Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
[Publisher’s Note]

The Grind and the Gun


"Attributing white-on-black violence entirely to racism misses the larger problems that poorer people face in this country. They suffer a thousand cuts that never get talked about, except when the victims bleed to death."

A version of this column originally ran in the Providence Journal on April 16, 2015.

The gratuitous gunning down by a white police officer of a fleeing black man, captured on a phone camera by a passerby, has again reignited the urgently needed debate about police arrogance and racism. So, despite the horror of it all, I suppose we should be grateful for this moment of incontrovertible truth brought to us in living color.

But the killing of Walter Scott last week in South Carolina is not just about race. It’s also symptomatic of something equally awful that almost never gets talked about candidly: the prolonged and accelerating war against the American working class by political elites and the moneyed interests that finance them.

We know that Scott was not a rich man. According to newspaper accounts, he was a forklift operator who wasn’t making his child-support payments—a person in typically difficult straits in today’s class-divided United States. Stopped for having a broken taillight in a used Mercedes-Benz, and probably fearing arrest for his non-appearances in court, he did what desperate people without much money tend to do when the cops show up. He ran. And then he wound up dead.

It’s safe to say that if Scott had been a black millionaire investment banker wearing a suit, a wealthy black recording artist sporting expensive jewelry, or a black television talk-show host with a recognizable face, he would be alive today. But he was a deadbeat dad and warehouse worker. Henry Louis Gates, the black Harvard professor, was busted trying to get into his own house, but he wasn’t shot. Oprah Winfrey was disrespected, it seems, in a fancy Zurich boutique, but nobody pulled a Taser on her.

Attributing white-on-black violence entirely to racism misses the larger problems that poorer people—let’s call them working class—face in this country. They suffer a thousand cuts that never get talked about, except when the victims bleed to death. Even then, the media tends to perpetuate a fantasy world that assumes a certain amount of fairness and goodwill from the authorities who—racism notwithstanding—do their best to overlook class differences and poverty.

Had Eric Garner been a svelte West African on New York’s Fifth Avenue selling high-end contraband—say, knocked-off Rolexes—rather than loose cigarettes on a Staten Island corner, would the police have been as rough on him? Had Michael Brown been wearing a letter jacket in a nicer part of Ferguson, Missouri, than West Florissant Avenue, would Officer Darren Wilson have been so quick on the trigger?

Obviously, it’s not just black people who are suffering from America’s bias against the economically less favored. The white and Latino working class has been wounded by Democratic and Republican politicians alike, who never cease to praise the virtues of hard work.

Meanwhile these politicians—starting with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton—promote “free trade” agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which deliberately send decent-paying jobs to countries with much lower wages. They deregulate banks to make it easier for loan-sharking operations like CitiFinancial—a “consumer finance” firm that charges poor borrowers predatory interest rates—to thrive under the umbrella of reckless, too-big-to-fail megaliths. They allow credit-card companies to charge usurious rates in exchange for big campaign contributions.

They reward nickel-and-diming health-insurance companies by obliging the working poor to buy their lousy policies under Obamacare and Romneycare. They close or merge schools in the poorest neighborhoods (as Rahm Emanuel did in Chicago) for which they substitute charter schools and for-profit Kaplan testing programs. And they start wars that are fought mainly by working-class volunteers—people of modest means who enlist just to get a paycheck and money for college—and who too often die or come home with their bodies and their spirits broken.

Within all these rackets masquerading as policies to benefit people—free trade, high-interest mortgages and personal loans, health care, privatized public education, and wartime military service—it is the poor and the working class that suffer disproportionately. To politicians and their friends in the 1 percent, such people are marginal. It doesn’t matter much if they’re black, white, brown, or yellow.

Is it any surprise that the police see them the same way? The black face just makes it easier not to care about the person you’re shooting.

More from

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now