Photo: Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington DC. Victoria Pickering, Via Flickr.

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Police killings of African Americans had sparked protests before, but the scale of the response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, captured on video that was to be replayed countless times, was unprecedented. There were ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations in cities across the United States, as well as in Canada and other countries. As the protests multiplied, many people sought a deeper understanding of a web of interrelated topics, from policing methods to high homicide rates in U.S. cities to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. One forum where these topics were – and continue to be – discussed is the Inroads listserv. The following exchange from late August provides a sampling of the opinions expressed.

John Richards | August 27

The Chicago Sun-Times is running a special feature. Its journalists write up a short story on every homicide victim in Chicago this year, and have organized an interactive filter that enables readers to determine race, age, neighbourhood, murder weapon. As of August 26, there have been 477 homicides in Chicago: 334 Black, 37 White, 45 Hispanic, 61 not determined. On Mondays, the Sun-Times reports the number of Chicago gunshot victims and homicide deaths over the weekend. The latest weekend was more peaceful than the average: 66 gunshot victims, five deaths.1

The New York Times publishes occasional stories on homicides in large U.S. cities. Not surprisingly, Chicago has experienced the largest increase in homicides among these cities. The article concludes that the onset of the pandemic is a cause. The 2020 increase over the same dates in 2019 was “only” 16 per cent prior to the lockdown orders due to the pandemic, but 34 per cent from onset to mid-June. Spikes in homicides predate George Floyd’s murder. Chicago had the highest number of victims (433 by the end of June) among large U.S. cities; the second highest was Philadelphia (247). Overall, in 23 large U.S. cities, homicides in the first six months were 1,800 in 2019, 2,200 in 2020 – a 22 per cent increase.2

The police are part of the story. Over the first seven months of 2020, police in the United States shot to death 558 people (215 White, 111 Black, 71 Hispanic, 161 other or unknown). Relative to population, the police killings are three times higher among Blacks than among Whites.3

Beyond the obvious conclusion that homicide is far more prevalent in the United States than in other high-income countries, what explains these statistics? The “social justice” (Black Lives Matter) explanation boils down to slavery and White racism. This is a partial explanation, but inadequate. It cannot explain the large number of “Black on Black” murders, as in Chicago. The liberal media in Canada (e.g. CBC, the Globe and Mail) report fulsomely whenever the police kill a Black man. However, I have seen no Canadian and few American journalists attempting to explain this complex reality comprehensively. One of the best journalistic assessments I have read is German Lopez’s article in Vox, in which he cites a number of possible explanations:

  • the changes forced on people by the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • reduced policing in response to protests, as occurred after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015;
  • loss of trust in police that led people to rely more on street justice and other illegal activities to resolve disputes;
  • more gun violence resulting from a surge in gun buying, likely in response to concerns about personal safety during a pandemic;
  • an increased number of deaths because hospitals, overwhelmed as a result of COVID-19, were unable to treat victims of violent crime;
  • possible increased conflict because of boredom resulting from the pandemic (unemployment, closed schools, absence of entertainment, suspended support programs) – although this is speculative;
  • effects of the bad economy: people pushed to desperate acts, disruptions in the drug market, less state and local funding for social supports (this too is speculative).4
Gareth Morley | August 28

John points out that violence between young Black men in Chicago is unacceptably high and that it is higher than deaths from the police.

This is undeniably a fact.

But John wants to go beyond just an assertion of fact. He wants to say it is relevant in two ways:

  1. He says “Black on Black violence” cannot be explained by the theorists of systemic racism who point to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow as defining America’s contemporary race problems.
  2. He at least implies that the extent of this problem should temper demands for a more accountable police force, including more restrictions on police use of force and more consequences for officers who breach those restrictions.

Unlike the facts, both of these implications are extremely deniable.

  1. There are many ways to draw a line from slavery and Jim Crow to high rates of violence within contemporary Black communities, just as there are many ways to draw a line from colonialism and residential schools to high rates of violence, including sexual and domestic violence, within Canadian Indigenous communities. Indeed, that is exactly what the proponents of claims of ongoing genocide are doing. Whether you agree with these accounts or not, it is just misunderstanding what is being said to think that antiracist activists, whether moderate or radical, are unaware of the fact of high levels of violence within their communities.
  2. Speaking in my own voice, I would say that it is precisely the lack of legitimacy of police forces – combined with their inability to rule by fear – that is a major explanation of the high levels of irregular violence. This is a lesson that goes back to Hobbes, Locke and Hume.

Young men killing one another over status is not a strange thing that requires special explanation. It is the standard of human history, as the Hamilton musical or a typical 19th-century Russian novel makes clear. If you live in a violent situation, you are likely to be taken advantage of unless you have a reputation for being willing to react violently when disrespected. Of course, if you live among young men who feel a strong need to project a reputation that they will react violently if disrespected, you live in a violent situation.

