Are police killings the result of racism?
There is a deep and seemingly growing racial divide in America. Prominent cases of black men being killed by police officers have prompted public outrage. When the Huffington Post runs an editorial condemning the 'hunting' of black men by police or when Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson says that it's "like open season on black men" or when Salon calls Alton Sterling's death a "modern-day lynching" they are expressing feelings that strongly resonate with many in the black community - that their lives are not considered valuable by white America and that they are being willfully targeted for death by police.
Given America's shameful history of institutionalized racial injustice, from chattel slavery to the Jim Crow laws, it is no wonder that many blacks and whites agree with this sentiment. Even today, statistics show that racism is very much alive. Blacks are roughly 16 times more likely to experience racial hate-crimes than whites. Studies show that job applicants with 'white names' (like 'Emily' or 'Greg') are approximately 50% more likely to get interviews than applicants with 'black names' (like 'Lakisha' or 'Jamal') and identical resumes. Speaking personally, many of my black friends have shared stories of racial discrimination, harassment, and assault that it's hard for me to fathom as a non-black American. It's crucial for whites to admit that racism is still a very ugly reality faced by blacks today and may be much more prevalent than we think.
If we recognize the seriousness of racism, is there any reason to question the claim that the disproportionate shooting of black men by police officers is due to the systematic devaluing of black life? Even if the claims of 'police hunting black men' is an exaggeration (and I hope that few people would affirm that police are literally shooting black men for sport), is it not a useful hyperbole to spur an apathetic public to action? No. I would argue that these claims are not helpful and are, in fact, dangerous. Both the Dallas shooting and the less publicized assassination of 2 NYC police officers show us that evil individuals can seize on exaggerated claims as a motivation and justification for terrible violence.
But even if violent reprisals were not a concern, a far greater concern for me would be the effect of rhetoric on racial reconciliation. The civil rights movement was not content only to see racist laws overturned, but wanted desperately to see hearts changed and people reconciled. If police officers and white Americans as a whole really do see black lives as less valuable than white lives, then we ought not alter this rhetoric one iota. But if this claim is false, then we need to reject it, not only for the sake of truth and charity, but for the sake of reconciliation.
To that end, I'd like to consider some data on police killings and murder rates. I ask readers to study the evidence carefully and to make their own observations before I offer any commentary or interpretation. To be clear, I am not in any way suggesting by this data that racism does not exist, that recent police killings of black men were justified or that there is nothing at all wrong with policing in America. I am only providing some empirical evidence which everyone needs to consider when they are evaluating the extent and nature of police violence and an appropriate response to it.
Before I offer any commentary on this data, let me offer two possible explanations for the racial disparity we observe in police killings:
- Hypothesis 1 (the 'less value' hypothesis): Police officers -on average- value black lives less than they value white lives
- Hypothesis 2 (the 'perceived threat' hypothesis): Police officers -on average- perceive blacks as a greater threat than whites
- Hypothesis 3 (the 'proportionate contact' hypothesis): Police officers -on average- shoot blacks and whites in proportion to their encounters with each group
Notice that all three of these hypotheses deal with aggregate behavior, not with particular cases. For example, it might be possible that hypothesis 1 ('less value') is correct, but that a particular police officer values blacks and whites equally. Or hypothesis 2 ('perceived threat') might be correct, but a particular police officer could still be racist and value blacks less than whites. Or hypothesis 3 ('proportionate contact') might be correct, but a particular black person might be shot because they were unfairly perceived as a threat due to their race. Let's now examine the figures to see which of these hypotheses best explains the data.
First, the racial disparity in the rates of police killings is indeed alarming at first glance. From Figure 1, we see that police kill blacks at a little over three times the rate at which they kill whites. The disparity is even higher when you consider unarmed whites and blacks, where the rate is a little over seven times greater. However, a closer inspection of Figure 1 shows that disparities in rates are not sufficient to show that police officers assign a lower value to certain human beings. For example, people under the age of 45 are killed at almost twice the rate as people over 45, but I doubt that police officers value older people more than young people. Even more alarming is the gender disparity we see in police killings, where men are killed at twenty-three times the rate of women! Despite this huge difference, it is presumably not evidence of rampant anti-male sexism among police officers. So, at the very least, we have to conclude that disparities alone are not enough to demonstrate that hypothesis 1 ('less value') is a better explanation than hypothesis 2 ('perceived threat').
