Institutional racism still exists in the United States in many different and permeating forms that still oppress black people in horrible ways. That is certainly undeniable.
We can look at how invasive and racially biased the “Stop and Frisk” laws in many cities are. We can look at how crack possession, considered more popular among minorities, is punished much more severely than cocaine possession,, and how despite the fact that only one third of crack users are black Americans, 81% of the defendants charged with crack cocaine offenses over the past twenty years have been black Americans (Cracked Justice, Sentencing Project, 10). We can look at a report issued by the Sentencing project to see how “African American drug defendants have a 20% percent greater chance of being sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.” We can look at when Virginia Senator Jim Webb pointed out in 2010 on the Senate floor that despite almost identical illegal drug usage rates among demographics “African Americans end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sent to prison.” We can even look at the prevalence of racism in the housing industry and how predatory and biased segregation and over-criminalization tactics have made it so that 1 in every 9 black American children have a parent who’s in prison (Collateral Costs, The Pew, page 3).
So point being: I’m very well aware of the fact that the United States still has many racial problems that need to be resolved at an institutional level. I’m not one of those neurotic conservative deniers trying to pretend that all is well and merry for the black citizen in this country, or that we aren’t still largely experiencing the after-effects of slavery. Nonetheless, the problem with the reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement is that it does not tackle any of the important issues that actually do particularly and most severely affect the rights of black people in this country. The grand part of this movement is focused on tackling the issue of police brutality, and it is framing the issue of police brutality as an issue of race when there is no evidence to suggest that it is. That is the essential problem.
Initially, I was an avid supporter of the protests that happened in New York. I was there chanting at the Staten Island ferry station when the grand jury decided not to indict the cop that killed Eric Garner, and I even joined the more than 5 hour march that took over Manhattan in support of the protests in Brooklyn because of the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Being an immigrant to the US, the issue of police brutality was particularly new to me, and from what I gathered at the time, I found it to be a complete disgrace that cops were able to abuse their power so carelessly and get away with it so easily. What I was mistakenly induced to think though, was that this particular problem had a racist undertone to it. Be it the media only reporting on the killings of unarmed black men, be it the way in which this race narrative was easy and convenient to adopt, what happened was that I chose to believe, without due evidence, that black people were being disproportionately killed by police at a higher rate than any other group. So when I asked other protesters and activists the question: “But why not #AllLivesMatter?” I chose to acquiesce when they told me some version of “because that would imply that all lives are equally at risk.”
But upon further investigation the reality became fairly clear: nobody really knows if it is the case that black people are fatally shot by police on a higher proportion than any other group. Attorney General Eric Holder doesn’t know, FBI Director James Comey doesn’t know and ACLU director Ezekiel Edwards also doesn’t know. Nobody knows and the reason is simple: the government does not yet keep data about the people killed by police while on duty. That means nobody knows how many people were shot by police last week, how many were shot last month, how many were shot over the last decade, how many of those killed were unarmed, and most importantly, how many of those killed were black. While government officials and activists and human rights advocates agree that there should be an accurate system to measure this very important data to deal with this issue, the mechanisms haven’t yet been put into place. So ultimately, any claim saying that one particular group is targeted at an extremely higher rate than others by police killings, falls under the non-provable realm of speculation.
The Guardian is one of the few independent organizations that has tried to take it upon itself to provide for the lack of data around this issue, and they have been reporting and documenting every police shooting since earlier in the year in a database they’ve named “The Counted”.
While they do admit in their website that the project “is still an imperfect work in progress”, The Guardian has managed to build the most thorough crowd sourced database around the issue of deadly use of force by police. Sadly, they haven’t gathered enough data to be able to conclude with any confidence that there is in fact a disproportionate killing of black people by police officers in the United States.
So far this year, they have gathered that there have been 808 people killed by police, 9 of whom were Native American, 14 who were Asian/Pacific Islander, 69 of unknown ethnicity, 116 who were Latinos, 205 who were black, and 395 who were white. Not really surprising numbers. They do note however that while there are more white people killed by police than blacks in raw numbers, for every million black people there are 4.91 killed by police while there is only 1.99 for every million white people. While some might think that this is evidence enough that black people are incredibly more at risk to be killed by police, it is worth pointing out that the information gathered by the Guardian is susceptible to inaccuracies, given that it does rely on crowdsourced data, and that doing a unit per million analysis of less than 500 people has virtually no statistical relevance.
Because of this lack of data specifying how many people by race or ethnicity are killed by police officers, the Black Lives Matter movement has been operating in the shadows and with no clear guideline of objectives. Most of the demands made by activists who frame the police brutality issue as a race issue, circle around either getting the police officer in question prosecuted, or demanding more diversity in their city’s police department, or demanding improved police training. But the problem is that it is unlikely that any of these measures, if implemented, would serve to radically change the problem this country faces with the issue of police brutality. Three of the cops involved in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore were black. The problem is not that there are not enough black cops in police departments, the problem is that police face very little accountability for their actions while wearing the uniform and that the whole citizenry has very little means of protecting their fundamental rights, particularly their lives, against them.
Ultimately, defining problems as what they are can incredibly help our capability to solve those problems. There is a problem with institutionalized racism in this country, and there is a problem with police brutality and lack of police accountability, but so far, there is absolutely no reliable evidence to suggest that these problems overlap, or that one is caused by the other. Inevitably, regarding the issue of police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement is currently misguided.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own, and do not represent the views of the Review at NYU, aside from its belief that the free exchange of ideas is crucial to university discourse.