The Agenda

Who Pays the Public Safety Tax?

In the course of a broader discussion of the moral and political questions surrounding racial profiling, Noah Millman references Ta-Nehisi Coates’ suggestion that profiling in the name of crime control represents the “annihilation of the black individual.” (It’s worth noting that other measures, like racial preferences, also efface individuality, so one assumes that the effacement of individuality per se isn’t the central problem with racial profiling.) Coates was responding to a provocative (and then some) argument by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen that if profiling improves public safety, it may well be worth it: 

Richard Cohen concedes that this is a violation, but it is one he believes black people, for the good of their country, must learn to live with. Effectively he is arguing for a kind of racist public safety tax. The tax may, or may not, end with a frisking. More contact with the police, and people who want to be police, necessarily means more deadly tragedy. Thus Cohen is not simply calling for my son and I to bear the brunt of “violation,” he is calling for us to run a higher risk of death and serious injury at the hands of the state. Effectively he is calling for Sean Bell’s fianceé, Trayvon Martin’s parents, Amadou Diallo’s mother, Prince Jones’ daughter, the relatives of Kathryn Johnston to accept the deaths of their love ones as the price of doing business in America. [Emphasis added]

Coates adds the following:

Perhaps the standards should be different when it comes to public safety and violence. But New York City’s murder rate is as low as it has been in 50 years. How long should a racist public-safety tax last? Until black people no longer constitute a disproportionate share of our violent criminals, one assumes. But black people do not constitute such a group — victims of hundreds of years of racist state policy constitute that group. “Black on Black” crime is the racecraft by which the fact of what was done to us disappears, and the fact of our DNA becomes criminalized. 

I have another framework in mind. Black Americans are overrepresented among the victims. And while the murder rate in New York city is quite low, it is substantially higher in high-poverty neighborhoods than low-poverty neighborhoods, and high-poverty neighborhoods in turn tend to have higher black populations than low-poverty neighborhoods. It is also substantially higher than it was during the first decades of the twentieth century, and we have good reason to believe that crime actually does more damage now than it did in that era to the long-term labor market and health outcomes of children raise in high-crime neighborhoods. The New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey, who shares Coates’ political perspective, published a fascinating article in 2010, “The acute effect of local homicides on children’s cognitive performance,” the abstract of which reads as follows:

This study estimates the acute effect of exposure to a local homicide on the cognitive performance of children across a community. Data are from a sample of children age 5–17 y in the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods. The effect of local homicides on vocabulary and reading assessments is identified by exploiting exogenous variation in the relative timing of homicides and interview assessments among children in the same neighborhood but assessed at different times. Among African Americans, the strongest results show that exposure to a homicide in the block group that occurs less than a week before the assessment reduces performance on vocabulary and reading assessments by between ∼0.5 and ∼0.66 SD, respectively. Main results are replicated using a second independent dataset from Chicago. Findings suggest the need for broader recognition of the impact that extreme acts of violence have on children across a neighborhood, regardless of whether the violence is witnessed directly. [Emphasis added]

That is, exposure to homicide has a lasting impact on the cognitive performance of young children, and this in turn can have an enormous impact on how well these children fare later in life. I can’t imagine that Sharkey supports racial profiling. But when Coates invokes the idea of a “racist public safety tax,” I don’t think solely of racial profiling. Rather, I think of policies which systematically undervalue the lives of black people relative to non-black people, including the selective underenforcement of the law. In The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, William Stuntz offers a distinctive and compelling take on the idea of “the equal protection of the law”:

For a brief time during Reconstruction, the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” meant roughly what it said: all citizens had the same right to the law’s protection. Ex-slaves terrorized by Klan members were entitled to a government that did its best to stop the terrorism. If local officials couldn’t or wouldn’t fulfill their constitutional obligation to protect the local population – all of that population, rich and poor, black and white – the federal government was obliged to offer some protection of its own. United States v. Cruikshank (1876) ended that constitutional obligation, and with it Reconstruction. More than a century later, McCleskey v. Kemp (1987) and Castle Rock v. Gonzales (2005) confirmed the ending: McCleskey made discrimination impossible to prove, and Castle Rock gave the government unfettered discretion to choose when to enforce the law and when to ignore it. But Cruikshank, McCleskey, and Castle Rock are at odds with the original understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a better, healthier constitutional order, those decisions would fall. If they did-if the older vision of equal protection were revived-the underpolicing of violent neighborhoods, along with the consequent underenforcement of violent felonies in those neighborhoods, would be more than a policy failure. It would be a constitutional violation, one that governments at all levels would be obliged to remedy. [Emphasis added]

Coates’ “racist public safety tax” is “paid” by young black men. But who are the beneficiaries of the tax he has in mind? There is a plausible case that the principal beneficiaries are black children, roughly half of whom will grow up to be black men, and also adult women, who are far more underrepresented among victimizers than they are among victims. 

One obvious objection to this framework is that large numbers of people living in high-crime neighborhoods in cities like New York, where racial profiling has become a source of controversy, oppose the practice, which suggests that it isn’t really benefiting the class of people most directly impacted by crime. It is also true, however, that people tend to underinvest in health insurance, retirement savings, etc., as most people are present-oriented. This is why we have tax-financed social insurance programs, and it is the case for measures like the individual insurance mandate in the Affordable Care Act — these are paternalistic interventions that are designed to account for the fact that most of us have pretty short time horizons. 

If we accept that racial profling reduces crime — and I’m open to the possibility that it does not, or that there are less costly interventions that would do just as much to reduce crime — abolishing it doesn’t abolish a racist public safety tax. Rather, it shifts the incidence of the racist public safety tax. Children and women in high-crime communities will “pay” somewhat more, the men who feel as though their dignity is injured by racial profiling will pay somewhat less. This is oversimplication: the lives of women, men, and children are intertwined. And shifting the incidence of a racist public safety tax to be more favorable to young men in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods, a group that one could argue has been particularly damaged by broader social and economic trends, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it is worth thinking through the trade-off.

My own view is that reducing crime is a moral imperative, mostly because of the scarring effects of crime on the lives of poor children, but also because our collective failure to achieve the “equal protection of the laws” undermines the legitimacy of our institutions more broadly. I definitely buy the idea that racial profiling might be self-undermining, i.e., the alienation and distrust that it fosters may well outweigh its crime control benefits. I just think it’s important to acknowledge that there is another side of the ledger.


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