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There is a common narrative among progressive political and racial thinkers in the United States that all or almost all police departments are systematically racist in a way that does significant and serious harm to racial minorities, especially to black Americans. The mechanisms behind this seem obvious in areas where black citizens are a minority and unable to control police policy, however many cities in America have majority black or non-white populations and democratic elections for local government that directly oversees the police, controls hiring, and sets police policy. Many of these cities are seen by their citizens to have a serious problem with racial discrimination in policing, for example in 2015 the people of Baltimore protested police discrimination and brutality in their city after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

How do prominent progressive political thinkers on racial injustice explain why demographic majorities in these cities are unable to impact police policy in a way that leads to officers not discriminating against the non-white majority?

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Let's start with the understanding that in the USA — at least for the moment — political power is distributed, not centralized. This is a feature of our system of governance, not a bug. The Founders wanted political power distributed over many people, on many different levels, in many different forms, so that it would be difficult for any tyrant to amass power for his own use. It creates an unwieldy, contentious system, but that was seen as preferential to the dictatorial alternative.

This, however, is a double-edged sword. Any person who takes public office in the US, particularly at lower levels of governance, is confronted by a wide assortment of power structures which they have no direct control over. A newly-elected city mayor, for instance, has to contend with:

  • State and Federal elected officials — congresspeople, governors, state legislators, even the president — who might find it in their interests to meddle in city governance
  • Other local elected officials — city council members, police or fire chiefs, etc — who may have agendas different from the mayor's
  • Appointed officials — city administrators, judges, etc — who are difficult to remove and may not cooperate with the mayor's efforts
  • Civil service workers — police, firefighters, city employees, and the like — who are heavily unionized and largely immune to political pressure.
  • Independent, overlapping specialty districts — water and power districts, fire districts, etc — that are largely outside the political system but still carry significant influence and weight
  • Private interests — large corporations, prominent businesspeople, society figures, activists, lobbyists — who can create significant political headaches if they are not attended to.
  • Political opportunists looking for any chance to establish or increase their own power

A community has some control over who they elect to local office, but little-to-no influence over these other forces. Even if a predominately African-American community elects African-Americans to all the local community offices — and even if all of those elected officials are dedicated to improving the condition of life for their African-American constituents, which is by no means guaranteed — they can still be faced with stubborn resistance: police unions who defend police at the expense of citizens; entrenched judges who will not revise unjust sentencing standards; state and federal agencies which do more or less as they please; businesses that threaten to pull out unless certain conditions are met or maintained; city workers who refuse to change their practices... Control of political offices is ultimately a winning strategy, but that 'ultimately' may only come after a long, exhausting, bitter battle to force these entrenched institutions into compliance.

No one in political office wants to use the nuclear option: by which I mean the kind of thing that happened in Minneapolis, where the city council straight-out attempted to dissolve the civil service police force in order to reconstruct it from scratch. That kind of action is fraught with political dangers. But short of that, creating change can be extremely challenging.

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    For clarity, the city council passed an amendment to the city council to remove the requirement in the charter to have a police force. That was halted by the (unelected) charter commission, so it can't go on the November ballot. So while the city council has started the process, MPD is not dissolved - still patrols the street - and can't be unless the charter amendment passes in November 2021. – Azor Ahai -- he him Sep 24 at 17:30
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    I'm in Minneapolis. I think Minneapolis serves as a great example of exactly the points you are making. Despite widespread support to dissolve and rebuild the police department among city residents, and unanimous support by the city council, what you call the "nuclear option" just isn't powerful enough to overcome the power structures in place. To Azor's point, the council won't even have the ability to change anything until next November, meanwhile the police union has resisted all attempts at reform. Even with popular support, change will take a long time. – Seth R Sep 25 at 17:33
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    1) The police union is an easy target. 2) The judges can be overpowered by telling the local prosecuting attorney to explain jury nullification in every case, or otherwise by a large scale public information campaign. – Joshua Sep 25 at 19:01
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Systemic racism is a problem wider than any city or department and not the result of personal prejudice or "bad apples". It's far beyond the scope of an answer to explain or debate the applicability and utility of the theory, but there are some familiar touchstones that explain parts contributing to racial inequity via policing in minority-majority districts.

