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.