Betting Against Progress:
The Profit Motive Behind Systemic Racism
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police department was widely viewed as a turning point in racial politics, largely because of the conversations it sparked about systemic racism. But while a dialogue may be a good start, dialogue alone is no solution; a turning point with no direction will more than likely lead you in a circle. Lest we forget that George Floyd was just the latest name on a long list of victims of racial injustice: the killings and/or incarcerations of Rodney King, the Central Park Five, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Kalief Browder, Breonna Taylor and so many others all sparked outrage and conversation to varying degrees. And yet here we are again, right back where we started—which begs the question: why hasn't anything changed? One reason is that there is too little focus on the "systemic" part of systemic racism. We would do well to remember that police brutality is but one cog in a much larger machine of mass marginalization. And in order to dismantle it, we must first widen our focus.
"If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that's not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven't even pulled the knife out, much less healed the wound. They won't even admit that the knife is there" – Malcolm X
What does the metaphorical knife referenced by Malcolm X look like today? It manifests itself in a variety of ways which include the school-to-prison pipeline, the privatization of education, the private prison industry, police unions using their influence to fight police reform, and politicians whose decisions are influenced by campaign donations and backroom dealings. In order to first dull the knife and eventually disarm any who would wish to wield it, it is imperative that we stop treating unequal education and mass incarceration as proof of a failed system, but rather as proof that the system is working precisely as intended. Believing the former only helps to absolve those who profit or otherwise benefit from the system as it is.
"When you live in a poor neighborhood, you are living in an area where you have poor schools. When you have poor schools, you have poor teachers. When you have poor teachers, you get a poor education. When you get a poor education, you can only work in a poor-paying job. And that poor-paying job enables you to live again in a poor neighborhood. It's a very vicious cycle." – Malcolm X
Where does the cycle of systemic racism begin? Well, a good place to start is the school-to-prison pipeline. For those not familiar with this term, the school-to-prison pipeline involves the criminalization of the misbehaviour of Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students, most of whom attend severely underfunded schools, pushing them out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system. That pipeline is facilitated by the widespread presence of police officers in those underfunded schools, thanks to increases in funding for the US Dept of Justice. As a result of that police presence, even minor offences such as classroom arguments, vandalism, or even refusing to put your cell phone away in class can lead to arrests. This practice of excessive discipline disproportionately punishes Black students, and the numbers are staggering. According to a study by the Education Week Research Centre:
1.6 million students, most of whom are Black or Hispanic, attend schools with police officers but no school counsellors;
In a single year, 70 000 students were arrested across the US, and 70% of those students were Black, Hispanic, or Indigenous;
74% of Black high school students attend a school employing at least one police officer;
Black boys are 3 times more likely to be arrested than white male students while Black girls are 1.5 times more likely to be arrested than their white female peers.
But racialization problems ran deep before cops were introduced at schools. A study by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), which included 32 million students at almost 96 000 schools, found that Black students were far more likely to be treated as problematic, suspended or expelled than their white counterparts for the exact same offences. These disparities in punishment not only widen the gap in educational outcomes between white and Black students, but have also been found to carry long term negative effects on Black students' lives by lessening their chances of finding employment while raising their chances of ending up in the criminal justice system. And it's no coincidence that the presence of police in schools has only helped create a shortcut to the latter.
"Whenever the government provides opportunities in privileges for white people and rich people they call it 'subsidized', when they do it for Negro and poor people they call it 'welfare'. The problem is that we all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor." – Martin Luther King Jr.
This leads us to our next question: Who gains from this manufactured failure? There is no single answer, as the list of beneficiaries and profiteers is long. But some of the most egregious examples are too often the least talked about. And the story that goes untold is one of not just racial bias, but also of corporate interests consistently superseding public interests. It is a story where the marginalized are not people deserving of help but a source of revenue to exploit. Manufacturing failure in areas that are supposed to serve the greater good in order to better serve the few is big business, and business is booming at both ends of the school-to-prison pipeline.