Police Unions often make it hard to discipline cops. For example, locally we've had one basically reverse the firing of an officer who was terminated for sexual harassment. Our city/dept had a popular policy, it was violated, and yet it wasn't able to be enforced.

Consider the impact of race on class and available economic resources, which are indisputably correlated to crime. Resume studies swapping only black and white names find a significantly higher response rate for white names. Redlining prevented many black folk's parents from having a house to borrow against in an emergency or to bequeath as a nest egg.

Black motorists are much more likely to be pulled over, even a US senator like Tim Scott, and the more you look for wrongdoing, the more you find it. Locally, it was found that black drivers were most likely to be stopped for equipment failures, which connects back to economic disparities. An arrest often hinders employment, starting a downward spiral that potentially leads to crimes of desperation.

Also remember that cities don't make laws, states do. While cities can pass ordinances, some of which (e.g. vagrancy) I believe to be discriminatory, police are tasked primarily with enforcing laws passed above and beyond the communities in which they serve. Some states prohibit or allow local circumvention of unpopular state laws like marijuana possession, but even where local policies can supersede, there's many bureaucratic complications and enforcement can be uneven. Some things are out of local official's hands.

Lastly, policing is most effective with strong community buy-in. Neighborhood watch programs, the help of "Good Samaritans" reporting crimes and even facilitating arrests ("don't let him get away"), and "getting involved" with investigations as witnesses, all increase police effectiveness.

Historically, the police were the violent and oppressive means by which racist policies, laws, and unspoken traditions were enforced against black people. They dragged citizens out of schools and cafeterias for having the "wrong" DNA. They arrested people violating "sundown town" clauses on less-than-scrupulous justifications. They released un-convicted black inmates to angry lynch mobs, a la Mississippi Burning.

Because its birth and hundreds of years after was adversarial, the relationship between the African American community and police forces continues to be fraught. Many black Americans continue to perceive inequitable treatment by police. It's a hard cycle to break. Non-cooperation begets more crime, which subsequently amplifies police presence, which results in more arrests, which results in feeling persecuted, which results in not trusting or helping police, which...

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    Black motorists are much more likely to be pulled over, and that goes down significantly at night because then cops have a harder time to discriminate based on skin colour. – hlovdal Sep 25 at 7:19
  • What is the difference between a law and an ordnance? – Azor Ahai -- he him Sep 25 at 14:02
  • @AzorAhai--hehim: Based on this PDF found via some googling: "Unlike a statute,or state law, an ordinance is a local law that is passed by municipal governing authorities, such as a city council or county board of commissioners.Ordinances also apply only to the local jurisdiction, as opposed to the entire state." So ordinances are just a particular type of law; statutes are the other type that dandavis probably meant to compare them with. – V2Blast Sep 27 at 7:52
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Frame challenge: they don't have anything to explain, because that's not what systemic racism is.

There's an implicit premise in the question that progressives think that white police officers have ill intentions towards African Americans or other minorities, and of course those minorities wouldn't be prejudiced against their own kind. But...

Systemic racism is not about intentions. It's about outcomes.

If resumes with stereotypically white names are called for interviews less than resumes with stereotypically African American names with the exact same credentials then that is evidence of racism. If African Americans are more likely to be shot and killed by police way out of proportion with their presence in the general population or criminality, that is evidence of racism, etc. etc.

It's not necessarily even that some people are racist so on average society is racist (although they certainly contribute to the background level of racism). Nothing about any of that requires that people be explicitly racist. I'm not saying they aren't, I am saying that even if they weren't the implicit bias is strong and present enough to generate disparity in outcomes at the system level and those are not limited to whites. There are plenty of examples of things that occur at the system level as a result of rational choice of actors in the system that are collectively irrational.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Philipp Sep 27 at 12:21
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You cite as an example the 2015 protests in the city of Baltimore. After these protests (and arguably as a result of them), the city of Baltimore and the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) requested that the Department of Justice start an investigation into the BPD.

The findings of this investigation are publicly available and were released in mid-2016 [PDF]. It recognizes a pattern of racism and police brutality:

the Department of Justice concludes that there is reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law. BPD engages in a pattern or practice of:

[...]

