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  • Racialized State Failure and the Violent Death of Michael Brown
  • Lisa L. Miller (bio)

The images emanating from Ferguson, Missouri since August 9, 2014 have been a stark reminder of the persistent exposure of African-Americans to lethal state violence. The shooting deaths of unarmed blacks by law enforcement rightly draw our attention and outrage, in part because the state has a monopoly on the legal use of force, and the application of force against unarmed civilians, and its disproportionate use against Black Americans without consequence, is part of a long and terrifying history that de-legitimates law enforcement specifically, and the justice system generally.

But Michael Brown’s death should also prompt us to see the link between police violence and other deeply racialized deadly risks in American society that emerge from the same set of socio-political factors. I refer to this disparate exposure to risk as ‘racialized state failure,’ and suggest that attention to the growth of the ‘muscular state’ that emerged in the last few decades of the 20th century – militarized policing, widespread stop and frisk, mass imprisonment, the death penalty – has often obscured a parallel fact, which is that the racialized state of American politics continues to leave African-Americans out of the promise of security from violence that many middle and even low-income whites enjoy.

Two inter-related developments in the last few decades of the 20th century have left African-Americans exposed to extremely high rates of social risk, including police harassment and brutality, but also early death from homicide (as well as other preventable causes of mortality). The first is a dramatic rise in violent crime, and the second, a hollowing out of the civil rights project.

The violent crime wave that began in the 1960s is not an artifact of shifting definitions of crime or changes to police record keeping. It was real, dramatic, and diffuse across demographic groups, and it persisted well into the 1990s. In the fifteen years between 1965 and 1980, homicide rates doubled (5.1 to 10.2 per 100,000) and the violent crime rate nearly tripled (200 to 592 per 100,000). Homicide remained remarkably high, dipping slightly in the 1980s but peaking a second time in the early 1990s (the 1991 murder rate, at 9.8, is virtually indistinguishable from the 1980 rate). Not until the turn of the 20th century do murder rates begin to decline substantially.1

More importantly, African-Americans were and continue to be exposed to the risk of murder at rates that dwarf those of white Americans. At their peak in 1972, black males were murdered at a rate ten times that of white males and black women at a rate six times that of white women. Though smaller in magnitude, the differences persist, with a homicide rate in 2011 of 2.8 for whites and 17.3 for blacks.2 And despite the widely known gender gap in murder victims on a global scale – with men much more likely to be murdered than women – black women in the United States have been more likely to be murdered than white men for decades.

Lifetime risk of homicide provides an even starker portrayal of both the magnitude of the difference between white and black violent death, as well as the stunningly high risk of homicide victimization for black males. Lifetime risk calculates the likelihood of being a murder victim if the homicide rate remained stagnant over the course of one’s lifetime.3 At the peak murder rate for white males in 1980, their lifetime risk was about one in 130, a strikingly high number relative to other democratic nations. But the peak lifetime risk for black males was as high as one in twenty-two in 1972 and again in 1991. The black female lifetime risk peak was also higher than that for white males, reaching one in ninety-four in 1975, and a fact that is rarely noted, much less confronted as a social problem. Notably, the highest lifetime risk of murder for white women was one in four hundred in 1980.

When this racial disproportionality in violent victimization is brought into public discourse...