But what does explain the disparity seen in Figure 1? Let's ask that same question about the observed gender disparity. One plausible explanation for the gender disparity is that police officers tend to perceive a much greater threat (hypothesis 2) from men than women and are therefore more likely to respond with lethal force. But is this perception justified? Perhaps it is just an irrational bias coming from the assumption that women are 'weak' and 'docile'. So is there any evidence that men pose a greater threat than women? Yes. If we turn to Figure 2, we see that police officers are indeed justified in believing that men pose a greater threat than women. Men are approximately thirty-one times more likely than women to kill a police officer. So it's quite understandable that a police officer would feel a greater threat when confronting a male suspect than a female suspect.
But this same reasoning could plausibly explain the racial disparity as well. Blacks are roughly four times more likely to kill a police officer than whites (see Figure 2). So -all things being equal- it is understandable if a police officer feels a greater threat when pursuing a black suspect than a white suspect. While Figure 2 does not show that Hypothesis 1 ('less value') is false, it does lend support to Hypothesis 2 ('perceived threat').
I think the most clear evidence that Hypothesis 1 ('less value') is incorrect comes from Figure 3, which shows the rates at which police kill blacks and whites of different age groups. The racial disparity is greatest (4.9 times) for blacks and whites under the age of 30. It drops to a factor of 3.0 for blacks and whites between the ages of 30 and 44, and drops to a factor of 1.5 for people aged 45 and older. Let's set aside the question of why the disparity drops and almost vanishes as age increases. Instead, let's ask what we'd have to believe if we insist that hypothesis 1 ('less value') is true. To continue to believe that racial disparity in killings is due to police officers valuing blacks lives less than white lives, we'd have to maintain that police assign a low value to the lives of young blacks (age < 30), but believe that middle-aged blacks (age 30-44) have greater value than young blacks and that older blacks (age > 45) have almost as much value as older whites. This claim seems extremely far-fetched. Why would a racist cop cease to be racist if the black suspect is sufficiently old?
There is a far simpler explanation which supports hypothesis 2 ('perceived threat'). Figure 4 shows the homicide rates across various age groups and racial demographics. As you can see, there is a very large racial disparity in homicide rates (7.8x) of blacks and whites under the age of 30, but this disparity drops to 3.7x for blacks and whites aged 45 and older. These data support the 'perceived threat' hypothesis. Police officers are more likely to use lethal force in encounters with young black men because they perceive a greater threat to police officers than young white men. But this racial disparity almost disappears with older blacks and whites, who they perceive as posing similar threats to police officers.
Let me close by reiterating that I am not attempting to defend the actions of any particular police officer or to deny that racism is a serious problem that blacks still face. Nor am I suggesting that there is no racism in law enforcement. For example, a recently released study of the use of force by police failed to find any racial disparity in police shootings of blacks and whites in similar situations, but did find a racial disparity in police use of non-lethal force. I would merely like to challenge the narrative which insists that racism is at the root of racial disparities in police shootings. As I looked at the data, one thing that struck me was how many whites and Hispanics are killed by police each year (approximately twice as many as blacks). The Washington Post has done a great service by compiling a list of all police shootings along with a brief summary of their circumstances. Even a cursory reading yields many tragic, heartbreaking stories of both white and black individuals who were killed by police. Attempting to reduce police shootings and holding bad cops accountable should not be a 'black' issue; it should be an issue shared by all citizens of all races.
At the same time, it is dangerous to demonize the police. Police officers are human beings, like the rest of us. They overreact. They make mistakes. They act in fear or anger or even in malice. Tragically, like doctors or pilots, their actions can kill. But assuming that their motives are generally bad is dangerous. As with racial division, approaching the police as adversaries will only increase the mutual mistrust and animosity. Just as we can dehumanizes individuals through racism, it's possible to dehumanize the police, forgetting that they are not just law enforcement officers, but also fathers and mothers, sons and daughters.
Finally, I'd like to close by saying that the ultimate ground on which we ought to oppose racism and seek justice is our shared humanity. All of us -black or white, cop or convict- are created in the image of God and are His image bearers. Alton Sterling bore God's image. So did Michael Brown. So did Micah Johnson. So does Dylan Roof. It's dangerously easy to put ourselves in a separate class of 'righteous' individuals and to forget that we are also sinners who need grace and forgiveness. Just as we share a common humanity and a common sinfulness, we share the need for a common Savior, Jesus Christ, a middle Eastern Jew killed unjustly by a corrupt and violent government. True reconciliation between blacks and whites, men and women, rich and poor can only be found at the foot of the cross, where the Son of God died for sinners.
- Why Should We Believe that Christianity is True?
- Science and religion: is it either/or or both/and?
- Asking the Right Questions
If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.