Police Shootings Really Are Racist, But Not In The Way You Think


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Ever since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the question of whether racism in policing exists has played a huge part in the national conversation. It’s difficult to pinpoint when racial bias has played a role in specific police-related deaths, and there are those on the spectrum that blame every death of a black man at the hands of police on racism, while some act as if racism never plays a role at all. In reality, both might be right. They just don’t know it.

Racism in Policing Questioned

When discussing deaths at the hands of police officers, those who claim that there’s no racial component like to point out that more whites than African-Americans die at the hands of police. This statement is in fact true, but it doesn’t paint the whole picture. To fully understand what these numbers mean, it’s only necessary to know one word: “disproportionate.”

As seen in the graph below, the number of African-Americans killed by police is disproportionate to their slice of the American population. While white individuals make up over 62 percent of the American population, they only account for 41.7 percent of those killed by police. African-Americans, though, who make up only 13.2 percent of the population, account for nearly 32 percent of all citizens killed by police.

Racism in policing

This obviously makes the police racist, right? Probably not, but it doesn’t mean racism isn’t involved in these shootings.


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African-American Interaction with Police

There’s a very specific reason that African-Americans make up a disproportionate number of citizens who are killed by police: they make up a disproportionate number of those with negative police interactions. A higher percentage of African-American citizens are killed by police because a higher percentage of African-American citizens encounter police in the criminal justice system.

Statistics from 2013 show that black citizens carried out 38 percent of all murders, and this is obviously high considering their percentage of the population (13.2 percent, in case you’ve forgotten). Similarly, data ranging from 2011 to 2013 found that black Americans composed 38.5 percent of those arrested for aggravated assault, robbery, rape, manslaughter and murder.

Some like to say that this is proof that African-Americans commit crimes at a higher rate. Others would like to imply that the fact that more blacks are arrested is proof that there is racism in policing. Once again, though, both are partially right and wrong.

Victimization Surveys Disagree With Racism in Policing

To test the theory that police are unfairly focusing on African-Americans, one need to only look at victimization surveys. The National Crime Victimization Survey doesn’t depend on police reports; it asks people directly whether or not they’ve been the victim of a crime. Even if these individuals never reported the crime to police, they are asked to provide certain details in the survey.

What these studies have found is that victims of crime report being victimized by African-Americans at a similar rate of what’s found in police data. This detracts from the idea that police are unfairly targeting African-Americans, and some individuals may claim that it lends credence to the idea that black citizens are being shot at higher rates because they’re committing crimes at higher rates.

As we keep noting, however, this doesn’t explain the whole story. Not by far. In reality, it is racism that leads to more blacks being killed by police than whites. It’s just not the racism you’re thinking of.

Racism in Policing or Institutionalized Racism?

Full disclosure: You’re not going to like the following statement, but keep reading. We’re actually going somewhere with it. That being said, there’s no denying it: African-Americans commit crimes at a higher rate than whites. Yes, more white people commit crimes when looking at raw numbers, but African-Americans’ involvement with the criminal justice system is undoubtedly disproportionate.

Does this mean that people who claim that blacks are more likely to commit crime are right? Not even close. It’s not race that leads to crime; it’s socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status is a measure of a person’s status based on their education, occupation and income. And in reality, it tells a much clearer story of racism in the criminal justice system than race ever could.

In reality, if you control for socioeconomic status, studies have shown that black and white Americans commit the same amount of crime. For example, a white person who makes $10,000 a year, lives in a bad neighborhood and works at a gas station is just as likely to commit a crime as a black person who makes $10,000 a year, lives in a bad neighborhood and works at a gas station.

This means that race literally has nothing to do with the chances that a person will commit a crime. The likelihood that you’ll become a criminal in your life depends on your socioeconomic status, not your race. And therein lies the real racism in these police-related deaths.

Cops Aren’t Racist, America Is

As mentioned, it’s nearly impossible to ascertain a police officer’s motives when they shoot a suspect. When South Carolina officer Michael Slager opened fire into the back of Walter Scott, for instance, there are a few things he could have been thinking:

“I’ve had a hard day, and I don’t feel like chasing this guy.”

“There’s no one around, so I’ll be able to get away with taking this criminal out.”

“I can’t stand black people, and this is my chance to take one down.”

Yes, it could have been racism, but it could have just as easily been a terrible cop with a penchant for killing people, whether white or black. What we can say, however, is that regardless of what Officer Slager was thinking, racism played a roll in the shooting of Scott. And honestly, it plays a roll in every police-involved killing.

People in lower socioeconomic strata are more likely to be involved with police, so why is it that blacks are more likely to be in a lower socioeconomic strata than whites? It’s because of institutionalized racism. African-Americans were subjugated in America for hundreds of years, but for many people, blaming slavery just doesn’t cut it. Some say that African-Americans have had a fair shake at their pie in the sky since slavery was abolished. Looking at the facts, however, proves that this belief is folly.

The simple truth is that African-American children have a higher chance of being born into poverty. In fact, 28 percent of children living in poverty are African-American (once again, remember that African-Americans are just about 13 percent of the population). By comparison, white children are only 32 percent of those in poverty, and this is even though whites are 62 percent of America.

Racism in policing

But they should be able to move up, right? Wrong. Studies show that a full 70 percent of people born in the lower-income bracket will remain there. A huge issue behind this is the fact that children brought up in poor neighborhoods have a significantly lower chance of graduating high school.

Racism in policingAnd therein lies the problem. When you don’t graduate high school, you don’t go to college. When you don’t go to college, you’re usually unable to get a decent paying job, and this is evidenced by the fact that most people who are born poor stay poor. This keeps people in a lower socioeconomic strata, and by proxy, it makes them more likely to be involved in crime.

So while education is only one factor, it’s a huge one. Where is the racism in all of this? It comes in the fact that over 40 percent of schools in low-income areas “don’t get a fair share of state and local funds.” Impoverished areas, which are made up disproportionately of African-Americans, have worse schools, and this institutional factor means that children coming out of these areas will remain poor.

Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that African-Americans and individuals with low-income and low education receive longer sentences when arrested. This nearly guarantees their permanent place in poverty thanks to the new difficulty of finding a job with a criminal record.

Poor people are more likely to be involved with police, and American institutions ensure that these individuals are largely African-American. So even when a black man is killed by the most un-racist cop in the world, it was institutionalized racism that ensured he would encounter that police officer on that day.

There are undoubtedly racist cops out there, just like there are racist teachers, racist bankers, racist preachers and racist auto mechanics. It’s not these individual instances of racism that are resulting in the numerous deaths of African-American men by police, though… it’s the system.

When you step away from single instances and look at the big picture, it’s not the police who are to blame. It’s America. It’s the whole damned system.

Feature image courtesy IMGSoup.

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