Imagine society as a globe, one that looks different when sliced along different planes. This is what identity politics does. Slice along the plane of race, and you see society in one way. Slice along another plane, and you see it quite differently.
Take the recent events in the American city of Kenosha and interpret them along the plane of race. A black man is shot seven times in the back by a white police officer. Protests ensue, and during one night of chaos a white vigilante shoots dead two protesters and wounds another. This is the account of the events involving Jacob Blake and Kyle Rittenhouse that most of us are familiar with.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Now slice those same events along another plane. A woman reports to police that a man who has been terrorising her for the better part of a decade has broken into her home. She recounts that he threatened her, digitally penetrated her, and then sniffed his fingers, saying “smells like you’ve been with other men”. Several weeks later, she calls 911 to report that he has broken into her house again, taken her car keys, and is attempting to leave with their three children. Two male police officers arrive. They are aware that the man is wanted on sexual assault and domestic violence charges. They taser him, but he continues to resist. As he leans into the driver’s seat of the car, where a knife was later found, one of the police officers shoots him seven times in the back. Protests ensue, and during one night of chaos a male vigilante shoots dead two men — one of them a child rapist, the other convicted of multiple domestic abuse offences — and wounds another man, also a felon.
Both versions of events are true, but which gets closer to the truth?
Let’s zoom out and look at the criminal justice system as a whole. Black Americans are more than three times as likely as white Americans to be killed by police, and more than five times as likely to be incarcerated. In the UK — where we inevitably, if regrettably, imitate the American discourse on race — the rate of black incarceration is even more disproportionate.
Now let’s slice along another plane: 90% of people imprisoned in the United States are male, 95% in the UK. Worldwide, 96% of murders are committed by men. 96% of people shot and killed by American police are male, while in the UK, only one woman has ever been deliberately shot dead by police. Since January 2015, 2,385 white male Americans have been shot and killed by police, and 48 black female Americans: white men are at greater risk by a factor of almost 50.
The much misused theory of intersectionality asks us to understand the race and gender (and indeed class) dynamics of the criminal justice system in combination, rather than separately: to slice along every plane, in order to better understand the whole structure.
But theory does not always translate into practice. The people who describe themselves as ‘intersectional’ tend to be far more attentive to the racial dynamics of the criminal justice system than they are to the gender dynamics. Particularly in America.
You can tell, because the cause du jour among American intersectional advocates is the movement to defund the police, a project closely linked to the prison abolition movement, both often grouped under the single word ‘abolition’. These new abolitionists argue that the criminal justice system is so irredeemably racist that the only solution is to radically cut funding for both police forces and prisons, with the goal of ultimately abolishing both. And yes, they really do mean it.
And they insist that their goal is a feminist one. The argument goes like this: most rapists and wife beaters don’t go to prison (true), sometimes police and prison officers perpetrate these crimes themselves (true), and victims often feel poorly served by the criminal justice system as it exists now (also true). Therefore, so the thinking goes, there is no feminist reason to retain either policing or prisons at all. A writer for Teen Vogue proposes a replacement:
“A call to defund the police is an opportunity to have experts intervene before the violence is lethal. It is an opportunity to increase funding for sex-education in schools. It is an opportunity to create tailored responses to violence that promote safety, agency, and healing in the survivor.”
Promoting “safety, agency, and healing” sounds very nice, but does not constitute a substantive solution to the problem of male violence because what is notably absent from this vision is any means of physically separating violent men from their potential victims, with that separation maintained — as it has to be — through force. Instead, we are offered woolly solutions that are both highly ideological and highly experimental, based on the premise that offenders can readily be socialised out of their violent behaviour by nonspecific “experts” and “tailored responses” — against all the evidence.
While it might perhaps be possible that a nation like America could become the first in the history of the world to abolish violent crime, we have no reason to expect this to be the consequence of police and prison abolition, and lots of reasons to believe that the precise opposite would happen. The CHAZ/CHOP experiment, for instance, was a triumph for the Hobbesian understanding of human nature. This short-lived community set up within Seattle, beyond the reach of official authorities, soon descended into chaos and violence, with vigilante groups organised to maintain order, and a resulting homicide rate fifty times greater than Chicago’s.
In a world like this, with no police or prisons, how do you think that the smaller, weaker half of humanity would fare? The half who commit very little violent crime but are the victims of a great deal of it?
Historically, what happened was that women were forced to find male protectors who could use force to repel or punish other men, and any woman without such a protector was on her own. Because with no police, there are just two options available to vulnerable people: vigilantism, or nothing at all. The new abolitionists can imagine a third, fanciful option only because they choose to turn away from historical and international examples of what happens when the state’s monopoly on violence is undone.
Accepting the necessity of the criminal justice system doesn’t mean that we can’t criticise it, as becomes clear if we apply the same reasoning to the medical profession. There are significant racial disparities in health outcomes. There have historically been terrible abuses perpetrated by doctors against black Americans, who are still under-represented in the profession. But these facts do not justify defunding the healthcare sector, still less burning down the local hospital.
It is in everyone’s interests to counter police corruption, incompetence, and the excessive use of force. It is not in anyone’s interests to remove the only safeguard available to those who, like Blake’s alleged victim, are in desperate need of protection. The fact that the abolition of police and prisons has become a mainstream topic of discussion reveals the fact that the woke Left are looking at the issue of criminal justice reform along just one plane, forgetting the interests of women, particularly the black American women who suffer more sexual and domestic abuse than almost any other group.
Look, for instance, at another shooting in Kenosha, one that has attracted rather less attention than the shooting of Jacob Blake. In 2018, 17-year-old Chrystul Kizer (who is black) shot and killed 34-year-old Randall Volar (who was white). Prosecutors acknowledge that Kizer was being sexually abused by Volar, who at the time of his death was under investigation for sex trafficking and possession of child sexual abuse images. They nevertheless decided to pursue a charge of premeditated murder and Kizer spent two years in jail awaiting trial because she was unable to pay the $400,000 bail bond. The system failed her utterly.
A few months ago, activists were finally able to steer funds towards Kizer’s case, but only because of a surge in donations following the death of George Floyd. Kizer, a child who killed her rapist, struggled to attract any public attention. Meanwhile, in the very same city, a man accused of raping and beating another woman received more than $1 million in public donations in a single day.
Kizer needed police assistance, and it didn’t come, and it would never come for other girls like her if the new abolitionists won the day. The reality of male violence does not sit well with the kind of utopianism that thrills the woke Left. But there remains an awful, unhappy fact that must still be contended with, once all the utopianism falls away. It is this: some men need to die in prison, and only the state can put them there.