In the nearly two weeks since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis a concerted effort among conservative voices is building a misleading counter-narrative to the public protests about racial bias by police: that whites are more likely to be killed by police than people of color.
An article this week on Fox News from the National Review (a conservative magazine) and an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal (owned by Fox News parent company News Corp) both argued that no police bias exists against black Americans.
The Wall Street Journal article titled “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism” concluded that “there’s no evidence of widespread racial bias” among police. The Fox News piece called “Institutional racism among police? Let’s look at the numbers” concluded that a news headline claiming that black Americans are 2.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by police was “fiction” and “sheer demagoguery“.
The statistical datum they both use to “prove” their point is that more white persons have been killed so far this year than black persons. This statement is true.
It’s also true that there were more white people than blacks or Latinos killed by police in 2019 and 2018 as well.
In fact, in 2017, there were more than twice as many whites killed by police than blacks. In raw numbers, 457 whites and 223 blacks were killed by police that year. 179 Latinos were killed by police that year, too.
So, on the surface, it’s possible to think that whites are more than twice as likely to be killed by police, contrary to the focus of the on-going protests alleging police biases toward blacks and Latinos.
But reaching such a superficial conclusion badly misrepresents the true impact of police shootings on communities of color because there’s a big difference between the number of deaths and the proportion of deaths.
Although it is true that more than twice as many whites as blacks were shot to death by police in 2017, whites make up over 76% of the US population and blacks only about 13%. Latinos total a little over 17% of the US population.
For a more accurate comparison, whites would represent nearly six times the number of police deaths than blacks if they were to be proportionately representative of the US population.
Instead, when deaths are compared based on population, we see a vastly different outcome of death rates among people of color at the hands of police officers.
In 2017, 5.18 blacks per million and 3.19 Latinos per million were killed by police, compared to only 1.81 whites per million.
Viewed this way, blacks are three and a half times more likely – and Latinos nearly twice as likely – to be killed by police than whites, adjusting for population.
Now that’s a staggering statistic, and vastly different from the narrative promoted by Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.
Communities of color have long complained about disparate treatment at the hands of police officers, whether in non-lethal interactions with police (ie higher rates of traffic stops, stop-and-frisk policing, and arrests) as well as in officer-involved deaths.
Although police dispute that racial biases exist and lead to discriminatory practices, the number of police interactions prove that minorities are disproportionately stopped, interrogated, arrested, and killed at rates higher than would be expected by their proportional population – and without any valid explanation.
And a number of unjustified police shootings and killings caught on video have only added fuel to what the community has always feared; that police act overly aggressively toward black and brown suspects when no one is looking.
The case of George Floyd was just the latest in a string of high-profile deaths caught on video where police used excessive force against an unarmed or retreating person of color, most commonly black.
Several eyewitness videos and security cameras show Floyd being handcuffed and detained by officers for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill at a local store. Floyd did not resist arrest. After he was handcuffed and laid on the street, a white officer kept a knee to the back of Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes until he passed out. Floyd’s cries of “I can’t breathe” were ignored and he was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital. All four officers involved are now facing charges in his death.
In 2014, Eric Garner was arrested for allegedly selling single cigarettes on the street. He was detained by several officers as one put Garner in a chokehold. Garner can be seen in the video saying, “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he passed out. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital. A grand jury declined to charge the officer in the case.
That same year, Jamir Harris, a 12-year-old black kid, was sitting at a park table when someone called 911 to report someone “possibly a juvenile” with a gun that was “probably fake”. A video shows two police officers drove their car through the park and pulled up right next to Harris. One officer got out of the patrol car and immediately shot Harris to death. No charges were filed against the officer. The gun Harris had was a plastic toy pistol.
Jerome Reid was a passenger in a car that was pulled over in Bridgeton, New Jersey, in December 2014. The police car dash camera recorded Reid getting out of the car with arms in the air and telling officers, “I ain’t doing nothing. I’m not reaching for nothing, bro,” before the two officers fired nine shots and killed him. The officers were not charged.
Walter Scott’s shooting in 2015 also led to community protests after a white police officer shot Scott in the back as he ran away after a traffic stop. The shooting was recorded by an eyewitness and directly contradicted the officer’s initial report that Scott took the officer’s gun and posed a threat. The video forced police to fire the officer and he is still facing a murder charge in the case.
And, of course, the most notorious excessive force incident caught on camera was the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. King was hit with batons more than 50 times by four officers that stood over him as he laid helplessly in the street. A man standing on his balcony recorded the assault that clearly showed the all-white police officers used excessive force.
The four officers were charged but all were acquitted, which sparked riots that lasted for six days and killed 63 people. The National Guard, Army, and Marines were called in to assist LAPD in finally quelling the riots. A federal grand jury later filed civil rights charges against the officers and two were convicted and sentenced to prison.
