Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement has helped to bring attention to the problem of the large number of civilians who are killed by police. By focusing on black lives, the movement risks falling into one of the larger traps that have been set to divide us.

All lives matter, or more relevant to the particular cases examined, young men’s lives matter: statistically, age and sex are far better predictors than race of both violent criminal behavior and of death by police action. By focusing on blacks, support is given to the racist and incorrect notion that blacks are disproportionately the perpetrators of crimes and the victims of police misconduct.

I wish that our government did not obsessively gather statistics by race as if promulgating the idea that we are not quite the melting pot we aspire to. More worrying, it indicates that the government believes that race is a better predictor than, say, social class, of criminal behavior.  The FBI collects these statistics in some detail. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the FBI’s statistics are roughly accurate.  The FBI tells us that 58.7% of arrests for violent crime are of white people and 38.5% are of black people. 

A number of sources attempt to tally the numbers killed by police. In 2015, the Guardian reports 1146 people were killed by police, of these 581 were white and 306 were black. 570 of those killed were under age 30. This means that black people are killed by police in about the same percentages that they are accused of committing crimes.  The Washington Post has compiled similar statistics.

So we are in a situation where the police kill what seems to be an extraordinary number of people, and, as a nation, we have been convinced that this is a black problem. The numbers clearly show otherwise. How have we been fooled?  I think there are a number of reasons.

First, the statistics show that black people are incarcerated at higher rates and for longer time periods than whites for the same crimes.  This may also have to do with relative wealth as well as race, as; again, representation by a private attorney instead of a legal aid defender is an even better predictor than race of incarceration statistics.

Second, black people have suffered a history of injustice in this country and are less likely to blame the victim, whatever his race. For example after the acquittal in 2014 of two police officers caught on tape in 2011 killing Kelly Thomas, a befuddled but seemingly compliant mentally ill white man, the black community was better represented at the resulting protests than the white community.

Most importantly, by focusing on the black lives taken by police, we can assure ourselves (if we are white) that this is not really our problem. But it is. Of course, none of us know the exact number of police killings that are justified by the circumstances, but recent videos have shown many of us that some of these killings are clearly not justifiable. While the two most recent videos, show black men killed, there is no shortage of videos of questionable killings of white men.