(2) using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans;

(3) using excessive force

[...]

It also recognizes that this pattern is rooted in other systemic issues faced by the city, which themselves stem in large part from racist policies of the past:

Providing policing services in many parts of Baltimore is particularly challenging, where officers regularly confront complex social problems rooted in poverty, racial segregation and deficient educational, employment and housing opportunities.

However, as you note, a people allowed to choose its elected officials should have better representation and therefore better policing. To that I would say that better policing means improving conditions, not instantly good conditions. The report continues on to express that there is a consensus that there is a problem and it needs to be fixed:

In the course of our investigation, we learned there is widespread agreement that BPD needs reform. Almost everyone who spoke to us—from current and former City leaders, BPD officers and command staff during ride-alongs and interviews, community members throughout the many neighborhoods of Baltimore, union representatives of all levels of officers in BPD, advocacy groups, and civic and religious leaders—agrees that BPD has significant problems that have undermined its efforts to police constitutionally and effectively.

This investigation is one of the ways in which the issue of systemic racism and police brutality are being addressed in that city. The summary goes on to cite a few other ways in which current leadership is taking steps to tackle this systemic racism:

Fortunately, the current leadership of the City and the BPD already have taken laudable steps to reverse this course, including by revising BPD’s use of force policies, taking steps toward enhancing accountability and transparency throughout the Department by, for example, beginning to equip officers with body worn cameras, and taking steps toward improving and expanding its community outreach to better engage its officers with the community they serve. Still, significant challenges remain.

So then, your question might now turn to why this was still a problem as recently as 2015? Bishop Robinson was Baltimore's first african american police commissioner in 1984. Baltimore has had democratic mayors since the 70's and had its first (elected) african-american mayor in 1987 with the election of Kurt Schmoke. The political representation is there and you should expect it to matter. For example Kurt Schmoke heavily criticized the War on Drugs which is recognized today as having disproportionately hurt african-americans.

Baltimore, historically, is home to heavily marginalized, impoverished african-american communities, as acknowledged repeatedly in the Department of Justice's report. These conditions leave these communities vulnerable to violence and in need of help, yet the police was used to contain and control rather than serve and protect. The 80s and 90s witnessed the crack epidemic. An incredible flow of cheap drugs into the inner cities of the United States, one which you should expect to hurt impoverished, hopeless communities the most. Combine that with the War on Drugs and you can begin to understand why the african american communities in Baltimore were in crisis. Political goodwill is not necessarily powerful enough to solve a complex, multilayered, interlocking set of difficult circumstances.

In addition, Kurt Schmoke's mayorship was followed by that of Martin O'Malley, a mayor who would push for a zero tolerance policing policy and heavy criticism of his predecessor's lax attitude on drugs, likely taking inspiration from other cities such as New York and their own zero tolerance policies. This notion that having a hyperactive police force which is tough on small crimes will naturally lead to a reduction in bigger crimes stems from the Broken windows theory, a popular new socioeconomic policy of the time.

This zero tolerance policy and focus on keeping numbers of arrests and stops high, the Department of Justice's report notes, had a very negative effect on the trust between the BPD and the african-american communities:

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, arresting large numbers of people for minor offenses was central to BPD’s enforcement paradigm; in 2005, BPD made more than 108,000 arrests, most for nonviolent offenses.

These are issues that are known to the elected officials and that they want to resolve:

City officials also admit that the Department’s approach has been problematic. Mayor Rawlings- Blake has long recognized the need for reform and repeatedly criticized the aggressive policing strategies championed in the years before her term.

Simply put, you are right to believe that a majority african american city should be electing officials who will better represent them and work to resolve issues of systemic police brutality and racism. The issues that are faced are ones that are deeply rooted, difficult to resolve, but that are being thought about very seriously and that are being worked on.

Sometimes, catastrophic events such as an unexpected flood of cheap drugs combined with mandatory minimum sentences force progress to take two steps back. Sometimes, an attempt to resolve issues by applying a new concept of policing such as zero tolerance policing causes more lasting harm than good.

I encourage everyone to read the Department of Justice's report, there is a lot that my answer doesn't cover, and it gives you an insight into the world beyond what you can get from quick answers, articles and 24 hour news cycles.

