The police killing of George Floyd sparked protest and widespread discussion about race in America. People are in uproar across the US, and protests have taken off in other parts of the world (including Australia).
As the shock over Floyd’s death recedes, outrage is turning to commentary. People are discussing what the underlying issues are, and how to improve the situation. And it’s been interesting reading and listening to this commentary as a distant observer.
And so, here are 3 important things I’ve noticed about the race conversation in the US, which also have implications for our race conversation here in Australia.
1) Cultural Racism is Still a Stark Reality for Many Black Americans
Even though racism is less than ever before.
I always deplored racism — those values were instilled in me from birth — but I was also someone who recoiled at words like “systemic racism.” I looked at the strides we’d made since slavery and Jim Crow and said, “Look how far we’ve come.”
But then he and his wife adopted a black girl from Ethiopia, and strange things started to happen:
I went from being the father of two white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids to the father of three kids — one of them a beautiful little girl from Ethiopia. When Naomi arrived, our experiences changed. Strange incidents started to happen.
Here are some of those incidents:
There was the white woman who demanded that Naomi — the only black girl in our neighborhood pool — point out her parents, in spite of the fact that she was clearly wearing the colored bracelet showing she was permitted to swim. There was the time a police officer approached her at a department store and questioned her about who she was with and what she was shopping for. That never happened to my oldest daughter. There was the classmate who told Naomi that she couldn’t come to our house for a play date because, “My dad says it’s dangerous to go black people’s neighborhoods.”
I could go on, and — sure — some of the incidents could have a benign explanation, but as they multiplied, and it was clear that Naomi’s experience was clearly different from her siblings, it became increasingly implausible that all the explanations were benign.’
While there was no legal discrimination against Naomi per se, culturally her experience as a person of colour was different – and in many ways more negative – than her white siblings. Sadly, it seems, Naomi’s experience is not an outlier.
Christian hip hop artist Shai Linne also writes about the cultural racism he experiences as a black person:
It’s about being handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police car while walking down the street during college, and then waiting for a white couple to come identify whether or not I was the one who’d committed a crime against them, knowing that if they said I was the one, I would be immediately taken to jail, no questions asked.
It’s about walking down the street as a young man and beginning to notice that white people, women especially, would cross to the other side of the street to avoid walking past me — and me beginning to preemptively cross to the other side myself to save them the trouble of being afraid and to save me the humiliation of that silent transaction.
It’s about the exhaustion of constantly feeling I have to assert my humanity in front of some white people I’m meeting for the first time, to let them know, “Hey! I’m not a threat! You don’t need to be afraid. If you got to know me, I’m sure we have things in common!”
Again, notice that so much of this is cultural (although Linne’s experience with police crosses the line into legal discrimination). It’s the pressure many black people feel for no other reason than their skin colour.
The Thought Experiment that Nails Cultural Racism
To make the reality of racism clearer, I found this thought experiment from David French eye-opening:
Let’s optimistically imagine that only one out of 10 white Americans is actually racist. Let’s also recognize that — especially in educated quarters of white America — racism is condemned and stigmatized. If this is the reality, when will you ever hear racist sentiments in your daily life? The vast majority of people you encounter aren’t racist, and the minority who are will remain silent lest they lose social standing.’
But imagine you’re African American. That means 10 percent of the white people you encounter are going to hate you or think less of you because of the color of your skin. You don’t know in advance who they are or how they’ll react to you, but they’ll be present enough to be at best a persistent source of pain and at worst a source of actual danger. So you know you’ll be pulled over more, and in some of those encounters the officer will be strangely hostile. The store clerk sometimes follows you when you shop. A demeaning comment will taint an otherwise-benign conversation. Your white friends described in the paragraph above may never see these things, but it’s an inescapable part of the fabric of your life.’
This is how we live in a world where a white person can say of racism, “Where is it?” and a black person can say, “How can you not see?”
