A New York Times article about the impact of police violence on the mental health of African Americans had a negative impact on my mental health. It is articles like these that threaten the psychological well-being of black people far more than the problem of police violence.
The newspaper reported, somewhat erroneously, that black people are killed by the police at “three times the rate of their white counterparts” (the correct multiplier, at least relative to the overall population, is 2.5). Had the reporters included Hispanics in this tally, readers would have discovered that the difference between whites and Hispanics in getting killed by police is negligible. (According to a Washington Post database, the Hispanic rate of police killings equals 2.5 per million, compared with 2.3 per million among non-Hispanic whites.) And conversely, had the Times considered Native Americans, readers would have learned that, within this ethnic minority, the risk of getting killed by police is even higher than among African Americans.
Having shared these salient facts, a responsible article should have recognized the elevated levels of violent crime within Native American and black communities as the main reason for these troubling realities. Police do not, as a rule, shoot people at random. The best available evidence suggests that racial disparities in police shootings have little to do with racial bias and a lot to do with “bias” against violent offenders. After all, men are more than 20 times more likely to be killed by the police. Surely nobody is suggesting much of this reflects anti-male bias? Law-abiding Americans of any race have little reason to fear police violence. In 2021, the number of unarmed black people killed by the police was 11. This number constitutes a fraction of 1 percent of the total homicide victims within the African American population.
If blacks are afraid of the police, the real reason has less to do with actual danger and more with media distortion. A 2020 study found that American media outlets were nine times more likely to cover police shootings of unarmed victims if the victim was black. If the media are truly interested in the mental well-being of black Americans, this is the kind of bias they should worry about. Pushing a one-sided and factually inaccurate narrative won’t help—and it likely hurts.
One of the black men interviewed for the Times article expressed his predicament in the following terms: “It’s almost paranoia, a paranoia that there is no safe place.” Given that paranoia is a delusional belief that one is being persecuted, it’s remarkable that the New York Times chose to lead the article with this quote. It also happened to be the most truthful claim in the entire story.