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TLDR: The problem is unfortunately not only caused by racism in the police. Operating only under that assumption is unlikely to lead to good results. There are actually several main actors in this problem.

larger civil society

The US seems pretty unique amongst democracies in how retribution-focussed its penal system is. There's a strong element of get-the-bad-guy-at-any-cost and the police are mostly both glorified and allowed/expected to use pretty disproportionate force to get suspects. This is how you end up with someone getting shot getting into his car, or running away from a DUI incident. In both cases, common sense would have been "the address is known from the vehicle, pick him up tomorrow". The fetish of US citizens for militarized police a la SWAT or stupid TV shows like 24 or reality shows where police is never wrong is a very large part of this problem. Ask Joe Average and they'll probably tell you that they are worried about increasing crime, even as violent crimes have trended down pretty much everywhere over the last decades.

Like many other things with American public services (the US Patent Office is a prime example), the intent often seems to treat police as a profit/loss center. This leads to patterns where issuing fines to minorities is perceived as a revenue stream for the police. So you'd need to take that off the table straight out and fund police out of normal taxes.

Until society starts to rein in trigger happy cops and put sharp limits on valid reasons to use deadly force or really coercive apprehension methods like choke holds, problems and abuse will persist. Canada for example has regulations strictly limiting high speed car chases because there is just too much risk to life and limb.

the legal system

Black people are getting a raw deal from US justice system. Besides large incarceration stats, penalties are often extra heavy for them. A classic example was the different penalties for crack cocaine vs powder cocaine. It's the same drug either way, but crack (used by blacks) was much more penalized than powder (used by richer whites). This creates systemic distrust. BreonnaTaylor seems to have been the victim of a wilfully wrong procedure, that of using a no-knock warrant. Her partner shot first, in what he believed was self-defense against intruders and this type of approach will result in wrongful deaths even when the police on location are not intentionally putting civilians at risk. Qualified immunity also needs be applied much more sparingly.

the police

There's various evidence about the effect of black policemen/women. On the one hand, one study claims that white officers are 5 times more likely to fire weapons in a black neighborhood than black police. On the other hand, Freddie Gray died in an incident involving 2 out of 6 black police. And another study claims limited racial bias in police shootings. This one is particularly worrying, if correct: minority policemen may not improve things that much.

Police have a hard job to do. Dealing with low level criminality on a frequent basis can naturally tend to dehumanize their "customers". It's easy to say they behave badly in black neighborhoods. They do. How does police behave in poor white neighborhoods however? Police operating in rich neighborhoods have a very different set of interactions with the public. Let's take Madoff, the poster boy for rich white collar crime, well-deserving of life in prison. I'm sure any interaction police had with him were very cordial, heck he probably donated to police charities.

Additionally, police, like many similar professions, tends to develop a certain "esprit de corps" and band together, regardless of their color. It's easy to see that slip into an "us (the police) vs them (everyone else)".

When at risk, which police can often be in, it is tempting to respond to everything with overwhelming force. Long term that leads exactly to the type of problems we see, which, while overwhelmingly impacting black people, can also result in others getting killed as well.

There needs to be thorough training and counselling to keep police brutality down and promote courtesy at all times. Police usage of force needs to be reviewed each time and body cameras generalized That's certainly something a black chief of police can do, but it doesn't come for free and needs support from the taxpayers. Defund the police is probably heading in exactly the wrong direction.

And, obviously, racism from police officers should be a fireable offense.

the black community

Has no real reason to trust or like the police. On the other hand, many black communities suffer disproportionally from black-on-black crime. So given better police, it ought to be possible to improve police-community relations. At the end of the day, the average black citizen in some neighborhood can't be expected to spontaneously like police. So it's up to police, who are paid to do their job, to take steps to be seen as a help rather than a problem. Until better relations are the norm, there will be friction and problems.

But the community and protesters also need to consider their actions. After police were shot and wounded in Louisville, maybe it would have been best to either tone down or cancel the protests locally. "Vow to keep on protesting" in this particular instance, isn't exactly a heart and mind winner to acquire police sympathy and understanding. And in fact, you can expect politicians who like the police system just the way it is to capitalize on it.

