It’s not just about George Floyd, we’re told. It’s the system.
The way we police America is irretrievably broken. More to the point, it’s racist. African-Americans experience law enforcement differently than other races do — especially white people.
In some hyperbolic versions of this, police are literally hunting for black men to kill. Saner versions simply point to disparities in law enforcement interactions between white and non-white individuals.
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She’s been studying criminal justice for decades and is particularly unpopular in moments like these. That’s because the data she cites often coalesces around an uncomfortable truth: Systemic police racism is a myth.
“However sickening the video of Floyd’s arrest, it isn’t representative of the 375 million annual contacts that police officers have with civilians,” she wrote in a Tuesday Op-Ed for The Wall Street Journal.
“A solid body of evidence finds no structural bias in the criminal-justice system with regard to arrests, prosecution or sentencing. Crime and suspect behavior, not race, determine most police actions.”
For starters, she looks at the number of people fatally shot by police officers. In 2019, that was 1,004. Most of these people “were armed or otherwise dangerous,” Mac Donald said.
“African-Americans were about a quarter of those killed by cops last year (235), a ratio that has remained stable since 2015,” she wrote.
“That share of black victims is less than what the black crime rate would predict, since police shootings are a function of how often officers encounter armed and violent suspects. In 2018, the latest year for which such data have been published, African-Americans made up 53% of known homicide offenders in the U.S. and commit about 60% of robberies, though they are 13% of the population.”
Yes, but what about unarmed individuals?
“The police fatally shot nine unarmed blacks and 19 unarmed whites in 2019, according to a Washington Post database, down from 38 and 32, respectively, in 2015. The Post defines ‘unarmed’ broadly to include such cases as a suspect in Newark, N.J., who had a loaded handgun in his car during a police chase,” Mac Donald wrote.
“In 2018 there were 7,407 black homicide victims. Assuming a comparable number of victims last year, those nine unarmed black victims of police shootings represent 0.1% of all African-Americans killed in 2019. By contrast, a police officer is 18½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.”
But surely science bears out that there’s some evidence of systemic differences in use of force against black suspects, right?
“The latest in a series of studies undercutting the claim of systemic police bias was published in August 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” Mac Donald wrote. “The researchers found that the more frequently officers encounter violent suspects from any given racial group, the greater the chance that a member of that group will be fatally shot by a police officer. There is ‘no significant evidence of antiblack disparity in the likelihood of being fatally shot by police,’ they concluded.
“A 2015 Justice Department analysis of the Philadelphia Police Department found that white police officers were less likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot unarmed black suspects. Research by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. also found no evidence of racial discrimination in shootings. Any evidence to the contrary fails to take into account crime rates and civilian behavior before and during interactions with police.”
That Mac Donald’s piece got published in The Wall Street Journal is one kind of saving grace, since it was one of the few antidotes on this front to a fusillade of pieces, both fact-challenged and fact-free, that used the George Floyd story as a hook.
If you saw any serious study about this in the past few days, it was this one (felicitously published on the same day as Mac Donald’s piece) by Willem Roper in Statista: “Black Americans 2.5X More Likely Than Whites to Be Killed By Police.”
Where, then, is the metric different if Roper is coming to the opposite conclusion that Mac Donald is?
You don’t have to look too far: “Most states’ police forces killed black people at a higher rate per capita than white people, with Illinois, New York and Washington D.C. carrying some of the largest discrepancies by state. D.C., with a black population of nearly 50 percent, had 88 percent of all police killings be against black Americans — a discrepancy of over 38 percentage points. Rhode Island had the largest discrepancy of 44 points, albeit with a much smaller sample size of four police killings in 2019 — two of them being African American.”
Did you catch those two words there? “Per capita.”
Roper’s piece didn’t engage with disparities in crime rate at all. In this way, the title and the premise of the study aren’t necessarily false. He just simply dropped a variable from the equation.
How the police came to interact with these individuals mattered not at all. For this statistic to be as meaningful as the study’s author seems to want it to be, we would have to assume that police officers were allowed to shoot, at random, whoever they wanted. Then, yes, we would have a racism problem as serious as the title implies.
We’d also have a much more serious problem in that police were randomly shooting people.
Most of the think pieces we’ve been inundated in the wake of Floyd’s killing don’t particularly try to go with statistics, which is just as well.
“Racism, Police Violence, and the Climate” in The New Yorker is much what you would think.
I was intrigued by kihana miraya ross’ New York Times piece, “Call it What it Is: Anti-Blackness,” which argued racism was far too mild a term for what police apply to individuals like George Floyd.
Here, I expected facts and statistics. No statistics, but ross hyperlinked to a piece in The Conversation which made the very dubious claim that the modern police department is the direct descendant of slave patrols.
This is part of the issue, though: Everyone assumes these racial disparities exist, we can all agree on them and then the conversation can start.
Mac Donald herself catalogued a few of instances of politicians expressing sentiments like these:
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz talked of the “stain … of fundamental, institutional racism.”
Barack Obama said that differential treatment by the police for black Americans was “tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal’” and that we needed a “new normal.”
Joe Biden talked of how children must show fealty to police simply to “make it home.”
But the evidence doesn’t bear that out. George Floyd’s death was disgusting and I hope to God we see justice for the men who let it happen. But as for fitting into a wider narrative, the numbers don’t bear that out.