King’s media comments during the riots became a signature cry for peace when he asked, “Can we, can we get along?”
Now nearly 30 years later, the country is facing a similar situation after a case of police excessive use of force, and community leaders pleading for change. The names have changed, but the cries remain the same; communities of color are disproportionately impacted by police use of excessive force and the statistics prove it.
The protests happening in our cities are not just our brothers and sisters from the black community. People of all colors, races, and socio-economic levels are protesting what is clearly a nationwide problem; racism, or racial bias, in policing is a disease that must be irradiated because it erodes all of our trust in police.
Critics of the protests point to the instances of looting and crimes as their evidence that the demonstrations are “staged” or just excuses for violence. Some blame Antifa and other fringe groups or out-of-town “paid agitators” for fomenting the protests.
Some have even pointed to Floyd’s (and other victims’) past criminal histories as some sort of reason to either justify their mistreatment or excuse officers’ actions.
The Minneapolis police union leader released a letter this week outlining Floyd’s past conviction for assault and robbery, drug charges, and theft with a firearm. He raised Floyd’s “violent criminal history” and vowed to support the four officers charged in Floyd’s death.
The problem with that line of defense is two-fold; (1) the officers didn’t know about Floyd’s record when they detained, and (2) someone’s past record does not justify police officers becoming the judge, jury, and executioner of a suspect on the street.
And the narrative that the protests are the work of professional agitators, anti-government organizations, or out-of-town trouble-makers does not pan out when reviewing arrest records from recent protests.
Among 217 people arrested on non-violent charges last weekend at rallies in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., more than 85% were local residents, and only a few had any connections to organizations. Of those arrested for looting, arson, or theft during the protests, most had prior criminal records, but again, most were locals. No professional agitators or roving groups of actors. For the most part, protests have been genuine expressions of the level of frustration felt by communities of color and those that sympathize with our plight.
Although President Trump has specifically called out Antifa as a “terrorist organization” that he claims is behind the protests, there is no evidence of any large-scale involvement of any such groups. Reports that bricks and rocks were positioned at protests sites by these groups to be used as weapons against police have been debunked as having already been in place before the protests as part of on-going construction projects or other explanations not related to the protests.
And last week, Twitter closed down several accounts claiming to be Antifa and calling for violence, but the accounts were actually created by white supremacists to sow fear and confusion among the public. Donald Trump, Jr. retweeted one of those posts, adding “Just remember what ANTIFA really is. A Terrorist Organization.” Although he later quietly deleted his tweet, the President’s son never admitted the post was created by Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group based in the South and outlawed by the UK government as a terrorist organization.
Deflecting the conversation away from race relations only perpetuates the problem. When Colin Kaepernick first began kneeling during football games in 2016 to silently protest the country’s history of racism, he was booed by some and branded by President Trump and others as “un-American” and said his protest was disrespectful to the American flag and our military. The NFL owners objected to his protests and Kaepernick went unsigned as a free agent the next year even though he was one of the highest-ranked quarterbacks in the game. He has never played again and has lost millions of dollars, but he will not relent.
This week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a letter stating that the NFL was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier“, that the NFL “condemn[s] racism and the systematic oppression of black people“, and that “the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff.” Although he didn’t specifically mention Kaepernick by name, it’s clear that the message of his actions was ignored at the time and that missed opportunity four years to talk about race relations in America now seems much more poignant.
Protesting against government actions or inactions is a hallowed tradition in the United States. This country was founded on – and has progressed through – peaceful and sometimes not-so-peaceful protests that ultimately brought about societal changes. It’s not always quick and it’s not always pretty.
The end of slavery. Women’s suffrage. Workers’ rights. The Civil Rights movement. Gay rights. Our democracy itself.
Frederick Douglas. Susan B. Anthony. Cesar Chavez. Martin Luther King, Jr. Harvey Milk. The Founding Fathers.
These giant steps forward in our country all came at great costs to those that suffered under oppressive treatment and those brave enough to fight for equality and freedom to change it.
It’s been 244 years since the Declaration of Independence claimed all men are created equal, 153 years since the adoption of the 14th Amendment guaranteed equal protection under the law, and 56 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act ended segregation, yet people of color are still treated differently by our criminal justice system, our economic system, and, clearly, by our police. It’s time to finally fulfill the promise of this country; liberty, and justice, for all.
Of course, not all police officers use excessive force or engage in racially-biased acts, but too many do. The numbers, and the videos, don’t lie.
We must all participate in the conversation and work toward a solution. Demonizing the protesters, questioning the backgrounds of the victims, or simply denying racism exists will not move us forward.
The first step in solving any problem is acknowledging it exists, dealing honestly with the facts, and then doing something about it.
Unfair, biased, and race-based mistreatment of people of color exists, and we are part of the problem if we’re not part of the solution.