Saying “Police Kill More Whites than Blacks” Isn’t a Rebuttal

Racism deniers fail at data, context, and history

Tim Wise

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We’ve all heard someone say it. Maybe a colleague, a family member, or someone on our Facebook or Twitter feed, all of whom appear convinced they have stumbled upon the ultimate gotcha’ to which the rest of us have no answer.

It sounds like this: “If police are so racist against black people, why do they kill more whites than blacks every year?”

It’s a great question.

Here’s a better one: If you’re a grown-ass human being, presumably in possession of a Google machine, why can’t you manage to understand the concept of per capita numbers? Riddle me that one.

I mean, should we be surprised that in a nation where whites outnumber blacks by about 5:1, more whites than blacks would be killed by police? Isn’t that pretty much to be expected? By the same token, there are more whites than blacks in poverty. This was also true during the days of formal segregation and even enslavement. But does that refute the proposition that on balance it paid to be white during both periods? Of course not.

Whatever broad social category you pick will typically have more white folks in it than black people. The question is, what is the rate at which whites or blacks find themselves in one or another category. And that number is directly related to each group’s population size.

So, when it comes to police killings, we know that on a per capita basis, African Americans are between 2.5 and three times more likely than whites to be killed by police. And no, this is not because they are that much more likely to attack an officer. Nor is it because of higher crime rates in black communities, which might result in more police shootings even without bias, solely due to police-civilian interactions there.

According to one recent study, blacks fatally killed by police were 2.3 times more likely than whites fatally killed to have been unarmed at the time, and whites killed were about 50 percent more likely than black victims to have been shot while attacking the officer or another civilian.

Another study that looked at four years of data from police precincts across the…

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Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)