Hoodies, Reasonable Suspicion, and Black America’s Revolt Against Cosbyism

Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up (laughter and clapping ). Isn’t it a sign of something when she’s got her dress all the way up to the crack…and got all kinds of needles and things going through her body. What part of Africa did this come from? (laughter). We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans, they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap and all of them are in jail.

Bill Cosby, 2004

NYPD critics . . . erroneously assert that the police are racially biased in making stops, ignoring the fact that we focus police resources where spikes in violent crime are the highest, and where last year 96% of shooting victims were minorities, mainly young men of color.

From a March 18, 2012 official NYPD press release titled “New York Times is Wrong: NYPD Lawfully Thwarts Terror & Suppresses Violence”

In the last post, your humble host made a passing, parenthetical reference to a phenomenon he labeled Cosbyism. Cosbyism is an ideology that says black people in America, particularly the younger generation, have nobody to blame but themselves for the fact that their schools are underfunded and crumbling, they can’t get a job, they get harassed and worse by cops all the time, their wealth evaporated into thin air after the housing bubble burst, and so on and so forth.

Cosbyism is a variation on the classic American rugged individualism of Horatio Alger novels, but with an important twist: the traditional idea held that individual moral failings are the cause of one’s poverty and lack of upward mobility and that therefore individual personal responsibility was the solution. Cosbyism, however, holds that black people have failed collectively, as a race, to achieve the American dream, but it nonetheless holds each black individual responsible for pulling up his or her pants, turning off the TV, saying ask instead of ax, “looking like a prospect instead of a suspect,” and doing whatever else is necessary to endear himself or herself to America’s ruling white capitalist power structure.

White people, even white people who appear regularly on Fox news, will seldom if ever publicly espouse Cosbyist talking points because the racism that is inherent in the Cosbyist line of thinking becomes impossible to deny when such talking points come out of white lips. Instead, you see various “leaders” of the black community saying these things, and that somehow makes it ok, as though changing the messenger somehow changes the message.

The intellectual history of Cosbyism is part of the intellectual history of neoliberalism more generally but is a product, more specifically, of the “broken windows” theory of crime control that criminologist James Q. Wilson conceived of in the 1980s and NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton implemented in the early 1990s. New York in those days had a lot of character. Subway trains were covered in graffiti, giant boomboxes blasted Gang Starr, Public Enemy, and A Tribe Called Quest, Times Square was obscene, squeegee men serviced car windows at every major intersection, and Washington Square Park was an open air supermarket for dope. The 1% felt at the time that the city was impossible for them to govern. Somebody had to clean it up, make it safe again for tourists, yuppies, Mickey Mouse, and Elmo.

The savior our social betters were looking for was a man named Rudolph W. Giuliani. Giuliani become mayor in 1993 by posturing himself as the tribune of the NYPD and of the ethnic white communities in the outer boroughs from which most NYC cops hailed. He had lost his previous bid for mayor to David Dinkins in 1989, who then became NYC’s first black mayor. The ferocious degree to which the city’s predominantly Irish and Italian police force resented having to answer to a black man in City Hall equaled if not surpassed the Tea Party’s racially tinged hatred of President Obama. Giuliani won in 1993 by stoking this white ethnic working-class resentment while simultaneously telling the city’s financial and business elite that unleashing that resentment on poor black communities in the Bronx and East New York was the key to cleaning up the city and making it open for business once more.

Yet Giuliani was smart enough to avoid sounding like George Wallace with a Brooklyn accent when justifying his police department’s new reign of racial terror to the liberal media, and here’s where Wilson’s “broken windows” theory came very much in handy. That theory attributes high crime levels in a neighborhood not to poverty, lack of opportunity, or underinvestment, but rather to superficial aesthetic deficiencies like broken windows or graffiti-covered walls and more generally to the social acceptance in those neighborhoods of trivially minor crimes like smoking a joint, taking a leak in a dark alleyway, or jaywalking. If society imposes draconian punishments on these de minimis offenses, the neighborhood will look cleaner, people will have more respect for authority, and therefore the incidence of truly serious, violent felonies will drop, and then maybe one day a Starbucks will move in. Liberals, particularly the white ones, love Starbucks, so they never objected to broken windows policing. To them, the end really did justify the means. To this day, there has never been a Democrat mayor of New York City since Dinkins.

It was now Giuliani Time, which meant that if you were black, you could be lawfully walking down the street minding your own business when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, cops might haul you into the station and stick a plunger up your ass or unload a number of rounds into you that would put the Corleone family out of business. Whenever something like this happened, the mayor would go on TV and reflexively defend the cops before doing everything he could to defame your character, including illegally unsealing your juvenile record in order to prove that because you were caught playing hooky twice, you were “no altar boy.”

