effective or cheap, makes things worse, and serves to use violence to suppress the symptoms of a cruel and unequal society. 


The best way to avoid political violence is to enhance justice at home and abroad. Rather than embracing a neoconservative framework of retribution, control, and war, we should look to a human rights and social justice framework that seeks to ensure universal health care, education, housing, and food as well as equal access to the political process -- goals we are far from achieving. 


And this:


Policing needs to be reformed. We do indeed need new training regimes, enhanced accountability, and a greater public role in the direction and oversight of policing. We need to get rid of the warrior mindset and militarized tactics. It is essential that police learn more about the problems of people with psychiatric disabilities. Racist and brutal police officers who break the law, violate the public trust, and abuse the public must be held to account. The culture of the police must be changed so that it is no longer obsessed with the use of threats and violence to control the poor and socially marginal. 


That said, there is a larger truth that must be confronted. As long as the basic mission of police remains unchanged, none of these reforms will be achievable. There is no technocratic fix. Even if we could somehow implement these changes, they would be ignored, resisted, and overturned -- because the institutional imperatives of the politically motivated wars on drugs, disorder, crime, etc. would win out. Powerful political forces benefit from abusive, aggressive, and invasive policing, and they are not going to be won over or driven from power by technical arguments or heartfelt appeals to do the right thing. They may adopt a language of reform and fund a few pilot programs, but mostly they will continue to reproduce their political power by fanning fear of the poor, nonwhite, disabled, and dispossessed and empowering police to be the “thin blue line” between the haves and the have-nots.


In general, Vitale writes with a calm and dispassionate style, and supports his arguments well. I believe this is an important book for a number of reasons. In our current moment, with cell phones documenting an unmistakable pattern of brutality and violence directed at the poor, nonwhites, and “liberal” protesters, we cannot continue to simply pretend there isn’t a serious problem. Vitale makes the important connection that the police are not “broken.” Rather, they are acting in accordance with the role our society has set for them, which is to use violence and aggression to treat the symptoms of a decades-long plundering of our society by the wealthy predator class. Even the first world’s most violent police forces and the world’s highest incarceration rate haven’t been able to successfully do that. We need a different approach, that addresses the cause of social unrest. Conservatives love to deride that as “social justice,” but the Bible simply calls it “justice.” The cure for unjust conditions isn’t increasing the violence against the oppressed, but righting the injustice. 




Update September 22, 2020: 


In light of one of the comments below, I would like to add an additional resource. Charles Murray's books, particularly The Bell Curve, but also Coming Apart, have been hugely influential on American public policy, as Vitale points out at greater length in the book. 

 Among other things, the books advocate for substantial cutbacks to all social welfare programs (including elimination of Social Security and government healthcare programs), in order to make it less likely that low income women stop reproducing so much. If that sounds like eugenics, well, yes. It is eugenics. You will also find the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that characterizes the Trump Administration. Those white immigrants of the past were smarter, but these new brown-skinned ones are stupider, because "science." 

 It is crucial to understand that Murray's books, while couched in terms of science, are actually about politics. They are about changing public policy based on a belief that intelligence is racial. So, instead of trying to make our country more equal, we should actually make it less equal, and let nature take its course. Again, social darwinism. Aka, eugenics. 


For more on this, including some of the most poisonous quotes, see this excellent article by Matthew Iglesias in Vox from 2018.  


  1. I'm just going to post this link here, because the comic it links to sums up "Defund the Police" better than any amount of words ever could...

    1. That one has been making the rounds, and it is an excellent illustration.

  2. I enjoy reading your blog and you have changed my mind on many topics over the years. However, one correction: Neither Charles Murray nor The Bell Curve is "openly racist". I can see why you might be tempted to believe that, but it is a misinformed statement.

    At one point in a 500+ page book on intelligence, Murray and his co-author stated that there are differences in average IQ by race and demonstrated this result was not due to test bias. It stated that it is unclear whether this result is based on environmental or genetic factors. Quoting from the book:

    "If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate."

    Has The Bell Curve been used to defend racist ideas? Sadly, yes. But the content itself is fact-based and honestly, as the excerpt above demonstrates, charitable. It is a summary of what academics who study rigorously study the field of intelligence believed to be true 26 years ago and continue to believe today.

    Honestly, that's why I read both Charles Murray and your blog: you both are generally good at putting the truth first, when it doesn't agree with the dogma you grew up with or is otherwise uncomfortable. There's a lot of hard facts out there and when we filter and rationalize out the ones we don't want to struggle with or that don't conform to our preconceived dogma, that tends to make things worse, not better.

    Since you are such a prodigious reader, I think you should considering reading and writing a blog post on a book by Murray. Either the Bell Curve, or Coming Apart (which was in many ways prophetic of the rise of Trump), or his latest, Human Diversity.


    1. By definition, the idea that intelligence is based on genetics and thus varies by race is in fact, on its face and at its core, racist: "the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another."

