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 country found that the odds of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is 3.4 times greater, on average, than the odds of being white, unarmed, and shot by police in America. In some communities, the ratios are as high as 20:1.
Likewise, the rates of police-involved shootings bear little if any relationship to the crime rates in particular places where those shootings occur. This is why some communities with much higher crime rates have lower rates of police-involved shootings than other cities with less serious crime problems.
If the police were simply responding to an immediate threat, or if these shootings were merely the result of working in “dangerous communities” where there are more opportunities for police-civilian interactions to go badly, neither of the above-mentioned facts would be true.
Of course, it isn’t just the killing of Black people, or even non-lethal violence against them, which is at issue here. Racism in law enforcement also manifests in profiling and stop-and-frisk rates, which have long indicated the disproportionate mistreatment of folks of color.
Stop-and-frisk practices consistently target black and brown peoples, even though they rarely produce evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and even when stops of whites are more likely to uncover illegal activity. Furthermore, as was found in the case of New York City, before their stop-and-frisk program was declared unconstitutional, stop rates for blacks consistently exceeded what would be expected based solely on crime rates in the precincts where the stops occurred.
As for traffic stops, an analysis of 20 million such stops nationwide found that black drivers are twice as likely to be stopped and four times more likely to be searched than white drivers, even though whites are more likely to drive, and spend far more hours on the road than black folks do. And this disproportion remains a constant, even though whites, when searched, are more likely to be in possession of illegal items.
In other studies, police have been found far more likely to stop black drivers for “pretextual” stops — those made for minor violations like busted tail lights or the failure to signal a lane change — in hopes of uncovering more serious criminal activity. But in fact, the vast majority of these stops reveal no such activity, and when they do, they do so less often for folks of color than for whites. Apparently, racial stereotypes are leading police to believe blacks are more likely to have committed some serious crime for which they will find evidence, even though the stop data doesn’t justify this suspicion.
For instance, what, other than racism, can explain the story a young black student in Portland once told me, in which he recounted being stopped three dozen times in one year after bringing his car to college? When I asked him how many times he had gotten a ticket for some traffic violation, he replied: never.
Now ask yourself, why would that be?
There are only two possible explanations: Either the cops were overly generous when it came to handing out friendly warnings to black males, or they had no good reason for the stops in the first place, and no reason for which they could have issued a citation. Surely we know which of these is more likely. They had been hoping to smell weed or see contraband in the car, or for the young man to give them a reason to search the vehicle, arrest him, or worse. The fact that he didn’t provide the Portland P.D. the satisfaction hardly relieves those officers of the label rightly affixed to their actions.
These daily indignities meted out against black and brown peoples are what undergird the charge of police racism. It isn’t just the most extreme cases of police-involved killings that justify the accusation.
In the period from 1890 to the 1930s — a time frame when whites lynched thousands of black folks, with the active collaboration of law enforcement — we obviously would not have limited our analysis of racism in policing to the statistical minority of cops who personally delivered up black bodies to the mobs. So too, we must take a more capacious view here.
The Birmingham officers who beat protesters in 1963, or turned dogs and water cannons on them, were just as racist as Deputy Cecil Price — one of several men who murdered Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi the following year for registering blacks to vote. And this is so, even though the former didn’t kill the objects of their contempt. What’s more, the fact that two of the three killed by Price and his associates were white hardly suggests that the men involved — including Neshoba County Sheriff, Lawrence Rainey who participated in the conspiracy to kill the civil rights workers — weren’t racists.
Finally, it’s worth asking to what extent even those whites killed by police were killed in part because of the broader racism operating in the system. While that might seem an odd claim, think about it: Why does the United States have the most aggressive and deadly police among all Western industrialized nations?
Is it because Americans are just that much more dangerous and criminal than people elsewhere? Is there something uniquely pathological about the people of this country that necessitates such aggression by officers? Surely not. Instead, the history suggests that policing and the American justice system developed hand-in-glove with white supremacy and to defend it from those (especially blacks) who might challenge it. In short, the racialization of crime and deviance — and the fear of black predation against white property or bodies — led to the establishment of overly aggressive law enforcement. Brutality became a way to control the dreaded “other.”
But once you encourage the kind of aggressive and militarized mentality prevalent among modern police — even if you did it mostly to control the folks on the other side of town, so to speak — eventually it comes back on you. Officers imbued with a mindset that the public is the enemy and that those who challenge their authority in some way must be brought under heel cannot quickly turn off their aggression just because the person in front of them is white. They don’t suddenly become more placid when confronted by a white lawbreaker, or suspect. Oh sure, they’ll still take out their aggression principally on the usual victims. But white folks will get caught up too and become the collateral damage of a system intended to break others.
Thus, to use police killings of whites as a rebuttal to the claim of racism in law enforcement is not only to misunderstand the data. So too, it is to miss the relationship between white supremacy and police misconduct itself, and the way that sometimes the monster you create turns on you as well.
Frankly, that sounds like just one more excellent reason to dismantle the system of policing and replace it with something that will genuinely protect us all.