After 9/11 happened, the there was a lot of scrutiny on how the NYPD was treating Muslims, and rightfully so, but little awareness of the department’s new “stop-and-frisk” policy. Bloomberg was now mayor, and the Starbucks-drinking, Sex-and-the-City TEVOing liberal class didn’t seem to take offense to an unabashed plutocrat the same way they took offense to a thinly-veiled bigot like Giuliani. The term “stop-and-frisk” is familiar to any law student who ever had to read Terry v. Ohio for a criminal procedure class. Terry was a case about a cop in downtown Cleveland who saw two suspicious figures looking like they were casing a store they intended to rob. The cop didn’t have probable cause to make an arrest, but he stopped them briefly and patted down the outside of their clothing to see if they were armed. The Supreme Court said this is ok, as long as the cop’s suspicion is “reasonable,” even in the absence of probable cause. This has been the law since the late 60s.

Under Bloomberg, however, such “reasonable” suspicion is no longer individualized–it is the black community in its entirety that is under suspicion, and the NYPD claims, if not in these exact words, that its suspicion of the black community is “reasonable” because, well, they’re black. They then cite some kind of statistic about black-on-black crime and shed crocodile tears over the victims of such crimes. Their private Facebook pages, meanwhile, say something different entirely.

What happened with the NYPD in the last 20 years has happened in police departments nationwide, but communications technology has only very recently enabled videotaped evidence of  “broken windows” policing’s excesses to spread to millions instantly. The economic downturn, meanwhile, has caused a lot of white folks for the first time in their lives to get uppity with the State. All last fall, Americans saw footage of a mostly white crowd chanting “fuck the police!” and even identifying themselves with the black victims of broken windows policing (“We are all Sean Bell, NYPD go to hell!”). It is unclear how many of these uppity white folks realized that their loud, aggressive, and vulgar professions of solidarity with black America in the face of police repression was itself a product of of the “courtesy, professionalism and respect” which white America reserves exclusively for its own malcontents. Much of black America, however, and the youth in particular, must have viewed Occupy Wall Street with a mixture of elation and trepidation–elation at the change that was seemingly around the corner in this new radical period we’re living in but fear of personally being an agent of that change after a lifetime of repression that had been invisible outside their own communities. After all, white people getting loud and disorderly in America may be a political inconvenience for our rulers, but black people doing the same is grounds for calling out the National Guard.

Which brings us to Trayvon Martin, a young man who lived his life, it seems, according to the Cosbyist playbook. Martin’s friends say he never picked a fight in his life. He was wearing his hoodie on the night he was shot for its intended purpose–it was raining. His shooter, meanwhile, was a wannabe cop whom the police academy probably rejected as too overzealous. The housing crisis had hit central Florida hard, and lots of foreclosed homes in Sanford were selling for dirt cheap, which meant that the gated community George Zimmerman was so altruistically protecting had grown considerably more racially integrated in recent years. In seeking to emulate a real police officer, Zimmerman copied the aggressive, authoritarian, “broken windows” style of policing that he saw real police officers practicing. And here’s the rub. Black bodies have one thing in common with broken windows and graffiti-covered walls: all three bring down property values in a neighborhood. In this sense, the free market is, quite literally, a bigot.

When a young man comes to realize that he is the broken window the system is perpetually trying to eradicate, when he realizes that pulling up his pants is not the same thing as pulling himself up by his bootstraps and that speaking the king’s English will only make the nobility despise him all the more passionately, when he sees the middle-class utopia that has from time immemorial defined itself by excluding him suddenly crumbling to dust and its citizens in open revolt, it is not inconceivable that he will from all of this conclude that it is well past time to exercise his God-given right to be just as uppity as these white folks in the Missouri GOP caucuses in the video below got when they found themselves suddenly disenfranchised.

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Class War and Culture War

There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.

-Pat Buchanan, 1992

The idea is that the state doesn’t have rights to limit individuals’ wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire. And we’re seeing it in our society.

-Rick Santorum, 2003

The Cricket has thus far avoided making any commentary on Rick Santorum other than “huh huh huh, huh huh huh, he said Santorum.” It is now March 2012, however, and Not-So-Slick Rick has persevered in the GOP primaries for long enough that he has earned his place in the political-economic analysis this blog specializes in.

