If you think—as I think any liberal who cares about liberty, whether classical, market, neo-, welfarist, Rawlsian, or whatever, must—that the combination of mass incarceration and aggressive policing amounts to a grave injustice, then you need to be able to think in race-conscious terms. What brought about this crisis? The war on drugs and police militarization, some readers will say. Okay, but what brought about the war on drugs and police militarization? The answer isn’t some simple intellectual mistake. The answer is deeply tied up in American racial politics.
The disproportionate impact of mass incarceration and aggressive policing on African-Americans isn’t some unfortunate side-effect of well-intentioned policies. The politics of drug prohibition, the war on drugs, and the subsequent expansions of police power and imprisonment were never racially innocent to begin with, and it is no accident that Nixon launched the War on Drugs when the ink was barely dry on the formal end of Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement.
As has so often happened in American history, state power expanded in order to persuade white voters that blacks were being kept under control. The appropriation of the language of freedom and anti-statism by those seeking to defend state-level racial tyrannies in the south fools more people than it should, but illiberal state power has far more often been caused by white racism than resisted by it. To think otherwise, one has to think that police and prisons don’t count as instances of state power at all.
Let’s return to [identity politics critic Mark] Lilla:
The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.
On the other side of the scale, he puts… the demands on college campuses to allow students to identify the gendered or non-gendered pronouns by which they wish to be addressed. Treating these as comparable in magnitude suggests a deep failure of perspective.
Black Lives Matter has provided the first truly large-scale political mobilization against police violence and mass incarceration since the War on Drugs began. It’s perfectly true that many liberal (very much including libertarian) scholars and analysts have been calling for reform of police practices, an end to police militarization and civil forfeiture abuse, respect for civil liberties, and drug decriminalization or legalization for a long time. It’s true that it’s possible to offer those analyses in a race-neutral way. But given that the policies aren’t race-neutral, it shouldn’t surprise us that opposition to them isn’t either, and that the real political energy for mobilizing against them would be race-conscious energy.