The best data should always be the foundation of a belief, a political stance, or a public policy. No matter how righteous a cause, it should always value the evidence above all things. Human-driven climate change is a fact. But for those understandably desperate to get policy-makers moving on climate change, exaggeration and claims that extend past what can reasonably be claimed based on the evidence are often commonplace. The same seems to not infrequently be the case with the discussion on race and policing.
Those generally on the political Left often aim accusations of racism with wild profligacy. I have literally seen the claim that white people with dreadlocks are racist.
The term “white privilege” should simply be used to express the fact that white people on average don’t have many of the same life barriers to overcome as the average black person. However, it seems to now be just as often utilized as a tribal snarl phrase in argument; a cudgel used to knock the chessboard over, declare victory, and justify not having to consider what someone else is saying in any good faith manner.
Like with climate change, the Left is less wrong in their claims than the Right; racism in many forms absolutely still exists, which the Right often disputes. But a tribal blood-lust to identify everyone as good or evil, racist or righteous, often takes over for activists. Many seem to have a thirst for the heady dopamine hit that results from a pat on the back from one’s in-group after sufficiently virtue signaling. This leads to frequently seeing racism in places where it is not, at least not in any meaningful way. Just as bad, when members of this influential fringe leftist tribe see racists cherry-picking isolated true facts to come to false conclusions, they seem happier to demand the facts be altogether denied rather than acknowledged and elaborated on to prove the conclusions of the racists false.
Does racial prejudice drive the killing of blacks by cops?
One such set of facts involve whether or not black Americans are disproportionately killed by cops, and whether that disproportional death count is heavily influenced by anti-black racism from the police.
A problem is that police are not forthcoming with the data on number of killings by police (Krieger et al., 2015; Osse & Cano, 2017). This leads to deserved mistrust towards police, making more transparency very important for both sides. Regardless, there have been some exemplary efforts by news organizations to track the numbers.
According the tracker by The Guardian, in 2015 there were 1,146 people killed by the police, 861 (75%) of which were armed (The Counted: People Killed by the Police in US, 2016). Of the 1,146, black Americans made up 307, or 26%. Of the 307 blacks killed, 217 were armed (70%), 30% were unarmed, and 140 (46%) were armed with firearms. The next year, 2016, there were 1,093 people killed by police, of which 266 (24%) were black. Of those, 197 (74%) were armed, 26% were unarmed. In 2019 the Washington Post counted 1,001 Americans shot by police (Fatal Force, 2020).
The racial makeup of the US population is 62% white, 16.9% Hispanic, 12.6% black, 5.2% Asian, and the rest are smaller ethnic groups (Race and Ethnicity In the United States, n.d.). Whites commit 58.5% of the violent crime and blacks commit 37.5% (2017 Crime in the United States, 2017).
If all races/ethnicities committed violent crime at equal rates you would expect to see them being killed by police at levels roughly equal to their population footprint. Black Americans are killed by police at levels above their proportion of the population, but they committed violent crimes at least as much out of proportion. Thus, you would expect to see more violent run-ins with the police.
Another point is that if race was the deciding factor, you would expect to see white cops killing black citizens at higher rates than black cops. Research, though sometimes contradictory, generally shows that black cops kill black citizens at the same rate—and sometimes a higher rate—when compared with white cops (James et al., 2016; Nicholson-Crotty et al., 2017; Shröder, 2018).
This does not mean no cops are racist, or that no killings by a cop have overtly racists motivations. However, these stats are strong evidence that racism from police as a whole is likely not the overarching factor leading to the disproportionate number of black Americans being killed. A study by Streeter (2019) corroborates this, concluding that “the police—given contact— are killing blacks and whites under largely similar circumstances… The racial disparity in the rate of lethal force is most likely driven by higher rates of police contact among African Americans rather than racial differences in the circumstances of the interaction and officer bias in the application of lethal force.”
It is clear police are not held accountable for the people they kill. But if this aspect, too, was racist rather than indicative of a more generalized non-racial unaccountability, you would expect for cops to get acquitted less when white people are murdered, especially by black officers. This doesn’t seem to be the case. With few exceptions, all officers of all colors are almost always acquitted no matter the color of the person they kill.
When racists cite the statistic about black Americans committing disproportionately high levels of violent crime they explain the situation by grossly overreaching and attributing the cause to something intrinsic, usually biological, about the black community. Of course the real causes are likely much more related to environmental conditions and pressures. Poverty, for example, can breed desperation and likely contributes to violence. There are undoubtedly numerous more contributors, but listing them all here is beyond the scope of this essay and beyond my current expertise.
What explains the disproportional amount of such problems in the black community? Decades and decades of Jim Crow, Jim Crow-era police brutality, and a war on drugs started by many with racist motivations are the first things that come to my mind.
Are things better or worse today?
It will always be a tragedy for a life to be prematurely snuffed out, but in our drive to continue to improve the justice system and reduce the number of people killed by police, we must not slip into this paranoia that things are worse now than in the past.
Like those of the theocratic Right claiming we are in the end times as evidenced by their perception that things are worse today than in the past, the “abolish the police” movement (which paradoxically indicates they don’t actually want to abolish the police) seems determined to flood social media with memes, videos, and pictures that would give anyone without a knowledge of base rates the impression that nearly every cop you see is likely to shoot you, your spouse, your dog, or all of the above if you make one wrong move. A look at historical rates of killings by cops would give a different picture.