After the crash of 2008, it seemed that social conservatism had reached a permanent dead end, almost as though it had been a luxury that the country could only afford when the unemployment rate was at “reasonable” levels. With millions more suddenly out of work, nobody much cared who was smoking what or who was fucking whom and in what orifice. But now all of a sudden, we hear that the Obama feds are cracking down hard on medical marijuana, that American right has launched a “war against women,” among other things.

The culture war politics the Republicans have engaged in for the last several decades is at heart a small variation on their “Southern Strategy,” which dates from roughly the same point of origin. If the Southern Strategy said to white working class men: “Willie Horton just escaped from prison and he’s coming after your lily white daughter with a sawed-off shotgun in one hand and his big black dick in the other,” the culture war said to the same group of voters: “Your lily white daughter–and wife–are kind of turned on by Willie’s willie, your son just purchased that new Ice-T album with the song about killing cops, and your other son is a homosexual who also wants a piece of Willie’s magic johnson.” All of that–plus the fact that another Willie just signed NAFTA and now the plant you worked at all your life just moved to Red China–is the fault of . . . wait for it . . . the left!

That last part, about how the Democrats have been complicit in selling the American dream down the Rio Grande and ultimately the Yangtze River, has been absolutely critical to the success of the right’s culture war politics all these years. The truth is, it was the Democrats who abandoned the NASCAR dads and security moms, not the other way around. It was this class-blind third way neoliberal Clintonist bullshit, which substituted diversity for equality and told poor white people–collectively–to blame their own bigotry for their deteriorating circumstances instead of the greed of the one percent, that drove so many American workers into the arms of their worst enemy. (As an aside, it should be noted that Clintonism has increasingly, over the years, albeit subtly, told poor black people–collectively–to blame their lack of family values for their perpetually dismal circumstances–one might call this Cosbyism).

Rick Santorum is currently trying to capitalize on this culture war tactic, which has proven so successful year after year during our lifetimes. We are, however, living in a period of history unlike any that has existed in our lifetimes (unless you happen to be old enough to remember the 1930s). Because the capitalist system is beset by internal material contradictions, the ideological superstructure that the ruling class uses to maintain its popular legitimacy likewise is beset by contradictions. Chief among these ideological contradictions is the tension between saving and spending, between frugality and indulgence, between abstinence and ecstacy. A capitalist is compelled to constantly set aside a part of his profit for reinvestment instead of spending it all on limos and prostitutes and blow. The ultimate id motivating the capitalist to postpone gratification in the short run is the promise of even more limos and prostitutes and blow in the future.

Under the pretty fiction of equality under the law, workers really are capitalists, and their saving and spending habits are to be evaluated in the exact same manner. In reality however, the saving and spending habits of capitalists are a truly personal matter–if a certain capitalist overindulges too much, his business fails, the market punishes him justly, and another capitalist, with better self-discipline, takes his place, end of story.

The saving and spending habits of workers in the aggregate, however, are of interest to the capitalist class in the aggregate. The owners of capital–collectively–depend on as many workers as possible constantly spending, constantly indulging, constantly fulfilling their desires through the act of exchange, in order to stay in business. Each individual capitalist, however, wants his own workers to be as frugal as possible, to be good savers, to abstain from pleasure and excess. That way they can be paid as little as possible and still show up for work every day.

The serious strategists of capital understand that the system will not recover from the global crisis now afflicting it any time soon and that the means by which it recovers will not involve another speculative bubble, another mania where people start spending money with a ferocity worthy of a gay crystal meth orgy. The real “correction” that must take place before genuine growth can resume is the “deleveraging” of the American dream itself. For decades, the good times were kept on life support by easy credit, but now that bill is finally due, and there is no way out for America’s investor class other than to force American workers to be more “competitive” with workers in other countries. The “competitiveness” of workers is really a euphemism for their willingness to settle for less while producing more–to be more like those Chinese Foxconn workers who make your iPhone.

That the family values conservatism Santorum and his ilk preach seems so antithetical to the libertarian “freedom” talk that conservatives–often the same ones–also promulgate should not be so confusing once one understands that the former message is only aimed at and only really applies to the working class. The rich will continue to drink and smoke and fuck and do blow and have mistresses and father out-of-wedlock children and engage in all kinds of exotic homosexual acts and maybe even do “man-on-dog,” and Rick Santorum will never chastise them for any of it. In fact, the only reason the rest of society is being pressured by the top one percent to have stable, two parent families and not to have extramarital sex and not to enjoy any kind of sex for that matter and to spend our Sundays in church instead of, say, at the mall, is so that we may, by our sacrifice, by our abstinence, by our self-denial restore the economic conditions that permit that top one percent to resume both their literal and their metaphorical orgy.