Friday, June 9, 2017

Chokehold, by Paul Butler

Paul Butler's Chokehold: Policing Black Men is a rather difficult and uncomfortable book to read.  Butler, a former prosecutor, examines crime stats and societal trends, calling on black men to challenge the status quo and work to change the system that works against them.  That is one of the cornerstones of Butler's book: white supremacy created and perpetuates the U.S. system of law enforcement, and the suppression of black men is absolutely by design.

If that sounds too strong, consider Butler's words:
  • "Not only is the Constiution . . . insufficient to protect black people from police abuse, it actually aids and abets the police abusers."
  • "The law is not neutral or objective but actually prepetuates white supremacy."
  • "The system is now working the way it is supposed to, and that makes black lives matter less."
Butler uses the imagery of a chokehold--a means of physical restraint that "coerc[es] submission that is self-reinforcing."  In other words, it "justifies additional pressure on the body because the body does not come into compliance, but the body cannot come into compliance beacuse of the vice grip that is on it."  Black men are pressured by the police and by society to come into compliance, but they can't because of the chokehold on them.

The stats Butler presents are familiar and undeniable.  There is no question black men get a bad rap, in sentencing, in the extra attention they draw by cops on patrol, and in the limitations they face in school, the job market, and the housing market.  Butler acknowledges that crime rates are higher among black men, but that's part of the chokehold.  Crime rates are higher in black neighborhoods, so there are more patrols, so there are more arrests and convictions.  Round and round.

Butler has a definite agenda, so his presentation isn't exactly balanced.  I would have hoped to see more time spent on progress made since the Civil Rights movement.  Seeing black teachers, executives, doctors, engineers, and even presidents is no longer a novelty.  It's commonplace.  Surely having black men in positions of power and wealth means something.  On a related point, he does not acknowledge that the there is a flip side to the chokehold.  Believe it or not, most white people want to see black people succeed, for the sake of society as well as for the sake of their black friends and neighbors.  My white son is entering college.  It is a truism that more admissions to elite schools and scholarships would have been available to him were he black.  I have seen and heard plenty of anecdotal accounts of preferential hiring of black men and women in the workforce.  I am not judging such scholarships and hiring, but I think such policies should be acknowledged.  Butler makes a big deal about the chokehold being "an employment stimulus plan for working-class white people, who don't have to compete for jobs with all the black men who are locked up."  Couldn't it also be said that black men who manage not to get locked up have an even greater advantage in the colleges admissions market, the job market, and, significantly, the marriage market, over their black peers?

Chokehold is challenging, and more radical than I would have thought it would be, coming from a former prosecutor.  Butler's advice for black men who are trying to avoid arrest and guidelines for action once detained or arrested are bleakly helpful.  His proposals for action are, for the most part, realistic, if not a little radical.  He suggests that the maximum prison sentence for any crime be limited to twenty-one years, that we decriminalize low-level offenses, and that we spend more on health care and less on police.  Oh, and eliminate the prisons: "Black men will only be free, literally and figuratively, when prisons are no more."

So, yes, he's a radical, and will lilkely be dismissed out of hand by many conservatives and law-and-order types.  It's easy to pull FBI statistics to justify more policing in black neighborhoods and explain away failed black schools and communities.  But Butler is right on many points.  You don't have to join him in embracing critical race theory and the practices and proposals of the movement for black lives to acknowledge that structural racism has been, and to varying degrees still is, a factor in American society.  Even if we don't fully buy in to Butler's exposition and proposals, we can still work for a better future for all of our friends and neighbors of every race.


Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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