And that nails the reality of cultural racism in America today: most white people don’t see it, but many black people experience it on a daily basis. Which makes sense, considering the history of America: from 1619 to 1964, systemic – legal, institutional racism – was part of the fabric of America. And as French points out,
[T]he consequences of 345 years of legal and cultural discrimination are going to be dire, deep-seated, complex, and extraordinarily difficult to comprehensively ameliorate.’
And so, racism is a cultural reality in America today – although it’s invisible to many white people. And while America has by all accounts come a long way (think slavery and Jim Crow), there is still a long way to go.
Another urgent conversation in America today, especially after the killing of George Floyd, is that of systemic racism: in particular, the alleged targeting and killing of unarmed black men by police. It’s been fascinating watching this conversation burst onto the world scene. And this is where the conversation gets very interesting – and dare I say it, controversial.
2) Police Killing of Unarmed Black Men: What Does the Evidence Say?
The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013, but came to global attention in 2014 during the Ferguson riots, after white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown.
From that incident came the iconic words ‘Hands up. Don’t Shoot’, which Brown allegedly said before being gunned down by Wilson. The Black Lives Matter website describes Mike Brown as having been ‘murdered by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.’ Indeed, the core narrative of the Black Lives Matter movement is that ‘Black lives are… systematically targeted for demise,’ especially by the Police.
And after the chilling video of George Floyd being killed by a white police officer, it’s easy to accept that narrative in toto. It’s a narrative that’s driven much of the anger of the protestors. And it’s now driving wider demands for widespread institutional change, such as ‘defund the police’.
But does the data fit the narrative?
Without wanting to be controversial, the data on the number of unarmed black people being targeted by police brings the BLM narrative of ‘systematic demise’ into question.
Black commentator Coleman Hughes explains:
[T]he 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.’
[But] 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.
Hughes explains what he means:
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 Breanna 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.’
And the statistics bear this out.
According to recent fact-checked USA Today figures, police fatally shot 13 unarmed black men in 2019. Now, as the USA Today article acknowledges, that number is only deaths from police shootings, not from other means (e.g. George Floyd would not have appeared among those statistics, because he wasn’t shot). So it’s hard to know the exact number of unarmed black people killed by police.
So, to be on the pessimistic side, let’s increase that number of 13 unarmed killings by a factor of 10 (a 1000% increase): let’s assume that 130 unarmed black men were killed by police in 2019. And let’s also assume that like the killing of George Floyd, each of those deaths was unjustified.
What might that figure of 130 tell us? One way to examine this would be to look at how many black males there are in the US population, and see if the (tragic) killing each year of 130 adds up to ‘systemic targeting’.
Thus, if the black male population is around 6% of the total US population, this means there are around 18 million non-Hispanic black men in the US. The chance of a black man being killed by police in 2019, then, was 130/18,000,000, or 0.00072%. To put that in perspective, this is the equivalent risk of a US citizen dying from falling down stairs (0.00076%).
Thus the rate of police killing of black men, while tragic, struggles to fit the category of ‘widespread’, let alone ‘systematic targeting’.
I think a better explanation of the data is give by Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke (himself black), when he says:
Cops are ordinary human beings. Like everyone else — lawyers, surgeons and baseball players — they make mistakes… according to a Johns Hopkins study, [in 2014] medical errors killed 250,000 people. Yet activists aren’t marching in the streets, demanding that the medical profession be reformed… Are there bad cops? I know first-hand that there are — I’ve had to fire them. But the overwhelming majority [of police] are good, decent men and women, concerned about the law-abiding citizens in the communities they serve and are willing to put their lives on the line to protect them.’
Now this isn’t to say that black people aren’t targeted by police in other ways. For example, evidence suggests police are more likely to ‘rough up’ black suspects than white suspects —in light of which who can blame many black people for thinking that police are out to get them? If police were only one percent more likely to shoot or mistreat a black suspect than a white offender, that alone would indicate at least a cultural problem of racism in the police departments where it was true.
And yet, even that doesn’t fit the narrative of police systematically killing black men. There’s a world of difference between being ‘roughed up’ — as demeaning and awful as that is — versus being systematically killed.
