The Black Lives Matter movement is igniting a fierce purpose in Americans fighting for justice. In this fight, one call is beginning to ring loud and clear – the call to defund the police. Why does this call have to do with more than the police, and why is it forming the face of justice in the United States?
As the need for change becomes undeniable, many are questioning why defunding the police is becoming a prominent demand. “Why not institute reforms?” “Don’t the police need more money to increase training?” “Who will you call when you’re in danger?” However, these questions all fail to grasp what it means to defund the police. They see this movement solely within the confines of policing and law enforcement, not the broader context of public safety and justice throughout our society.
For centuries, the United States has levied unjust and racist practices against Black people. From slavery to segregation to redlining, the US moved with purpose and deliberate harm directed at Black Americans. Today, most all Americans have the hindsight to understand why these policies are wrong, and to claim unequivocal opposition. Far fewer, however, have the courage to oppose their intentional effects. They sit comfortably in a world ridden with injustice, inequality, and institutional racism. We helplessly survey the damage done to our society. We hate those who did it and the weapons they used, but we are unwilling to repair it. This all matters because crime is a symptom of this damage. Rather than responding to crime with repair and dealing with the cause, we utilize policing and incarceration to paint over it. Defunding this system mandates that we tackle the real issue to create safer and just communities.
What Causes Crime?
The fundamental realization that runs counter to the core of America’s justice system is the fact that nobody is born a criminal. Crime is the result of societal factors. According to a study published in the Sociological Spectrum journal, “community economic deprivation” causes “strain and disorganization that may encourage some individuals” to commit property crime, a strong relationship in “poorer neighborhoods” (Hannon). A study published in The Lancet found that “the longer a child lived in poorer circumstances, the higher their subsequent risks for self-harm and violent criminality” (Mok). At the root of both property crime and violent crime are the harmful conditions and injustice of our society.
Racial Injustice and Crime
The harmful conditions that create crime are often the intentional product of racist policies. Today, it is widely recognized in the United States that institutions like slavery, segregation, and redlining had the brutal intention of harming and exploiting Black people. It is more challenging to grasp how such policies still affect us today. Examples of how racist policies and systems constructed the inequality and institutional racism, the “harmful conditions” that facilitate crime, that exist to this day include:
Housing Discrimination and Wealth Inequality
The New Deal era policy of redlining denied Black people the homeownership opportunities granted to white people in order to segregate housing (Gross). The segregation of homeownership, the foundation to building wealth, succeeded in its intent of harming Black families. Today, Black households have an average of one-tenth the wealth of white households (McIntosh). This tremendous disparity in wealth undeniably leads to less resources and more harmful conditions for Black people and communities.
Education during one’s formative years is crucial to the opportunities they will have in the future, and many American children depend on the public school system for this. However, not all students in public education are treated equally. Public schools are mostly funded at the local level, often by property taxes or other local revenue sources (Turner). Regions with less wealth and lower property values have less money to invest in education and the futures of their children. The same racist housing discrimination practices that created the racial wealth gap see their intentional effects carried further once again.
With less wealth, lower property values, and other issues that arise from racism and housing discrimination, Black families find themselves in perhaps the most painful situation of all. Their children, through no fault of their own, are born into a world that does not believe in the worth of their future. A world which deliberately segregated their families, exploited them for profit, stripped them of resources, and then left them on their own to pay for education. Increased funding in education can substantially increase adult earnings and reduce the likelihood of poverty (Semuels), but the United States spends $2,600 less per student in majority BIPOC districts than majority white districts (Camera).
In schools that lack proper educational investment, many children remain trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. The connection between education and income and the connection between income and crime mean that “schooling significantly reduces criminal activity” (Lochner). Rather than address this crime at the root by funding education and creating equitable systems, our society funds policing and incarceration to lock up the people we have failed. Our country has committed itself to defunding the education and disinvesting from the futures of Black children. We must commit ourselves to defunding the system of policing and incarceration that excuses this.
