What "Defund the police" ignores: Systems it would divert resources to are racist, too

That leftist sloganeering about 'defund the police' hurt Democrats down the ballot is no more an open question than the fact that Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in the presidential race. And yet, it's also no surprise that the same leftists who believe it to be a clever slogan - one they sell as a "demand" - will have a fit of rage every time a Democratic leader speaks out about the fact that the losses sloganeering led to has, in fact, made real reform difficult by reducing the number of people in state legislatures and in Congress who are willing to engage in a good faith effort to change things.

So it was when Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat from a tough district, spoke out. So it was when Rep. Jim Clyburn said he and the Late John Lewis believed the slogan would hurt not just the cause of reform but the Black Lives Matter movement itself. So it was - so it was especially - when the only Black person ever to hold the title of President of the United States, President Barack Obama, called out leftists for focusing on prioritizing a feel-good slogan over the imperative to make progress on policy.

And so, I assume, it will be now that the President-elect Joe Biden himself has given voice to how politically damaging the 'defund the police' slogan has been, and will likely continue to be to the cause of police accountability.

But up until this point, the debate has been unidirectionally focused on how politically damaging the slogan is. That's appropriate, since in a democracy, one cannot enact policies without enough legislators being elected who would support those policies. Still, the dialog has left out the policy implications, even if the slogan's advocates could be taken at their word about what the slogan really means and what they really want to do with the money if they are able to defund the police.

What they say they want is to divert resources from police activities unrelated to violent crimes to professionals who are better suited to handle civil situations and de-escalate high-intensity environments the presence of police often tends to further intensify. Mental health professionals trained in dealing with volatile patients ought to be deployed in difficult mental health cases that have not escalated to violence. Substance abuse counselors should be at hand to deal with drug overdose or even non-violent drug offenses. Resources should be diverted to quality neighborhood schools and after-school programs.

Indeed, low-crime neighborhoods are defined not by police sirens but by properly resourced public schools, well-kept public spaces, children's playgrounds, and residents who do not lack the basic necessities of life.

But simply offloading a good portion of police responsibilities on to other systems may not be the panacea for Black and brown lives that this simplistic view represents. Let me elaborate.

Health and health outcome disparities for Black Americans compared to their white counterparts is legendary, and not all of it is attributable to higher rates of economic pain among African Americans. Black maternal mortality - regardless of insurance quality or status - is over three times as much as that of whites. Health care practitioners have a systemic problem with minimizing pain among Black patients, as a result of which (once again, which has nothing to do with the quality of their insurance) Black patients tend to receive worse care, suffer from higher instance of cardiovascular disease and even amputations.

Disparities in mental health and substance abuse treatment for Black people are even starker. Systemic provider racial bias accounts for much of it, not simply a lack of health care options. Shame and embarrassment, amplified by the broader social racial bias, tend to exacerbate these disparities by keeping people from seeking help in the first place.

There's a good chance that simply sending out a mental health professional instead of a police officer to a scene that involves a volatile situation with a Black or brown person will either result in no intervention or inadequate - or even inappropriate - intervention because of systemic bias - which a health professional is as likely to be subject to as a police officer - of the medical system. When that happens, the risk that the situation will eventually escalate to violence increases, necessitating a police intervention anyway. It may well be more fruitful to send a police officer and a health professional, which will require finding additional money, not simply reallocating resources.

The education system is equally plagued with systemic racism. Public schools are more segregated today than ever, and they are almost certainly more segregated than local police forces. And once again, a lack of resources in minority communities is only part of the story. Not unlike law enforcement, the teaching profession is subject to implicit and systemic racial bias. A Yale study found that implicit teacher bias against Black students, and especially against Black boys, starts as early as pre-school, and the snowball effects continue throughout the education system.

Put another way, Black people start their interaction with implicit racism in education, health care, and law enforcement at roughly the same stage of life: when they're toddlers.

The solution to systemic racism in public education isn't to defund public schools. The solution to systemic racism in health care isn't to defund health care. We ought to be able to at least accept the possibility that the solution to systemic racism in law enforcement may not lie in defunding the police, either.

It is good to think about making better use of community resources. But we must keep in mind that civil institutions in America are subject to systemic racism just as much as the criminal justice system, and can, in fact, be just as harmful. The conversation about community safety, police accountability, and investing in people must encompass more than moving around money in the city (or federal) budget. Anti-racism must be a core part of reforming every institution, not just law enforcement.

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