Mathew Haine

Naked Politics Blogger

Fourteen years after the ruthless beating of Rodney King captivated American attention, the connection between race and police violence continues to occupy headlines. The deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and twelve year old Tamir Rice have prompted outrage, protests and allegations of excessive force, as levels of distrust between police departments and impoverished communities continually soar.

The “Black Lives Matter” campaign, which spawned in the wake of these killings, has been much maligned for its ideological shortcomings and for its abrasive means of direct action. These criticisms are, to my mind, not totally without merit. For instance, it’s faulty deduction to assume that the characteristics of some members of a group apply to the entire group, and BLM has a tendency to insinuate that most police officers are racist murderers, when in fact a slim proportion of police killings are judicially deemed ‘excessive’.

The idea that police violence is a justifiable response to provocation and that care should be taken to distinguish between ‘victims’ and criminals is popular among critics. Adam Smith writes that BLM campaigners disingenuously protest both the deaths of ordinary black citizens and of black citizens who exhibited ‘threatening’ or criminal behaviour. This perspective prompts some important queries: to what extent does “stealing, threatening and abusing members of the public” warrant a death sentence? Does the erroneous conflation of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ cases of police brutality by BLM mean that police violence towards “black lives” should suddenly be considered a non-issue, or should be displaced by other concerns like ‘black-on-black crime’? I don’t think so.

Whether intentional or not, shifting the conversation to tangential subjects like ‘black on black crime’ “diverts attention away from the main concern […] by introducing new sets of concerns” that are related but “are framed in such a way as to seem relatively more pressing to address.” This ‘diversionary tactic’ is explicit here, where it is argued that segregation has ceased to exist and “the biggest danger to black lives is gun crime” in which the vast majority of assailants are themselves black. The very term ‘black-on-black crime’ is itself a misnomer, as ethnicities tend to be geographically segregated, and crime statistics conform to this fact: 84% of murdered white people are murdered by other white people. Beyond this basic fact, there is no reason why the existence of ‘black-on-black’ crime makes state-on-black crime any less deserving of attention or analysis.

The rationale of the BLM movement hinges on two axioms: that black citizens disproportionately and lethally suffer at the hands of police, to whom black lives “do not matter”, and that this prejudice is writ-large in American culture and society.

There is a case to be made for both. A 2002 study conducted by the University of Colorado found that in simulated police encounters, random participants (both black and white) had a tendency to shoot unarmed African-American targets more frequently than white targets, suggesting that cultural stereotypes do introduce instinctive bias into such scenarios. What’s important to note, I think, is that these racial biases occur regardless of whether the participant holds personal prejudices or not, which casts the notion of wholesale police racism into doubt.

The extraordinary speech by FBI director James Comey suggests that police departments are well aware of how dangerous racial bias can be in highly-charged, split-second decision making:

“A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights. The two young black men on the side of ­the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. Two white men on the other side of the street – even in the same clothes – do not.”

The real question, of course, is whether or not this racial bias is borne out in ‘real’ data. It is. According to the Washington Post’s tally, of the 680 citizens killed by police this year, 25 were black and unarmed. Critics are content to point out that this represents a ‘mere’ 15% of fatal shootings, but rarely note that this makes unarmed African-Americans 7 times more likely to be lethally victimised by police than unarmed white Americans. The Justice Department has also condemned individual police departments, such as Ferguson and Cleveland, for racial profiling and ‘excessive force’.

So, it is possible to be wrong in thinking that all policemen are racists, or that all police killings are unjust, and right in thinking that systematic police violence towards ‘black lives’ is a real issue, worthy of protest. It is also understandable to confuse “legitimate” and “illegitimate” cases of police killings when a confrontational police culture looms large over your community every day. The sad truth, I suppose, is that to targeted communities the distinction is meaningless when 1 unjust killing is too many, let alone 25.

As for the second idea, formal mechanisms of racial prejudice such as segregation may no longer be codified by law, but many contend that they discretely exist. There are numerous examples; to choose one: studies show that quality education is much less accessible to black Americans than white Americans. This is, however, a complicated debate, the finer points of which are better left for another time.

“Black lives matter” is not a phrase that should have to be said, but it does, and I’m glad that it is being said – loudly.



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Last Update: April 29, 2018