Educational opportunities have a significant impact on future earnings (semuels). Therefore, the systemic underfunding of Black education contributes to the fact that Black families earn over $20,000 less in median annual income than white families (“Real Median Household Income by Race”). This tremendous difference further connects to the study in The Lancet, which studied the effect of socioeconomic factors on crime by using family income as a marker (Mok). The study concluded that “the longer a child lived in poorer circumstances, the higher their subsequent risks for self-harm and violent criminality” (Mok). Income inequality is another injustice faced by Black Americans that adversely impacts rates of crime. Similar to housing, wealth, and education inequality, the United States addresses the resulting crime with a massive system of policing and incarceration rather than solving the problem at its core.
The Wound of Injustice
Americans today recognize the weapons the United States has utilized since its founding to uphold systems of racism. Every one of us has the hindsight to condemn the systems specifically designed to be racist. We know that they moved with intention and purpose to construct inequality and institutions of racism. We know and loathe the source of the injustice in our society today, but too often we lack the courage to create change. We justify the racist actions of historical figures, including our nation’s founders, because they were “people of their time.” Just like them, we are people of our time, and it takes radical courage and empathy to fight the injustice that envelops us. In the words of Angel Jones, PhD, “Institutional racism will not just go away with time. It was created on purpose and its eradication must be equally intentional” (Jones). It is simple for us to recognize the weapons of racism the United States wielded decades or centuries ago. It is far more challenging to recognize the wound they left and how we still weaponize its pain. Crime is the blood that spills from this wound. We can either keep soaking it up with policing, incarceration, and ignorance for eternity, or we can begin to heal with justice.
I am 16 years old and an incoming junior at Gainesville High School in Florida. I will be Junior Class President for the class of 2022, I serve in Student Government, and I am passionate about using my voice to create positive change.
Camera, Lauren. “Race-Based School-Funding Gaps Persist.” U.S. News and World Report, 26 February 2019, https://www.usnews.com/news/education-news/ articles/2019-02-26/white-students-get-more-k-12-funding-than-students-of-color-report.
Gross, Terry. “A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America.” NPR, 3 May 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten- history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america.
Hannon, Lance. “Criminal Opportunity Theory and the Relationship Between Poverty and Property Crime.” Sociological Spectrum, vol. 22, no. 3, Taylor and Francis Group, 2002, pp. 363-381. National Criminal Justice Reference Center, https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=195735.
Jones, Angel. @AngelJonesPhD, Twitter.com, 5 August 2020, https://twitter.com/ AngelJonesPhD/status/1290947541916438528.
Lochner, Lance, et al. “The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports.” vol. 94, no. 1, Berkeley University, 2004, p. 183.
McIntosh, Kriston, et al. “Examining the Black-white wealth gap.” The Brookings Institution, 27 February 2020.
Mok, Pearl LH, et al. Family income inequalities and trajectories through childhood and self-harm and violence in young adults: a population-based, nested case-control study. “Public Health,” vol. 3, no. 10, The Lancet, October 2018, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS2468-2667(18)30164-6/fulltext.
“Real Median Household Income by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1967 to 2017.” United States Census Bureau, 2018, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/ library/visualizations/2018/demo/p60-263/figure1.pdf.
Sackett, Chase. “Neighborhoods and Violent Crime.” United States Department of Housing and Urban Development: Office of Policy Development and Research, 2016, https://www.huduser.gov/portal/periodicals/em/summer16/highlight2.html.
Semuels, Alana. “Why America’s Public Schools are so Unequal.” The Atlantic, 25 August 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/08/property- taxes-and-unequal-schools/497333/.
Turner, Cory, et al. “Why America’s Schools Have A Money Problem.” NPR, 18 April 2016, https://www.npr.org/2016/04/18/474256366/why-americas-schools-have-a -money-problem.