Hobbes’s solution to this was the Leviathan. If there is a monopolist on the use of force – and if that monopolist reliably uses force when retail violence is on offer – then there will be less retail violence. This seems to work, which is why Iceland today is not as violent as Iceland during the sagas.

But Hume pointed out that the Leviathan itself needs to rest on some form of consent. He rejected the “social contract” myth that the state originates in a universal act of consent, but he noted that it requires a broad coalition of the acquiescent and enthusiastic to repress everyone else. This coalition does not need to include everyone who is subject to the Leviathan. One approach to “order” is repression by external forces, as existed with respect to Black people in the Jim Crow south. To be sure, these forces may not care that much if there is violence among the repressed group, but they will keep it under some degree of control. They do not need any legitimacy among the people who are repressed because they gain their legitimacy within an external population from which they can recruit.

Another solution is to have legitimacy among the people who are policed based on a more or less justified sense that the force of the Leviathan is under some sort of popular control, mediated through legal institutions. If that is the prevailing view, then most people will cooperate with the police since they have no reason to fear them.

Neither situation prevails in much of America today. The police are not given the full ability to repress – “Giuliani time” in the (disputed) phrase of the NYPD officers who sodomized Abner Louima with a broom handle in a Brooklyn precinct. At the same time, they are not fully legitimate – an alternative “Dinkins time” in which elected officials could actually control their police forces.

In the old joke, when a physicist, engineer and economist are trapped on a desert island with a crate of canned goods, the economist proposes to “assume a can opener.” John is making the mistake of “assuming the can opener” of legitimacy when viewing force as an alternative to a genuinely bad situation. But how do you get to legitimacy when police react to demands for accountability with work-to-rule strikes – which of course have the effect of increasing crime rates? Isn’t it basic political economy that disputes have to be resolved somehow, and if the formal system isn’t reliable, informal violence will be used? As Locke suggested, this ultimately gets out of hand because everyone is a judge in their own cause.

If there are institutions in the South Side of Chicago that could get past this, aren’t they the Black church and the Black Lives Matter movement? Doesn’t the idea that the federal government is at war with these institutions and sees major political gains from their failure just make the problem worse?

Black Lives Matter Plaza in front of White House. Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
John Richards | August 29

There is much to criticize among us economists but we display some virtues. One is to entertain a belief that many factors combine to determine outcomes. At its simplest, economists like to describe changes in some outcome, y, as a function of changes in x1, x2, x3 and so on. The relative importance of each variable depends on the magnitude of the relevant coefficient and the variance in the “x”s: y = a1x1 + a2x2 + a3x3 + … + . To the extent that there is an answer, it requires some sort of empirical assessment.

The logic of the Black Lives Matter movement – or “social justice” or Critical Race Theory – is that the explanation for the fact that violent Black deaths (y) far exceed those of Whites can be attributed to slavery and subsequent Jim Crow laws and practices (x1) and current White racist attitudes (x2) that support racist policing, policing that is viewed as illegitimate by the Black community. End of story. There is no need for a more complex explanation that entails additional relevant factors (x3, x4 and so on).

Gareth does acknowledge the fact that the great majority of Black homicide victims suffer from “Black on Black” homicide, not from the police. However, in his telling, Black on Black homicide is simply a consequence of present reversion to the Hobbesian war of all against all: “Young men killing one another over status is not a strange thing that requires special explanation. It is the standard of human history.” Implicitly, he is arguing that there are only two relevant variables, x1 and x2, and the only means to lower Black casualties arising from the Hobbesian war is to end all forms of White racism, the basis for policing inevitably deemed by the Black community to be illegitimate.

Gareth accuses me of ignoring the matter of legitimacy. I agree with him that a well functioning society requires some combination of powerful norms concerning sanctity of life and some means of legitimizing exercise of a police power. For Gareth, there are two sources of legitimacy in the Black community, “the Black church and the Black Lives Matter movement.” These are, I suggest, weak reeds to hold onto. I grant that religious institutions can play a major role in instilling norms that constrain violence, and in the U.S. context Black religious leaders have played a powerful, largely positive, role – from Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King. (I’m not so sure about Al Sharpton and Malcolm X.)

As for Black Lives Matter, what is its contribution? Is it promoting some altogether different form of nonracist policing able to tackle the Hobbesian war of all against all? If so, I have not heard about it. In nearly all discussions this year of undeniable serious racial inequalities, I have found almost no academics or journalists analyzing “Black on Black” violence. Admittedly, some who do discuss such violence do so essentially to exacerbate White racism. In his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon successfully interpreted widespread violence associated with Black community protests as a threat to peace, order and good government in America. Trump is attempting a similar strategy in 2020. He too may succeed.

