President Obama has announced to the world that America’s police officers are as disruptive to civil society as Middle Eastern beheaders and Russian-backed rebels. Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly yesterday, he agreed with “America’s critics” who point out that America, too, has “failed to live up to [its] ideals; that America has plenty of problems within [its] own borders.” He went on to explain the particulars:
In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri—where a young man was killed, and a community was divided. So yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions. And like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear.
Obama is right about one thing: the world did take notice of the Ferguson riots, which were covered obsessively by CNN International, desperate to play up every wisp of alleged racism it could find. Even a local newspaper in Salzburg, Austria, carried a fawning profile of America’s first black attorney general, Eric Holder, and his fight against police racism.
All the more important, then, for Obama to set the record straight. The idea that the Ferguson riots were the result of a predatory police force tantamount to sectarian murderers in the Middle East is a poisonous calumny. The threat to America’s blacks comes almost exclusively from other blacks, not from the police. Every year, thousands of African Americans are gunned down by other African Americans, with no attention from the media and local government officials. The homicide death rate for blacks in Los Angeles, for example, like in most other American cities, is ten times that for whites. It’s not whites or police officers who are gunning down black Angelenos, it’s other blacks, killing in cold blood, also at ten times the rate of white and Hispanic homicide commission combined.
This last Saturday, a 14-year-old girl was killed on the streets of Paterson, New Jersey, in a drive-by gang shooting. She is the sixth homicide death in the area since a 12-year-old girl was shot in the head while riding a scooter in July. It is a virtual certainty that the perpetrators were black, like their victims. Obama and Eric Holder will have nothing to say about these homicides. In fact, the only government representatives who work day in and day out to stop the black bloodbath are police officers. But they cannot provide protection to law-abiding residents of high-crime areas without generating racially disparate police statistics—like stops and arrests—that the ACLU and the Justice Department can use against them. The only way to avoid generating such statistics would be to back off from policing in high-crime areas.
Rarely, an arrest will go awry and officers will shoot an unarmed civilian. It is still premature to say what happened in Ferguson during the encounter between Michael Brown and the officer who shot him. The media did its utmost to bury Brown’s criminal behavior both immediately preceding the shooting and in the more distant past. Perhaps Brown was shot ruthlessly while his hands were up, as some witnesses claimed, in violation of everything American police forces stand for. Or perhaps those witnesses lied, a strong possibility never admitted by the press. What is certain, however, is that the Ferguson police would not have been aggressively patrolling in Brown’s neighborhood if there hadn’t been elevated rates of crime there. And that denser police presence in high-crime minority areas across the country means that however low the chance that an unarmed black man will be shot by the police, that chance is unquestionably higher than the risk that an unarmed white man will be shot by the police. The reason for the disparity is not police racism, but the locus of violent crime.
Obama is also right that “we have our own racial and ethnic tensions.” But those tensions are exacerbated by the selective narratives favored by Obama and Holder, who a day before Obama’s U.N. speech had invoked the Ferguson riots as a wake-up call to the country to confront the “hard truths” of race and policing. Addressing a conference on incarceration, Holder urged the police to “work with the communities they serve . . . by forging close bonds, establishing deep trust, and fostering robust engagement.” Well and good, but police-civilian relations are a two-way street. Few are the departments that don’t try to forge bonds with their communities but their officers are still met with resistance, abuse, and hatred from criminals and their associates, and from ordinary people who have been fed a steady diet of anti-police propaganda. It would have been refreshing if Holder had called on the community to cooperate with the police by providing witness testimony after shootings and other crimes. Instead, the attorney general touted his department’s effort to ensure “that everyone who comes into contact with the police is treated fairly” (emphasis in the original), implying that differential police treatment is a serious problem.
President Obama’s preposterous comparison of the Ferguson shooting to sectarian violence has done a disservice to the nation’s police forces. Such rhetoric only ensures that more young black men resist legitimate arrests and escalate police encounters into more fateful territory.