The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reported that the number of black Americans under age 25 killed by police has dropped by 79% from 1969 to 2011 (Males, 2014). Those 25 and older declined by 61%. While the raw number of people killed by the police is likely underestimated in this report (they measured only 377 people killed per year from 1999–2011), the degree of improvement likely still holds considering that the figures for 1969 are also likely equally underestimated. Other studies corroborate the general trend in improvement. A study by Zimring and Arsiniega (2015) also shows a decline, 32%, from 1976 to 2012—a change of 19.26 killings per 10 million people to 13.01. Adjusting using a figure closer to the results of The Guardian or The Washington Post (1,100 killings from a population of 330 million), the improvement would be from 51.1 to 33.3 per 10 million people.
To put this in perspective, you are roughly equally likely to die by choking on food today (1,086 deaths annually) or falling down stairs (1,307) as being killed by the police. Of course the cultural and societal effect of being killed by an officer versus a tater-tot are completely different, but they both make you equally dead. And due to cognitive heuristics, such as the affect heuristic and availability heuristic, we tend to drastically overestimate the likelihood of emotionally charged events like airplane crashes or being killed by cops.
Once more, none of this is to say we’ve reached perfection and need to stop improving things. We have a lot more work to do and we in fact do need to keep pushing hard to improve things. Every civilian killed by a cop is a tragedy. Cops need better training and vetting (that may take more funding though, which anti-cop people will be reluctant with), we need to end the war on drugs, we need to end no-knock warrants, we need to liberate the (disproportionately black) non-violent offenders rotting in prison, and we need to implement a slew of other improvements. But we do not need to pretend the sky is falling or lie about statistics to justify implementing these things; they are already fully justified.
One last thing I feel compelled to address is rioting and other violence. The Right-wingers who focus on rioting and violence to distract from police violence and minimize the continued existence of racism in America are absolutely wrong. The people who respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” are completely missing the point. The people who believe we must leave Confederate statues in places of veneration—statues not put up following the Civil War, but those instead put up during racist surges in US history in the 1900-20s and 1960s—are wrong.
However, I cannot sign off on violence, even when committed in the name of a good cause. “Burn it all down” is no less ignorant and self-defeating when radical leftists and anarchists say it than when a slew of ill-informed and often all out racist Trump voters do. Romanticized pipe dreams of revolution and vigilantism are things I cannot get on board with.
Violent revolutions in history—like the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution—are generally more likely to lead to a worse situation than a better one. Sometimes they work, but no sane person would choose that gamble when we’ve all been consistently better off from one decade to the next (in most ways, not all).
The French Revolution actually went pretty well in its relatively non-violent first two-ish years. Then the threat of invasion emboldened the most radical of the Left (origin of the political terms Left and Right) to push things even further, leading to the chopping off of many thousands of heads. Eventually, even the heads of the radicals themselves were removed. I’m skeptical that a Left-led radical revolution in modern America would be any better than a Right-led one considering how many of the leftists just in my circle on social media are calling for the bourgeoisie to be guillotined again, and are referring to butchers like Stalin and Lenin as hero revolutionaries.
These people are probably responsible for most of the violence regarding the current movement; “Tankie” self-identifying socialists who get a high from living out their aggressive desires while being able to feel like good people supposedly helping black people. They are bullies and abusers just like those on the Alt-Right, but they’ve discovered they can avoid social accountability for living out their psychopathic fantasies if they do it in the name of a good cause. Such individuals give fodder to old white scared Fox News viewers who blame it on Black Lives Matter activists who are actually rarely violent. Worse, news anchors outside of Fox end up defending the actions of these loons under the misguided pretext that they’re helping things.
This is what happens when you join a tribe, reject all criticisms about the dogmas of your tribe, and shift to an all-or-nothing sanctimonious good versus evil view of you and your tribe. It is “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” And it is very easy for them to see you as against them.
- 2017 crime in the United States. (2017). Federal Bureau of Investigation. https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2017/crime-in-the-u.s.-2017/tables/table-43
- Fatal force. (2020). The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/police-shootings-2019/
- James, L., James, S. M., & Vila, B. J. (2016). The reverse racism effect. Criminology & Public Policy, 15(2), 457–479. https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9133.12187
- Krieger, N., Chen, J. T., Waterman, P. D., Kiang, M. V., & Feldman, J. (2015). Police killings and police deaths are public health data and can be counted. PLOS Medicine, 12(12), e1001915. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001915
- Males, M. (2014). Who are police killing? Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. http://www.cjcj.org/news/8113
- Nicholson-Crotty, S., Nicholson-Crotty, J., & Fernandez, S. (2017). Will more black cops matter? Officer race and police-involved homicides of black citizens. Public Administration Review, 77(2), 206–216. https://doi.org/10.1111/puar.12734
- Osse, A., & Cano, I. (2017). Police deadly use of firearms: An international comparison. The International Journal of Human Rights, 21(5), 629–649. https://doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2017.1307828
- Police shootings. (2017). Vice News. https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/a3jjpa/nonfatal-police-shootings-data
- Race and ethnicity in the United States. (n.d.). Statistical Atlas. https://statisticalatlas.com/United-States/Race-and-Ethnicity
- Shröder, A. M. (2018). Black police showing out for the white cop: Fake news and the saliency of controlling for officer race in research on legal intervention deaths. Northern Illinois University: Institutional Repository. https://commons.lib.niu.edu/handle/10843/21630
- Streeter, S. (2019). Lethal force in black and white: Assessing racial disparities in the circumstances of police killings. The Journal of Politics, 81(3), 1124–1132. https://doi.org/10.1086/703541
- The counted: People killed by the police in US. (2016). The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database
- Zimring, F., & Arsiniega, B. (2015). Trends in Killings of and by Police: A Preliminary Analysis. HeinOnline, 84, 247–264. https://kb.osu.edu/bitstream/handle/1811/75408/OSJCL_V13N1_247.pdf;sequence=1