In the U.S. education system, the schism between corporate interests and public interests has fuelled a long debate centred around the subject of charter schools. No one person has embodied that conflict of interest better than Betsy Devos. Devos is a right-wing billionaire whose wealthy family is heavily invested in the charter school industry, and whose generous political donations to Trump's 2016 presidential campaign likely led to her appointment as Secretary of Education. Charter schools are publicly-funded schools (while not considered public schools) that are run by independent companies (many of which are publicly traded on Wall Street). They are not bound by union contracts and do not answer to public school boards, all while wrestling funding out of the hands of already underfunded public schools. The story of corruption here practically writes itself: once appointed to her new role, one of Betsy Devos’ first acts was to push Congress to defund public schools by billions of dollars while greatly expanding the federal charter school program. A study by the Network for Public Education would later find that 1.17 billion dollars dedicated to that program's expansion went to charter schools that had either shut down or never opened in the first place. What remains of the education system's coffers after being looted by the wealthy is distributed in favour of white students by a massive margin—in fact, according to a study by EdBuild, white school districts receive $23 billion more in funding than non-white school districts despite serving the same number of students. Some might argue that this is simply indicative of a class divide, but a comparison of poor nonwhite school districts and equally poor white school districts reports otherwise; the same study shows that even poor white school districts receive an average of $1500 more in funding per student than poor nonwhite districts. Racial disparity is thus not a matter of opinion or perspective, it is a fact supported by statistical data. The intention behind this design becomes evident if we follow the money trail: the underperformance of underfunded schools is used to prove that such schools are not deserving of whatever little funding they do receive, only for those funds to then be diverted towards private ventures, capitalized and transformed into stocks—and so, the rich get richer. It is by design when a school system that cannot afford to offer its poorest and most marginalized students the tools they need to succeed can somehow afford to pay police officers to arrest students of colour by the tens of thousands over the most minor offences. And it is again by design when those school children in handcuffs are eagerly awaited at the other end of the school-to-prison pipeline.
"The prison is overcrowded, the calendars full, the judges busy, the lawyers ambitious, and the cops zealous. […] I do not claim that everyone in prison here is innocent, but I do claim that the law, as it operates, is guilty." – James Baldwin
At the other end of the pipeline is where we find mass incarceration, an issue that has led to the imprisonment of 2.3 million people in America (almost 40% of whom are Black, while Black people represent only 13% of the US population) and a higher incarcerated population than the combined numbers of the next 10 closest NATO countries. It's an issue that has gotten worse with the introduction of private prisons and the profit motive which now stand at 8.4% of the prison population and 10% of what they describe as the “corrections market”. The conflict between corporate interests and public interests in the world of incarceration is even more glaring than that in the education system. The private prison industry has achieved a net worth approximately $7.4 billion, in part from private prisons and the slave-wage labour of inmates, and to a larger degree, from immigration detention centres and ownership of approximately half of all juvenile detention centres in the US. The inherent problem with for-profit incarceration is that seeking more profits means seeking more prisoners. Not only does rehabilitation fit nowhere in that equation, but it's quite literally bad for business. The biggest players in the private prison industry, GEO and CoreCivic, are publicly-traded companies, and when you're a publicly-traded company, your number one priority is to maximize profits for your shareholders. The well-being and rehabilitation of disadvantaged Black children in juvenile detention, in a for-profit system, are at most an afterthought for report optics, if considered at all.