My “x3” variable is that of William Julius Wilson, a prominent Black sociologist whose early work at the University of Chicago emphasized the lack of decent employment prospects in inner-city Black neighbourhoods as key to understanding the high rates of homicide, women choosing to be single parents, and endemic drug use. Wilson’s explanation amounts to the necessity of a social democratic agenda of decent publicly funded education and preservation of near-universal employment at decent wages for those who want to be in the labour force. Such an agenda requires higher taxes than Americans have been willing over the last half century to accept. American society has not seriously tackled this agenda since the Great Society programs of the 1960s.

In any industrial society, a necessary condition for community harmony is an adult population with near-universal decent-quality secondary education and a majority with some form of postsecondary training (trades certification or university degree). Income transfers via welfare, free housing and so on are not an adequate substitute. In my (admittedly crude) interpretation of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, we all have “esteem needs” (prestige and feeling of accomplishment). If young men cannot achieve self-esteem via employment at a decent wage level, they are unlikely to form stable unions with women, and unlikely to assume long-term responsibility for raising children. They are likely to revert to a Hobbesian world of “young men killing one another” (to quote Gareth). Rahm Emanuel, a close confidant of Obama and former mayor of Chicago, understood all this, and did his best to improve schools and employment prospects for Black communities. Unfortunately, not much remains of his efforts. A mayor, however smart and innovative, cannot succeed if higher orders of government are ineffective partners.

Implicit in a successful social democratic agenda is that leaders of both majority and marginalized minority identity groups agree that this agenda is crucial. Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew is perhaps the iconic example over the last half century of providing high-quality social services and full employment, and thereby persuading diverse cultural groups (Malay, Indian and Chinese) – which in the mid–20th century had been engaged in armed conflict – to live in reasonable harmony.

An old joke about Pierre Trudeau and Jacques Parizeau summarizes the emergence of a social democratic agenda in mid-20th-century Quebec. Both grew up in Outremont; both criticized the victim ideology of traditional Quebec nationalists and condemned fellow Quebec leaders for tolerating religious-dominated unworldly schools; both wanted ambitious social democratic governments. There was only one small difference. Trudeau wanted one such government, in Ottawa; Parizeau wanted two such governments, one in Ottawa and one in Quebec City.

Gareth, do you see any element of a social democratic agenda in Black Lives Matter? I don’t, but maybe I am wrong.

george floyd memorial
George Floyd Memorial, South Minneapolis. Photo: Chad Davis Photography/Flickr.
Henry Milner | August 30

As I see it, real progress for the Black community can only take the form of a virtuous circle: Policies/programs/actions are instituted that help Black children break out of the self-destructiveness of the ghetto (drugs, crime …). Once they have succeeded, a sufficient number of them choose to invest their resources (money, contacts, knowledge, experience …) in areas (business, politics, media, schools, community organizations …) that further help Black children break out of the ghetto. And the circle continues. Hence, concretely, it is primarily a matter of channelling energies and resources at the community level where they can be most effective.

Where do defunding the police and Black Lives Matter protests fit into this perspective? Media-focused protests draw attention to examples of racist actions by police forces but also to those of looters and rock throwers. They serve an educational purpose, reminding people about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but in so doing they also serve to legitimate aspects of ghetto life holding back needed progress.

A useful discussion of these issues would weigh these factors based on actual evidence.

Bob Chodos | August 30

I hope economists understand that explanatory variables are not always independent of one another. Let’s take John’s “x3” – lack of decent employment prospects in inner-city Black neighbourhoods. Why are African Americans’ employment prospects inferior to those of White Americans? Why is their educational attainment lower? Why are they concentrated in inner-city neighbourhoods in the first place? And why is the sensible social-democratic agenda John advocates such a tough sell in the United States? Surely x1 (the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow) and x2 (ongoing systemic racism, which goes beyond White racist attitudes) are implicated in all these phenomena. In other words, x1 and x2 could be causes of y (disproportionate violent Black deaths) indirectly through x3 as well as directly.

Simon Rosenblum | August 30

One does not have to be an economist to agree with John that racial economic disparities in the United States should not be understood through a “one shoe fits all” type of explanation. Not even two shoes will do! Probably all of us agree that movement toward social democracy is where most of the necessary redress will come from. And the Democratic Party is headed in that direction.

I do however feel that John might be a bit harsh in his rather fulsome dismissal of Black Lives Matter. Admittedly the organization – which is not totally synonymous with the movement which bears the same name – can be more than a little problematic in some its rhetoric and policies, but one can detect some moderation as it becomes more mainstream in the American Black community. There is much in its evolving platform (ending voter suppression, stopping police violence against innocent Black people, strong investment in Black communities, etc.) that we surely can find common ground with. Yes, the devil is always in the details but I see no useful purpose served in writing them off. That said, criticism is necessary when we disagree – as we surely will – but their presence and evolution can be part of a solution. It needs to be.

