To Save Black Lives, Take Money Out of Politics

TORONTO, ON- JULY 27 - Desmond Cole addresses the crowd gathered for the Black Lives Matter protest, which started on Gilbert
TORONTO, ON- JULY 27 - Desmond Cole addresses the crowd gathered for the Black Lives Matter protest, which started on Gilbert Avenue, where Andrew Loku was shot dead by police. (Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The political financing system we have in this country empowers rich donors, but it also disempowers those who do not provide large donations. Unfairness exists on both sides. One has too much political power; the other too little. The difference is that political weakness can be life-threatening.

Data on political contributions by race are hard to come by. But a recent analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics demonstrates that the country's Black population is almost entirely unrepresented within the political donor class. Not a single Black person was listed as one of the top 200 political contributors, and only one was among the top 500 contributors.

The consequences are devastating. The Black community's political clout is far less than the 13 percent that its share of the population would accord it in a political system of equality. Because of that, it has been unable to beat back federal legislation that has been racist in effect, though not explicitly discriminatory. It is this problem that the Black Lives Matter movement has confronted.

During this year alone, according to the website "The Counted," developed by The Guardian, 195 Black males have already been killed by police in the United States. This is a rate of 4.67 deaths per million. In contrast, the rate for White people is 1.85. Both of those numbers, as well as the rate of 2 for Hispanics, are shamefully high -- far higher than in any other developed country. The racial element in the use of police violence is suggested also by the fact that as of July 1, almost one-third (32 percent) of the Black Americans who were killed by police were unarmed, a substantially larger percentage than that for White people.

What lies behind these numbers is law-enforcement legislation concerning the distribution and use of illegal drugs. Data prepared by the Bureau of Prisons indicates that almost half of the incarcerated population is in prison for "drug offenses." In a separate study prepared for Human Rights Watch, the nationwide black prison male admission rate for drug offenses was more than 10 times that of whites (495.5 per 100,000 compared to 42.1). As Jamie Fellner puts in that report, "whites are relatively untouched by anti-drug efforts compared to Blacks."

Fellner cites the experience in Seattle as representative. There, almost two-thirds of drug-related arrests were of Blacks, a pattern that occurred because "the Seattle Police Department's drug law enforcement efforts reflect implicit racial bias..." Such a pattern, as Fellner puts it, "can be found across the country."

With this the case, confrontations between police and "suspects" occur much more frequently among Blacks than Whites. Drugs need not even be involved. Police, sometimes inadequately trained or excessively zealous, are poised to react to petty crimes with unnecessary deadly force. And violence is latent in all such interactions. The result in too many cases is tragedy.

To say that this situation reflects Black political weakness of course does not absolve the police from its responsibility to behave professionally. But the fact is that the police are acting in a context that is political in nature. They are enforcing laws created by legislatures, and their training and leadership is similarly determined by elected officials. It is very doubtful that the current emphasis on arrests for petty drug transactions would escape unscathed if, in the political process, Black communities in the country could match the influence of big donors.

The killings have triggered outrage -- an outrage that is more than justified. The movement that has emerged possesses the moral high ground -- too many lives have been cut short and not enough has been done about that. But there is a real risk that Black Lives Matter activists will confine themselves to protest. That would be a mistake - the same mistake that Occupy Wall Street activists made. Protest should be seen not as an end, but rather as a galvanizing strategy to achieve a political outcome. Racism manifests itself in legislation. To be defeated it must also be confronted in the political process.

The grassroots pressure to change police behavior has to be sustained. But the basic problem is that in a political system built on mega-donors, the Black community and its allies do match the influence associated with wealth. To advance the cause of racial justice, the political system has to be changed. To save lives, we need a financing system that allows for political equality.