Race and Police Violence: Looking at the Data

This article is going to touch on a very sensitive subject, so I’ll begin with a quiz. Without Googling, try to answer the following questions:

  1. How many more Black men than white men are shot and killed each year by police?
    a. 10 times more
    b. 5 times more
    c. 2 times more
    d. Roughly the same number
    e. More white men are shot and killed
  2. The probability that an unarmed Black man is killed by police in a year is roughly the same as a person being:
    a. Injured in a car accident
    b. Killed in a car accident
    c. Murdered by a civilian
    d. Drowned
    e. Struck by lightning
  3. Roughly what percentage of Black men report that they’ve experienced either force or the threat of force from the police each year?
    a. 10%
    b. 5%
    c. 2%
    d. 1%
    e. 0.6%
  4. Roughly what percentage of Black men report that they’ve been injured by police each year?
    b. 2%
    c. 1%
    d. 0.5%
    e. 0.1%
  5. How many of the following names do you recognize: Michael Brown, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling?
    a. 0
    b. 1
    c. 2
    d. 3-4
    e. 5 (all of them)
  6. How many of the following names do you recognize: John Crawford, Dylan Noble, Daniel Shaver, Andrew Thomas, Tony Timpa?
    a. 0
    b. 1
    c. 2
    d. 3-4
    e. 5 (all of them)

Take a deep breath, because this is where things might get hard.

The answers to questions 1-4 were all “e”. Between 2015-2020, about 2.5x more white men were shot and killed by police than Black men (2x as many if Hispanics are not counted as “white”). During that same period, around 100 unarmed Black men were shot and killed by police, which works out to a roughly 1 in 1 million chance that an unarmed Black man will be shot and killed by police each year. For comparison, during the same period, around 2500 Americans were struck by lightning, which works out to a roughly 1 in 1 million chance that an American will be struck by lightning each year.

According to a large, national survey, approximately 0.6% of Black men each year report that they have experienced either force or the threat of force from police and around 0.1% report being injured by police. To provide a point of comparison, a Black man has a roughly 3.7% chance of being injured in a traffic accident each year.

Of course, there are no “correct” answers for questions 5 and 6. But if you’re anything like me, you could recite the names of Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Alton Sterling from memory along with many of the details of each case. All five were Black men killed by police. In contrast, all five of the names in Question 6 were unknown to me. They were all white men killed by police. If I hadn’t compiled this list, I couldn’t have named a single unarmed white male who has been killed by police in the last decade, despite the fact that roughly the same number of unarmed white males and unarmed black males are shot and killed by police each year. Some of their stories are just as horrific as the ones we’re familiar with. For instance, here’s the Dallas Morning News on the killing of Tony Timpa:

Tony Timpa wailed and pleaded for help more than 30 times as Dallas police officers pinned his shoulders, knees and neck to the ground. “You’re gonna kill me! You’re gonna kill me! You’re gonna kill me!” After Timpa fell unconscious, the officers who had him in handcuffs assumed he was asleep and didn’t confirm that he was breathing or feel for a pulse. As precious minutes passed, the officers laughed and joked about waking Timpa up for school and making him waffles for breakfast.

The information I’ve presented thus far is publicly available from reputable sources. But is it misleading? For example, while it’s true that the majority of people killed by police are white, the majority of people in the U.S. are white, so we really need to look at the relative rates at which different racial groups are killed, not the absolute numbers. And here, there are noticeable disparities. For instance, a black man is 2.5x more likely to be shot and killed than a white man and unarmed blacks are killed at a rate 7x greater than that of white men. Similarly, while only 0.6% of Black men report either force or threat of force being used on them by police in a given year, that rate is still 2.5x higher than the rate reported by white men. So don’t these statistics show the presence of racism within the law enforcement community? Good question.

It’s complicated

The Washington Post has done an excellent job collecting and making publicly available data on police shootings from the last five years. While the focus is obviously on racial disparities, they allow users to look at other categories. When we do so, some interesting patterns emerge. For example, men are 20-times more likely to be killed by police than women and unarmed men are 10-times more likely to be killed by police than unarmed women. Yet I’ve never heard anyone suggest that anti-male sexism is to blame for this disparity or that this data shows that sexism is rampant within law enforcement. Why? Because men are far more likely to commit violent crime than women.

Several commentators have pointed out that the same explanation potentially applies to racial disparities. Whenever any demographic group commits violent crime at a higher rate, we would expect to see a higher rate of police shootings.

To test this hypothesis, I produced the following graph, based on data from the FBI and the Washington Post. It plots the rates at which various demographic groups are killed by police versus the rates at which they are arrested for murder. What we see is that there is a strong correlation between the two. The higher the rate at which a demographic group is arrested for murder, the higher the rate of police shootings. This correlation can be seen not just for race, but for gender, ethnicity, and even age.

This conclusion is consistent with several studies on race and police shootings. For example, Roland Fryer, a Black professor of economics at Harvard, found that police were no more likely to shoot white suspects than Black suspects, when controlling for relevant variables, although they are more likely to be subject to other forms of police force. Johnson et al write: “We find no evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities across shootings, and White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-White officers.”

Now I worry that, at this point, people are beginning to question my motivations. What am I trying to say? Am I trying to say that no police officers are racist? That racism doesn’t exist? That police brutality is not really a problem? No, no, no, and no. Then why pay attention to these statistics?