At the end of the day, the only real way to make this problem go away is for black people to have better economic opportunities. Crime, especially petty and violent stranger-on-stranger crime, just tends to go hand in hand with poverty. It's going to be a hard long slog and, while certainly an improvement, black-led police forces are not a magic bullet and will not solve everything on their own.

Finally as everyone and his dog chimes in about the "horribly bad US police", other Western countries (I am Canadian, from France originally) have plenty of scope for self-scrutiny in how their police deals with minorities. The main difference the US has is the lethality of police-civilian encounters brought about by the abundance of guns which makes US police extremely paranoid. Abuse of minorities by French police is endemic despite their denial and France explicitly allows profiling - you get waaay more identity checks as an African or Arab than you would being Caucasian.

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  • On one hand, this answer makes a lot of sense. OTOH, I have distinct memories of visiting Madrid as a teenager and being somewhat shocked to see police (soldiers?) openly and casually carrying automatic weapons on busy city streets. "Fetish for a militarized police" seems questionable? – Jared Smith Sep 27 at 13:51
  • @JaredSmith and you might have visiting at the time of ETA operations which involved plenty of killings of police. I would expect armed police in times of actual terrorist threats. Fetish may be hyperbolic, but unusual approval would not. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Sep 27 at 17:54
  • Fair. That was the mid nineties, so I don't think it was terrorism, but I was still a kid, so not sure. – Jared Smith Sep 27 at 19:43
  • That would have been the tail end of ETA. They announced some ceasefires then reneged a bit then actually stuck to them. And they did have a policy of killing police as much as possible. France too frequently has submachine gun armed police around the times of terrorist threats. Note too that either way, I don't really mind body armor on cops - the safer they feel, the more restrained they ought to be in use of force. It's things like small towns needing surplus armored vehicle or minor crims getting apprehended by SWATs that are way over the top. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Sep 27 at 20:26
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Many of the other answers have focused on two factors. First, systemic racism as expressed in the laws and unwritten rules of a society, such as the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Second, the lack of representativity of many powerful institutions. For instance in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was shot, the city is majority-Black, but the police force reflects the majority-White demographics of the city in the 1970s or so.

Both of those factors contribute significantly to racially disparate policing. However, another major factor is that prejudice against African Americans is not limited to non-African Americans. Decades of studies show that both explicit prejudice and implicit biases, while weaker and less common among Black respondents than among White respondents, are still present.

  • Most obviously, if you go to Project Implicit and analyze the Black/White, Positive/Negative associations, you'll see that all groups —including Black participants—showed an association between White faces and positive words and Black faces and negative words. This association was stronger among White respondents, but definitely present in all groups. Other studies have suggested that implicit biases can make people more likely to use lethal force.

  • Other studies have shown discrimination at the level of behavior. For instance, in a study of racial and gender effects on tipping, both African American and European American participants gave Black servers smaller tips on average. Similarly, studies of discipline practices have consistently found that Black children are disciplined more often than their peers, and have usually found that all groups show this bias to varying extents. If I recall correctly, in at least one case, Black participants may have actually showed a larger bias.

  • At the level of political behavior, the support of marginalized groups for candidates that make such marginalization a specific part of their platform sometimes indicates endorsement of that platform. I am reminded of Marco Gutiérrez, one of the founders of Latinos for Trump, who claimed "My culture is a very dominant culture, and it's imposing and it's causing problems. If you don't do something about it, you're going to have taco trucks on every corner." This suggests that he buys into a least a portion of Trump's anti-Mexican rhetoric. I do not suggest that every Trump voter from a group that he disparages would endorse his opinions about said group, but some certainly would.

  • While the number of Black people who explicitly would endorse anti-Black views may be small, it would be easy for them to be overrepresentated in police forces. Why? Well, most of these forces used to be majority-White, and people prefer to hire people who are philosophically similar to them. This can create a self-perpetuating subculture that may have opinions that are distinct from society at large. On a related note, Pew polls have found that the self-reported racial views of Black police officers are, in aggregate, intermediate between those of police as a whole and Black people as a whole, but closer to the latter.