      The Bell Curve may be more "scientific" (although pseudoscience is more accurate) than phrenology, but it still arrives at the same place, which is that some races are more intelligent or rational than others. The fact that this just happens to line up with beliefs about racial superiority that have existed since the rise of colonialism seems all too convenient, much like the "science" proving that women are less intelligent than men.

      And, for the record, the dogma I grew up with was to a significant extent in line with The Bell Curve and a belief in female inferiority, so it isn't my upbringing driving this. Rather, I am dubious of any work that tends to support a grossly unequal status quo that arose because of prejudice.

      I will also note that there is no consensus in favor of race based intelligence differences. I would hope you have read the various critiques of the book both on methodology and on the most important question: what does Murray expect readers to do with the book? It's pretty damn obvious what they have done with it, which is to treat non-whites as inherently less intelligent than whites, and justify all kinds of pernicious policies on that basis.

    2. Also, the idea that The Bell Curve (and for that matter) Coming Apart are somehow non-political is horseshit. Both advocate for social darwinistic public policies, including the elimination of social safety nets (so that low income - and thus stupid - women won't be "incentivized" to have children. And, since the book concludes that non-whites are less intelligent, this is pretty open advocacy for racial eugenics. Ditto for the claim that non-white immigrants are less intelligent than previous - that is, white - immigrants, and that thus we should severely limit entrance. Again, this is straight up racism and eugenics. I 100% stand by my statement that The Bell Curve and Murray are racist on their face and by definition.

  3. It is false to say The Bell Curve concludes non-whites are inherently less intelligent. In the very brief section of the book where race is discussed, the data presented demonstrates that Asians of many types have, on average, higher IQs than whites. That certainly seems to comport with a variety of other data points (who elite tech companies are hiring into complex jobs that didn't exist when The Bell Curve was written, who earns the grades and test scores to get into elite universities, etc.)

    Also, I'm not sure why you bring up "female inferiority". As Murray discusses in his most recent book, I think the science is clear that average IQ between males and females is the same (although there are some differences... males have higher variance so they are more highly represented among the very top and and bottom. Females score higher on verbal/linguistic questions, males seem to have better on questions pertaining to spatial abilities, on average).

    Murray also wrote an entire book arguing in favor of all Americans receiving a Universal Basic Income. I'm not sure how exactly that fits in with the narrative you are trying to put forward about Murray hating the poor.

    Rather than saying "X can't be true, because that would be too convenient for Y nefarious group", how about we just examine the evidence available to us regarding X. A big part of our problem today on all sides is people say "X is good for the other side, so it must be false and I must argue against it". I would humbly propose examining the evidence and trying to figure out what is true without regard for who it helps or hurts.

    1. Again, I stand by my statement. Let me address a few things straight up.
      (1) Saying "but it is true" does not make Murray's claims non-racist. They are BY DEFINITION racist, because he claims some races are more or less intelligent. So I will not back down from that. (And, by the way, I have never met a racist who didn't believe that he or she was "just saying what is true."
      (2) Murray isn't a scientist, he is a political policy writer. That is the crux of why he has been so damaging. I don't care whether he *personally* hates the poor: his policy prescription is straight up eugenics and social darwinism. He proposes defunding social programs (and replacing them with a far smaller UBI to make it more politically palatable.) His policy proposals are very clear. Stop "less intelligent" people from reproducing, and keep those sorts of people from immigrating.

      I strongly recommend you take a look at that VOX article I added.

      And also consider Vitale's key point that because the US has mostly followed Murray's policies over the last 40 years, our social problems and inequality have grown, and we use mass incarceration and violent policing to deal with the results. We cannot fix our policing problem without rejecting Murray's eugenicist policies.

    2. It is also worth looking at the gender issue, because I think that illustrates what is foundationally wrong with Murray. As you note, the differences are in averages. Those differences are also not that great. Statistically significant? Yes. But not as big of a difference as you would think from the way people (including Murray) talk about them. Because they are an *average at the population level,* the statistical differences are essentially meaningless in determining the traits of any particular male or female.

      My wife and one daughter, for example, have extraordinary spacial relations skills. As in, able to design and build reproduction vintage clothing for a particular person using just a photograph good. They can pack a space as if it were Tetris.

      But if you tell people that "women are better at this, men are better at that," you create the impressing that a *particular* person can be assessed as to their abilities based on gender.

      Murray takes that one further, by advocating for public policy based on those small differences in averages at the population level.

      If we used his logic for gender, that would mean that we shouldn't invest in training women for STEM careers, but tell them to focus on jobs using verbal skills. (And vice versa for men.)

      I would hope we can agree that such a policy would be both sexist and damaging to society as a whole.

      Well, the same thing is true of a eugenicist approach to poverty. (A point Matthew Iglesias makes - with abundant evidence linked - in the VOX article above.) Investing in programs that help impoverished persons and communities gives genuinely good results in outcomes. Murray has it exactly backwards.