Why does it matter?

A few years ago, a friend shared with me the story of a women who had been raped by a Black man. The woman was struggling because she now experienced panic attacks whenever she saw Black men. Fortunately, she recognized that her panic attacks were ultimately irrational. They were understandable responses to her horrific experience but she knew that they could, if left unchecked, produce false and dangerous stereotypes that could, if left unchecked, lead to outright racism.

But what would happen if the woman had not recognized the need to subject her fears to rational scrutiny? And what if, out of a desire to sympathize with this woman’s real, understandable pain, I told her “Yes, you are right to feel afraid. Your fear is based on an accurate perception of the real danger that you are constantly in. Anyone who disagrees with this assessment is callous and likely has sinister motives”? Would my response be ultimately loving? Or would it be deeply unloving and even dangerous? Would my “sympathy” be helping the woman? Or would it be hurting her?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been encouraged to see how many white Christians have expressed their heart-felt anger over police brutality, have affirmed the equal value and dignity of all human beings, and have forcefully stated that racism is wicked. However, I’ve also seen them make or affirm over-the-top statements about how “Black people are being hunted on a daily basis” or “Black people have to live in constant fear.”

Why do people make statements like these which seem out-of-step with the data? Part of the reason has to do with different understandings of the nature of “racism.”

Racism: systemic vs. individual

Historically, the dictionary definition of racism is the one that most people (and nearly all conservatives) recognize: racism is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” Note here that racism is an individual disposition based on person belief.

In contrast, many scholars (and most liberals) define “racism” far more expansively, to include systems and structures which perpetuate racial disparity even in the absence of individual prejudice or enmity. This phenomenon is sometimes called “systemic” or “structural” racism.

Because of these two competing definitions, people’s wires are often crossed when it comes to talking about a particular incident, like the killing of George Floyd. Those who adopt the more expansive definition will insist that his death, and the shooting of hundreds of Black people each year, are clear examples of “racism” because they involve systemic racial disparities. But people who adopt the traditional definition of racism will insist that we rarely have any direct evidence that these killings were motivated by “racism” and that it is often difficult to know the motives of the perpetrators.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the modern, expansive definition of racism is incorrect, but here, I’d like to argue that it’s also counterproductive. When liberals insist that police shootings are manifestations of “systemic racism,” conservatives will demand evidence that the officer involved was motivated by racial hatred, which is usually unavailable. They’ll also point out that many white people are killed under very similar circumstances (see the names in Question 6), and no one assumes that racism is involved.

A simple modification to our language will avoid confusion. Because liberals believe that “systemic racism” refers to “systems which produce racial disparities” independent of the motivation of the people involved, they should talk about how these incidents are manifestations of “police brutality which disproportionately affects Blacks independent of individuals’ personal motivations”. In doing so, they’re more likely to elicit support from conservatives, many of whom are also concerned about police brutality. Changing our language also means that we won’t risk falsely implying that police (28% of whom are people of color) are systematically prejudiced against Blacks. 

A final admonition

I want to add a final word of warning for anyone who is nodding along to this article: my intention is not to minimize the seriousness of our society’s racial disparities, the existence of real racism, or the understandable trauma that these events cause Blacks.

First, many extreme racial disparities exist in our society today, from accumulated wealth, to education, to health outcomes. While the origins of these disparities is complex, everyone should acknowledge that they were caused in part by our country’s iniquitous racial history, as millions of Blacks were enslaved, disenfranchised, and brutalized for centuries. Similarly, numerous studies show how present-day racial discrimination impacts everything from the criminal justice system to hiring. We cannot change the past and we cannot repent for sins we did not commit. But we are responsible for how we act today. No Christian should be able to look with indifference on suffering and all Christians are obligated to work toward a just society, in which a person’s race does not affect their opportunities.

Second, like the woman in my story whose pain was real and understandable, the pain of Blacks in light of police violence is real and understandable. Though it can seem as if the “bad old days” of slavery and Jim Crow are long gone, we forget how recently it took place. Pastor Eric Mason tells a story in his book Woke Church about how his own father was severely beaten by whites for a crime he did not commit. Is it any wonder that Mason reacts differently to a story of police violence than a white person would? Here, white Christians need to be incredibly gentle with and receptive to the concerns of their Black brothers and sisters in Christ, recognizing that everyone’s personal experiences will be limited and that no one has a God’s-eye view of all reality.

If that’s the case, why write this article? Because I’m concerned that from a desire to show empathy, we may be doing more harm than good. Telling people falsely that their lives are constantly in danger and that they are being hunted in the streets is not conducive to their well-bring or to the unity of the church. Moreover, examining the data I’ve presented ought to be profoundly liberating and reassuring. It is good news that police violence against all people, including Blacks, is rare.

Finally, if you’re still skeptical of my claims, that’s fine. If you’d like to believe that I’m a hateful, racist bigot with a hidden agenda, that’s your prerogative. I’m just pleading with you to consider the information I’ve presented. If you’ve never heard the statistics I quoted, look them up. Mull them over. Think about how you should incorporate them into your views. No one, whether liberal or conservative, should be content to unreflectively accept their own tribe’s pronouncements. Truth is no enemy to justice, compassion, or unity. We should seek the truth knowing that the truth, and nothing else, will set us free.

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