The brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has sparked protests and riots around the United States. We have witnessed humanity at its finest and at its ugliest. Citizens of faraway nations have expressed solidarity with black Americans; police officers have marched alongside protesters; protesters have defended businesses against looting and destruction. At the same time, rioters have burned down buildings and looted businesses; protesters have been pepper-sprayed and beaten; cops have been shot and run over with cars.
At the root of the unrest is the Black Lives Matter movement, which began with the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013 and rose to national prominence in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in 2014. My view of BLM is mixed. On the one hand, I agree that police departments too often have tolerated and even enabled corruption. Rather than relying on impartial third parties, departments often decide whether to discipline their own officers; the legal doctrine of qualified immunity sets what many say is an unreasonably high bar for civilians bringing civil-rights lawsuits against police officers. Bodycams (which increase transparency, to the benefit of both wrongly treated police suspects and wrongly accused police) are not yet universal. In the face of police unions that oppose even reasonable reforms, Black Lives Matter seems a force for positive change.
On the other hand, the basic premise of Black Lives Matter—that racist cops are killing unarmed black people—is false. There was a time when I believed it. I was one year younger than Trayvon Martin when he was killed in 2012, and like many black men, I felt like he could have been me. I was the same age as Michael Brown when he was killed in 2014, and like so many others, I shared the BLM hashtag on social media to express solidarity. By 2015, when the now-familiar list had grown to include Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott, I began wearing a shirt with all their names on it. It became my favorite shirt. It seemed plain to me that these were not just tragedies, but racist tragedies. Any suggestion to the contrary struck me as at best, ignorant, and at worst, bigoted.
My opinion has slowly changed. I still believe that racism exists and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms; I still believe that, on average, police officers are quicker to rough up a black or Hispanic suspect; and I still believe that police misconduct happens far too often and routinely goes unpunished. But I no longer believe that the cops disproportionately kill unarmed black Americans.
Two things changed my mind: stories and data.
First, the stories. Each story in this paragraph involves a police officer killing an unarmed white person. (To demonstrate how commonly this happens, I have taken all of them from a single year, 2015, chosen at random). Timothy Smith was killed by a police officer who mistakenly thought he was reaching into his waistband to grab a gun; the shooting was ruled justified. William Lemmon was killed after he allegedly failed to show his hands upon request; the shooting was ruled justified. Ryan Bolinger was shot dead by a cop who said he was moving strangely and walking toward her; the shooting was ruled justified. Derek Cruice was shot in the face after he opened the door for police officers serving a warrant for a drug arrest; the cops recovered marijuana from the property, and the shooting was ruled justified. Daniel Elrod robbed a dollar store, and, when confronted by police, allegedly failed to raise his hands upon request (though his widow, who witnessed the event, insists otherwise); he was shot dead. No criminal charges were filed. Ralph Willis was shot dead when officers mistakenly thought that he was reaching for a gun. David Cassick was shot twice in the back by a police officer while lying face down on the ground. Six-year-old Jeremy Mardis was killed by a police officer while sitting in the passenger seat of a car; the officer’s intended target was Jeremy’s father, who was sitting in the driver’s seat with his hands raised out the window. Autumn Steele was shot dead when a police officer, startled by her German shepherd, immediately fired his weapon at the animal, catching her in the crossfire. Shortly after he killed her, bodycam footage revealed the officer’s despair: “I’m f------ going to prison,” he says. The officer was not disciplined.
For brevity’s sake, I will stop here. But the list goes on.
For every black person killed by the police, there is at least one white person (usually many) killed in a similar way. The day before cops in Louisville barged into Breonna Taylor’s home and killed her, cops barged into the home of a white man named Duncan Lemp, killed him, and wounded his girlfriend (who was sleeping beside him). Even George Floyd, whose death was particularly brutal, has a white counterpart: Tony Timpa. Timpa was killed in 2016 by a Dallas police officer who used his knee to pin Timpa to the ground (face down) for 13 minutes. In the video, you can hear Timpa whimpering and begging to be let go. After he lets out his final breaths, the officers begin cracking jokes about him. Criminal charges initially brought against them were later dropped.
At a gut level, it is hard for most people to feel the same level of outrage when the cops kill a white person. Perhaps that is as it should be. After all, for most of American history, it was white suffering that provoked more outrage. But I would submit that if this new “anti-racist” bias is justified—if we now have a moral obligation to care more about certain lives than others based on skin color, or based on racial-historical bloodguilt—then everything that I thought I knew about basic morality, and everything that the world’s philosophical and religious traditions have been saying about common humanity, revenge, and forgiveness since antiquity, should be thrown out the window.
You might agree that the police kill plenty of unarmed white people, but object that they are more likely to kill unarmed black people, relative to their share of the population. That’s where the data comes in. The objection is true as far as it goes; but it’s also misleading. To demonstrate the existence of a racial bias, it’s not enough to cite the fact that black people comprise 14 percent of the population but about 35 percent of unarmed Americans shot dead by police. (By that logic, you could prove that police shootings were extremely sexist by pointing out that men comprise 50 percent of the population but 93 percent of unarmed Americans shot by cops.)