All this begs the question: why doesn’t the mainstream media highlight this discrepancy between the narrative of systematic Police killing of unarmed black men, versus the actual statistics?
3) The Question That’s Not Asked: Rates Of Offending
Now at this point, many commentators point out that the rate of black men being killed or incarcerated in the US is much higher than the proportion of black men in the US population. As the black advocacy organisation, the NAACP points out,
In 2014, African Americans constituted… 34%, of the [prison] population.’
(This is despite African Americans making up only 13% of the US population).
The NAACP goes on to point out:
African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
I’ve seen this statistic quoted numerous times by other commentators in the media recently. And while it’s a disturbing statistic, there’s a question that’s almost never asked by these commentators. And the question is this: ‘What is the rate of offending for black people?’
If the rate of offending for black men, was the same as white men, then a higher level of incarceration would indicate some form unjust discrimination in the US legal system. But if the rate of offending was higher than for white men, then it would make sense that there’s a higher rate of incarceration.
As black commentator Larry Elder points out:
Though blacks are 13% of the population, they commit 50% of the nation’s homicides, and almost always the victim is another black person, just as most white homicides are against other whites. In 2012, according to the Center for Disease Control, police killed 123 blacks, while, by the way, killing over twice that many whites. But that same year blacks killed over 6,000 people — again, mostly other blacks.
What about traffic stops? Unlike when responding to dispatch calls, police officers exercise more discretion when it comes to traffic stops. Therefore “racist” cops can have a field day when it comes to traffic stops, right? Actually, no.
The National Institute of Justice is the research agency of the Department of Justice. In 2013, the National Institute of Justice published a study called “Race, Trust and Police Legitimacy.” Three out of four black drivers admitted that they were stopped by the police for a “legitimate reason.” Blacks, compared to whites, were on average more likely to commit speeding and other traffic offenses. The Institute wrote, “Seatbelt usage is chronically lower among black drivers. If a law enforcement agency aggressively enforces seatbelt violations, police will stop more black drivers.” The NIJ’s conclusion? These numerical disparities result from “differences in offending” — in other words, not because of racism.’
Again, none of this means that there is no racism at work in the figures. For example, it might be that police officers treat black suspects less respectfully (see above); there might be bias (conscious or unconscious) that leads to judges giving stricter sentences to black offenders.
But the rate of offending does suggest that there are other social problems at work in the black community apart from simple racism—and that these too should be part of the conversation when it comes to rates of incarceration.
The “it’s all about racism” formula is too simplistic, and doesn’t take into account all the evidence.
If this seems too reactionary, consider this analogy with male incarceration in Australian prisons. According to 2012 ABS statistics, males comprise 50% of the Australian population, but comprise 93% of the Australian prison population .
Does that mean that the Australian legal system is systemically sexist, and biased against men?
Why? Because when we understand the rates of male offending (compared to female offending), we can see that the rates of incarceration are not sexist. (As it turns out, males commit more prison-worthy (i.e. violent) crimes than women do. Hence the higher rate of incarceration for males compared to females. And it would seem the same phenomenon is occurring among the black population of the USA).
No Justice Without Truth
I realise there’s more – lot’s more – to be said about the issue of race. And yes, it’s a difficult conversation. But at the very least, we need to make sure that our conversation is evidence-driven rather than narrative-driven. For if we’re to do justice, we first need to see reality as it is – unvarnished (as much as possible) by narratives that don’t fit the evidence. This is no easy task, considering how strong people’s views and feelings are (often for good reason). But if we’re driven by popular narratives divorced from truth, we won’t ever do justice: in fact, we’ll only make things worse in the long run.
But as we strive for that difficult goal, we can be thankful that there is a Judge who sees the Truth of every situation, and will one day bring absolute and final justice, regardless of race:
God will repay each person according to what they have done… There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile… For God does not show favoritism… This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as [the] Gospel declares. (Romans 2:6-16)