The private prison industry's profit motive creates a situation that doesn't merely encourage the cutting of corners, but also brazenly invites corruption that has devastating impacts on people's lives, especially children of color. One example of how that potential for corruption was fully realized is during the infamous scandal known as "Kids for Cash." In 2002, a Pennsylvania state-run juvenile detention centre was shut down by a judge named Michael Conahan in favour of private detention centres. Conahan, along with fellow judge Mark Ciaverella, made arrangements to provide excessive sentences to teenagers—within a juvenile justice system that was already confining Black youth at 4 times the rate of their white counterparts. In one instance, a 14-year-old was sentenced to 9 months in prison for checking unlocked cars for change. In another, a 15-year-old was incarcerated for mocking her vice principal on Myspace. In each case, the teenage defendants were denied their right to a lawyer and their day in court was reduced to a matter of minutes. By the time the FBI caught wind of this and opened an investigation, over 6000 teens had been unfairly sentenced by the two judges, who, it turns out, had been paid over $2 million by private prison companies for their efforts. In 2008, Conahan and Ciaverella were both disbarred and sentenced to 87 months of prison time while the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned most of their wrongful convictions of minors.
Unfortunately, for many of the teenagers who were sold as prisoners in these secret dealings, the sentences had already been served, the damage was done.
While the "Kids for Cash" bribes were considered illegal, the private prison industry and the charter school industry have found ways to circumvent the law through political lobbying. Campaign contributions can not only be used to secure lucrative government contracts, but can also convince politicians to amend laws to operate in line with corporate interests. For instance, since private prison companies began their political influence campaign in 1989, the number of inmates held in private facilities has increased by 1900%. This is due in large part to harsher sentencing laws lobbied for directly by the private prison industry. In the case of charter schools, their multi-million dollar lobbying efforts have helped to almost quadruple the number of schools in the span of 20 years, much to the detriment of public education and the students of colour who, statistically, rely on it the most.
Of course, these two industries aren't the only cogs in the wheel of systemic racism that rely on the corrupting influence of money in politics. Corruption is also a major reason why so little progress has been made in remedying the plague of police brutality, even as the list of its victims grows longer everyday. Every year, police unions spend tens of millions on political campaign contributions at the local, state and federal levels to influence law enforcement policy and block police reform. As their numbers have grown, police unions have also become increasingly active in right-wing political circles, for example, in supporting politicians who share their adversarial relationship to groups such as Black Lives Matter. And while police have never been strangers to racism, their march ever-rightward has been enough to set off alarms even at the FBI, who put out a much-ignored report in 2006 warning of the increase in active infiltration of police by white supremacist groups. The FBI report states that “Having personnel within law enforcement agencies has historically been and will continue to be a desired asset for white supremacist groups" which renders police ineffective (if not sympathetic) in dealing with the growing threat of right-wing terrorism. This also makes police efforts to avoid oversight or accountability more worrisome, especially considering their omnipresence in predominantly Black schools. Police racism and recklessness also cost the taxpayer, as lawsuit settlements stemming from police misconduct are a major strain on city budgets nationwide. For example, in the last 10 years alone, the city of Chicago has had to pay out half a billion dollars over complaints related to police misconduct. Imagine what that money could provide if it were spent on schools or social services instead. This is a testament to the power of police unions which, combined with political campaign contributions and politicians’ fears of being called "soft on crime,'' creates a situation where a police officer’s job security is prioritized over public safety. For instance, over the course of his career, 17 complaints had been filed against Minneapolis police officer Derik Chauvin, none of which cost him his job. On May 20th, 2020, George Floyd suffocated under Officer Chauvin's knee.
Ultimately, our ability to grasp both the scale and the intricacy of systemic racism is what will define our ability to dismantle it. In the conversations surrounding it, we cannot merely lament the victims of this system, we must also clearly identify the perpetrators—from politicians to police officers to profiteers—we must name names. When we treat systemic racism as a notional concept or an inevitable force rather than as the machinations of greedy men, whether knowingly or unknowingly, we become complicit in providing cover for those who pull the strings. While some hold up Black success stories as proof that systemic racism doesn't exist, in reality, those who succeed do so not because of the system but in spite of it. If the goal here is the more just and equitable world that Martin Luther King dreamed of, we must first acknowledge that the main roadblock to the promised land is the oppressors' desire for profits. If racism is a profitable choice, we must work harder to make it costly, by staying vigilant, always following the money, and holding those who would gain from racism accountable until discrimination is fully disincentivized.