Instead, you must do what all good social scientists do: control for confounding variables to isolate the effect that one variable has upon another (in this case, the effect of a suspect’s race on a cop’s decision to pull the trigger). At least four careful studies have done this—one by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, one by a group of public-health researchers, one by economist Sendhil Mullainathan, and one by David Johnson, et al. None of these studies has found a racial bias in deadly shootings. Of course, that hardly settles the issue for all time; as always, more research is needed. But given the studies already done, it seems unlikely that future work will uncover anything close to the amount of racial bias that BLM protesters in America and around the world believe exists.
All of which makes my view of Black Lives Matter complicated. If not for BLM, we probably would not be talking about ending qualified immunity, making bodycams universal, increasing police accountability, and so forth—at least not to the same extent. In fact, we might not even have a careful national database on police shootings. At the same time, the core premise of the movement is false. And if not for the dissemination of this falsehood, social relations between blacks and whites would be less tense, trust in police would be higher, and businesses all across America might have been spared the looting and destruction that we have seen in recent weeks.
But isn’t this the price of progress? Isn’t there a long tradition of using violence to throw off the shackles of white supremacy, going back to the Haitian revolution and the American Civil War? Didn’t the urban riots of the late 1960s wake Americans up to the fact that racism did not end with the Civil Rights Act of 1965?
To start, any analogy to slave rebellions or justified revolutions can be dismissed immediately. Taking up arms directly against those enslaving you is one thing. Looting clothing stores or destroying grocery stores is something else entirely. We must be careful not to confuse the protesters with the rioters. The former are committed to nonviolence. The latter are simply criminals and should be treated as such.
As for the riots of the late 1960s, progressives should not praise them for shocking Americans into action without also noting that they helped elect Richard Nixon president, which progressives certainly did not intend; that they directly decreased the wealth of inner-city black homeowners; and that they scared capital away from inner cities for decades, worsening the very conditions of poverty and unemployment that the rioters were supposedly protesting.
What’s more, the case for violence rests on the false notion that without it, little progress can be made. Recent history tells a different story. In 2018, the NYPD killed five people, down from 93 people in 1971. Since 2001, the national incarceration rate for black men ages 18-29 has gone down by more than half. Put simply, we know progress through normal democratic means is possible because we have already done it.
In a perfect world, I would like to see the yearly number of unarmed Americans killed by police decrease from 55 (the number in 2019) to zero. But the more I think about how we would achieve this, the less optimistic I am. At a glance, copying the policies of nations with very few police shootings seems like a promising path. But on closer inspection, one realizes how uniquely challenging the American situation is.
First, America is a huge country—the third largest in the world by population. That means that extremely low-probability events (such as police shootings) will happen much more frequently here than they do elsewhere. For instance, if America were the size of Canada, but otherwise identical, about six unarmed people would have been killed by police last year, not 55.
Second, America is a gun country, which makes policing in America fundamentally different than policing in other nations. When cops pull someone over in the United Kingdom, where the rate of gun ownership is less than one-twentieth the American rate, they have almost no reason to fear that the person they’ve stopped has a pistol hidden in the glove compartment. That’s not true in America, where a cop gets shot just about every day. So long as we are a gun country, American police will always be liable to mistake a suspect’s wallet or smartphone for a gun. And we will not be able to legislate that fact away—at least not completely.
A third factor (not unique to America) is that we live in the smartphone age. Which means that there are millions of cameras at the ready to ensure that the next police shooting goes viral. Overall, this is a good thing. It means that cops can no longer reliably get away with lying about their misbehavior to escape punishment. (And that the claims of those accusing police in such situations will face objective video scrutiny.) But it also means that our news feeds are perpetually filled with outlier events presented to us as if they were the norm. In other words, we could cut the rate of deadly shootings by 99 percent, but if the remaining 1 percent are filmed, then the public perception will be that shootings have remained steady. And it is the public perception, more than the underlying reality, that provokes riots.
Combine all three of these observations and one arrives at a grim conclusion: as long as we have a non-zero rate of deadly shootings (a virtual certainty), and as long as some shootings are filmed and go viral (also a virtual certainty), then we may live in perpetual fear of urban unrest for the foreseeable future.
The only way out of this conundrum, it seems to me, is for millions of Americans on the left to realize that deadly police shootings happen to blacks and whites alike. As long as a critical mass of people view this as a race issue, they will see every new video of a black person being killed as yet another injustice in a long chain dating back to the Middle Passage. That sentiment, when it is felt deeply and earnestly, will reliably produce large protests and destructive riots.
The political Right has a role to play as well. For too long, “All Lives Matter” has been a slogan used only as a clapback to Black Lives Matter. What it should have been, and still could be, is a true movement to reduce the number of Americans shot by the police on a race-neutral basis. If the challenge for the Left is to accept that the real problem with the police is not racism, the challenge for the Right is to accept that there are real problems with the police.
If the level of discourse among our public officials stays where it currently is—partisan and shallow—then there is not much hope. In a worst-case scenario, we may see a repeat of the George Floyd riots every few years. But if we can elevate the national discourse, if we can actually have that honest and uncomfortable conversation about race that people have been claiming to want for years, then we might have a chance.
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