  • Further, colorism, or discrimination within a community on the basis of skin tone, is also a major problem. It is present in many countries in Africa, in Latin America, in India, and obviously in the United States. While often conceptualized as a distinct problem, particularly due to its pre-colonial roots in many societies where lighter skin was a sign of less manual labor, in a global context that values a European appearance more than other looks, it certainly reinforces and is reinforced by racism. It seems probable that it would lead to racially disparate policing.

  • Finally, perhaps the most important and obvious point is that majority-Black is not the same thing as having no White officers whatsoever, and a police chief does not have complete control over all their officers. There is no magic switch that flips when a force goes from 49% Black to 51% Black that would prevent officers from acting on their personal prejudices.

With all that in mind, it would be quite possible for a majority-Black city with a representative police force and government to exhibit racially disparate policing even in the absence of systemically racist laws and policies.

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Based on what I've heard in the news, this seems to be the argument. Note that I disagree wholeheartedly with this argument and I don't believe I could actually find credible sources to back up the argument, so I won't be providing any, so take that for what you will; the question is asking "How do prominent progressive political thinkers <...> explain", not "what is the actual reason".

The first thing to note is that America (writ-large, although particularly in inner-cities) has a problem with voter suppression. The government makes it prohibitively difficult for minorities and the underprivileged to vote, and continues to do so with e.g. voter ID laws. Another way that the government impedes minority voting is with felon disenfranchisement laws, where convicted felons lose their eligibility to vote. This seems, based on discussions I've had and news I've watched, seems to be the single largest driving factor so I'll focus in on it.

Now, black Americans are the largest demographic in jails in America (the linked article discussed the gap decreasing but still shows that blacks are the largest). The reason why (again, this is not my opinion, but this is the argument I've heard, so I will back it up as best I can but cannot promise to do so convincingly) is because the judicial system is racist against black people. For example, programs like Stop and Frisk, and issues plaguing black communities wherein police will randomly stop and question black people where they would not do the same to a person of another race. This leads to more black people being charged and convicted of crimes (note "charged and convicted", not actually "committed"; those two things are completely separate and independent; it is not important whether the crime actually occurred or whether the person charged actually did it, it simply matters if they were charged and convicted), and hence more black people losing their right to vote as convicted felons.

Thus, the argument goes: Even in majority-black communities, the majority of that majority does not have the right to vote, because they are convicted felons or for other reasons due to other anti-minority voting laws/procedures (the argument would say that the majority of that majority of people who can't vote, of that majority of black people in that locality, are convicted felons). Therefore, the votes cast in those localities are not representative of the people who live in them, and hence people with anti-black agendas get elected to positions in black localities, because the black people who would vote against them have been disenfranchised for one reason or another.

This seems to be the argument as I understand it.

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  • I think your parenthetical statement in the last paragraph is a bit confusing. – JonTheMon Sep 24 at 16:18
  • @JonTheMon Yes, sorry, I couldn't think of a better way to phrase it. Basically I didn't want to say or give the impression that political thinkers think that the only reason blacks can't vote is because they're all felons, because that statement (that the political thinkers think that) would be false; they believe there to be other reasons as well, but the largest reason is because of felony disenfranchisement. I couldn't find a good way to say so succinctly. – Ertai87 Sep 24 at 16:20
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    This answer discusses how a black majority district can have a majority non-black government, but the question is how a majority black government in a black majority district can still experience discrimination against blacks. – cpcodes Sep 24 at 17:54
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    @cpcodes The question is: "How do prominent progressive political thinkers on racial injustice explain why demographic majorities in these cities are unable to impact police policy in a way that leads to officers not discriminating against the non-white majority?". There is nothing there about the composition of the government, only the composition of the populace. Hence, answer as stated. – Ertai87 Sep 24 at 19:48
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    Also, note that my answer likewise does not make any statement or assumption about the composition of the government; a majority-black government does not preclude "anti-black" policies being forwarded by that government or by departments under its supervision. There are plenty of examples (usually featured in Fox News interviews) of prominent black political figures who support "anti-minority" laws e.g. voter ID, so it's entirely plausible that a black government would forward these policies which a "progressive political thinker" would consider anti-black. – Ertai87 Sep 24 at 19:54

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