Gareth Morley | August 30

I don’t have much to add to Simon here. “Black Lives Matter” is a movement and the organizations using that name have a complex relationship to that movement. By any reasonable account, they are broadly social democratic. There are a few more radical slogans – but the same could be said of the German Social Democrats’ Erfurt Program or the CCF’s Regina Manifesto. Most movements have a maximum program and a minimum program – and for BLM, the minimum program includes a larger public sector, investments in reducing pollution in poor communities, jobs guarantees and so on. If you look into it, even “defund the police” really turns out to be “deemphasize the use of force in law enforcement.” Poor and working-class Whites would benefit a lot from BLM’s program.

Generally speaking, Black Americans have been consistently social democratic since the New Deal – when many moved from the party of Lincoln to the Democrats even though New Deal programs often excluded them as the Democrats sought to sustain support in the Jim Crow south. By 1964, this transition was complete – and Black Americans have overwhelmingly voted for the most social democratic alternative in American politics ever since. Older African Americans concluded, probably correctly, that Bernie Sanders was unelectable, but that did not indicate a lack of support for more government spending or regulation.

While social science about the causes of violent crime is obviously complex and uncertain, activists inevitably have to take a simpler line. They encourage young Black men to stop shooting one another, arguing that in doing so they are performing systemic racism. That analysis isn’t wrong, although of course an econometric model would put things differently and emphasize other standards of causation and evidence. But the same kind of pedantic response could have been made in response to Tommy Douglas’s mice-and-cat speech. Activist rhetoric and social science models are just playing different language games.

If we agree that the police need legitimacy to be effective and that they lack it with certain racial groups – in Canada and in the United States – then there is no tradeoff between effectiveness and reform. The problem is that the police themselves respond to pressure to reform by going on de facto strike. The only solution is a big enough movement to make politicians take risks to try to break that resistance.

Garth Stevenson | August 30

The problems the Americans are suffering now might not exist if the Republican Party after the Civil War had stuck to its original plan of Reconstruction: break up the large estates of the slaveholders and give each Black family “50 acres and a mule” – in other words land reform. Ulysses Grant, an underrated president, tried to implement that program but made little progress during his eight years in the White House, although southern Blacks did have some political power during his administration.

In 1876 the Republicans reached an accommodation with the southern Whites who controlled the Democratic Party, which allowed the Republican candidate (Rutherford Hayes) to take the presidency although the Democrat (Samuel Tilden) had really won the election. The price of this accommodation was to give up Reconstruction and hand over the south to the people who had lost the Civil War. After that the whole country, north and south, was doomed to the misery that has lasted unto the third and fourth generation, and beyond. I am not hopeful that the misery will ever end, at least in our lifetimes.

By way of contrast look at Ireland, which was also dominated in the 19th century by a landowning elite that treated the native Irish as little better than slaves. The British government imposed land reform which paved the way for Ireland, apart from the northern six counties, to become the democratic republic that it now is. And I think even the six counties will join it within the lifetime of many who will read this.

The moral of the story is that political rights mean very little, and can easily be taken away, without some redistribution of economic resources.

John Richards | August 30

Garth makes a good addition to the discussion: “Political rights mean very little, and can easily be taken away, without some redistribution of economic resources.” He recalls Ulysses Grant’s failed hope of providing freed slaves with “50 acres and a mule” in the context of land reform. In today’s economy, the equivalent is a decent education – which the United States does not provide in inner-city ghettos. For a century following the U.S. Civil War, its K–12 + college system was superior to those of almost all other OECD member countries. The system succeeded in integrating millions of European immigrants pre–World War I, millions of Asians post–World War II, and (with less success) millions of Hispanic immigrants. Over the years of Jim Crow, Black segregated schools were generally weak. Since the 1970s, the entire K–12 public system has been in decline – and shamefully has not provided inner-city ghetto communities with decent schools. The best evidence of U.S. education decline is to be found in the mediocre rank of upper-level secondary students (age 15) in the OECD Program for International Student Assessment.


1 Chicago Sun-Times, Homicides in Chicago: A List of Every Victim; Sun-Times Wire, “66 Shot, 5 Fatally, This Weekend in Chicago,” Chicago Sun-Times, August 24, 2020.

2 Jeff Asher and Ben Horwitz, It’s Been ‘Such a Weird Year.’ That’s Also Reflected in Crime Statistics, New York Times, July 6, 2020; German Lopez, The Rise in Murders in the US, Explained, Vox, September 28, 2020.

3 Number of People Shot to Death by the Police in the United States from 2017 to 2020, by Race, Statista, September 2020.

4 Lopez, “Rise in Murders.”