It’s Never about Race, Right?

I saw this linked to on a friend’s facebook page last week:  “Don’t support laws you aren’t willing to kill to enforce.”  The gist of the article can be summed up here

On the opening day of law school, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. Usually they greet this advice with something between skepticism and puzzlement, until I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you.

The general point, one that I saw repeated by plenty of libertarian acquaintances after Eric Garner’s death, is that the real problem, the real reason that Eric Garner was killed, is that we have too many laws.  No one should have been killed over selling loose cigarettes, they agree, but that is just an inevitable consequence of having a law against selling loose cigarettes.  Follow things through to their logical conclusions.  Surprisingly, I saw this come up again after Freddie Gray’s death and the Baltimore protests, when a friend quoted Rand Paul* as saying that 80% of the problem was that we had too many laws on the books.

I’m rather amazed to see this getting this amount of play.  Firstly, it is obviously incorrect that we cannot support any law unless we would be okay if someone died for violating the law.  Off the top of my head, I support, and I expect most Americans do as well, laws against speeding, against petty theft, against breaking and entering, and running a red light, even though I wouldn’t be willing to kill to enforce any of those.  (Actually, since I’m anti-death penalty, and generally a supporter of nonviolence, I suppose I can’t support any laws?)

Secondly, though, the problem is not just that we have laws on the books.  The problem is which laws are enforced and which are not, and to whom the laws are applied.  When Eric Garner is dead and Cliven Bundy is still a free man it’s not about the laws.  When riding a bike while black is a crime in Tampa, and officers looking at “broken windows” barely even show up in white neighborhoods–where I guarantee many people still have broken taillights on their bikes and teenagers occasionally have drugs–the problem is not that there are certain laws on the books.

I will acknowledge and agree that we have some pretty terrible laws that we should eliminate and that it would help a great deal towards alleviating structural racism.  The War on Drugs comes to mind.  But really, we shouldn’t make this more complicated than it is.  We shouldn’t be looking for excuses.  I know that we don’t want this to be about race, since it’s Never About Race.  But in Ferguson the 67% African American population made up 93% of the arrests.    North Miami Beach cops used black mugshots for target practice.  And then there’s everything related to stop and frisk.

In most of these cases, cops have stopped people for little to no reason.  And in the tragic cases of Tamir Rice and John Crawford, the cops saw a black child or a black man with a pretend gun and assumed that he was dangerous, not because of a petty violation.   Maybe it’s time to start casting about for any other explanation, and admit that maybe it is About Race.

*I know, right?


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