17 July 2013

Cops Shooting Unarmed Black Men

Do you remember the very large, loud, and extended public outcry over the deaths of Jason Kemp, Jordon Hatcher, Ibragim Todashev, David Silva, John Torretti, Daniel Sanez, Roy Jacobs Jr., Thomas Schroeder, Jacob Grassley, Zachary Premo, John Schaefer, and Jerry Waller?

All of these men were killed by the police, all of them just in the past 7 months (2013).  In almost every case, they were unarmed.

Schaefer and Waller were both armed... they were both 70+ year old men, on their own property, with legally owned handguns, which they had out for self defense - one had a pitbull in his yard and had called the cops himself, the other was responding to the same burglar alarm that attracted police attention.Premo also had a handgun  - one which he was carrying legally - though from the police report, he apparently did not touch or reach for it before being shot. 
Hatcher was unarmed, but apparently resisted arrest.
Grassley's cellphone was assumed to be a gun, and he was shot while fleeing police. 
Sanez was in handcuffs at the time he was shot.
Torretti  was hit repeatedly with a baton by officers while pinned to the ground by other officers, unable to move.
Silva was so intoxicated he could barely stand up.  Between 3 and 7 deputies beat him with batons until he dies.  Officers then attempt to collect cellphones from witnesses that may have video on them.
Kemp was unarmed, and not fighting, when he was shot at point-blank range in his home, when he refused to let the police in without a warrant.
Jacobs had called the cops himself, to turn himself in when he found out he had a minor warrant, and the cops shot him in front of his family the moment they walked through the door.

You can be forgiven for not remembering the public uproar, the protests and articles, the petitions and signs, because there wasn't any.  In fact, unless you happen to live in the city in which these men were killed, and follow the local news closely, you most likely have never heard of any of them.

You may think that this just goes to reinforce what we already know - that black men are constantly being unjustifiably killed by law enforcement, and except for the most extreme cases, the media ignores it.
Except there is one major twist.  Not a single one of those people were black.
Most of them are white.

It turns out it is very challenging to find examples of cops killing unarmed white men.

Again, at first this sounds like it is supporting the idea of racial bias among cops.
But it isn't hard to find because it is so rare.
It is hard to find because when the media reports these cases, no one mentions the race of the suspect / victim.
On the other hand, in EVERY case that cops shoot an unarmed black person, race is explicitly mentioned.

(As a result, the only way for me to find all those examples was to go, one by one, through every instance of police shootings in the US, eliminate those where the suspect was armed, and then search for a picture of the victim.  Each case is linked at the bottom of this page, along with a link to the list of all police shooting so far this year)

So, yes, there really is a media bias.  And it is toward perpetuating the belief that black men are victimized by cops.

They don't do this for any political agenda.  They do this because media makes money via ratings, and nothing gets ratings better than outrage.  Unfortunately, relatively little objectively reported facts generate outrage, so the only choices are to make stuff up, or to play up any extremely rare cases that happen.
This is true not just in sociopolitical issues, but in general.

When a plane crashes (such as at San Francisco last week) everyone in the country hears about it. 
That crash killed 2 or 3 people.
It was the first commercial plane crash in the US in 4 years.  In that span roughly 150,000 (one hundred and fifty thousand) people died in automobile crashes in the US.
3 vs 150 thousand.
Of the 150 thousand, zero made national news headlines.

The 3 deaths from a plane crash made national news BECAUSE IT IS SO RARE.

The lesson to learn from this is that if you see something on the news, that alone is very strong evidence that it almost NEVER HAPPENS.  Anything you read in the paper is rare.  If it was common, then it wouldn't be news.

One black man was shot in the back while in hand cuffs at a commuter train station in Oakland in 2009.  There have been calls to disarm the entire transit police force.  The grand total of potentially unjustified shootings by the agency, in its 37 year history, was 3.  In 2008 alone there 123 murders by private citizens in Oakland.

To look at it another way: if something were really a widespread phenomenon, it would be shown by statistics.  In order to make people believe something which is actually untrue, the focus has to be on individual isolated anecdotes.  If all the attention of a supposed trend is on one instance, it would be a good idea to look at the stats before extrapolating that it is common.

This most recent "outrage" involves, instead of law enforcement, a neighborhood watch captain.
People are pretending that this is representative of - well, anything.

Where are all the other cases of neighborhood watch captains killing black youth in the past decade?

Having trouble thinking of the exact cases?  Might it be because there are none?

A sample list of one single isolated incident does not make a trend.  There is no trend.  The exact details of the Zimmerman / Martin case don't matter, because this case is not representative of anything.  Its just a random unfortunate thing that happened, and, just like the 12 cases listed above, if Martin had been white, and every other detail had been exactly the same, you and I would never have heard of him.
This doesn't reveal widespread racism among neighborhood watch captains.  It reveals that media like to sensationalize anything they can (surprise!), and even more it reveals an eagerness of Americans to see racism and injustice.  A bunch of white guys shot by police doesn't fit the narrative that we want, for some reason, to believe, so we ignore them.  Instead we focus on the one or two cases of black men shot by police, pretend that they represent a larger trend, and presumably get some sort of emotional fix by being angry and outraged and raging against the system.

What does this accomplish?
Well, one thing it won't accomplish is meaningful reform, because there is no problem to begin with, therefore nothing to reform.

What it will do is reinforce the feeling among Blacks that law enforcement is the enemy.  This will increase the likelihood of confrontational behavior.  And that will end up causing more black people to be stopped, detained, arrested, and, in some unfortunate circumstances, occasionally killed.  Because we, society, all want to believe it so bad, it makes it more likely to happen.  It can become self-fulfilling prophesy.  Or, at least it could, if not for police over compensating for the public perception, because despite any cultural propensity toward resistance to law enforcement that may be reinforced by media and activist's misrepresentation of profiling, in the past year fewer unarmed Black men have been killed by cops than non-Black.  Proportionately less, even after considering population demographics.

And WAY less, considering violent crime rates.

We finally get to the huge issue that almost everyone (except white supremacists) desperately wants to ignore, and will even actively deny when the topic comes up in these kind of discussions: Black men commit more violent crime (proportionate to population demographics) than white men, (or than women of any race).  In fact, the difference in rates by race is about as high as the difference between the genders.

Everyone can accept without apology or explanation the (accurate) fact that men commit violent crime - somewhere on the order of 5 to 20 times more often than women do.  Nobody claims that this apparent disparity is because of police profiling or prejudice in the justice system or inherent bias in the law against males.  No one even claims it has to do with poverty or history or education.  We see the statistic that between 1980 and 2008 males committed 89.5% of all homicides, and we take it at face value.

(Of course, as I've pointed out previously, the general public tends to think women are more likely victims, despite 76.8% of homicide victims being male - when facts don't fit the popular narrative, we are quick to ignore them)

There is almost definitely some truth to racism affecting conviction rates: black youth are arrested for drug crimes at higher rates than white, despite similar rates of drug use, and blacks are given longer sentences for equivalent crimes by judges and juries. 
But while a cop may look the other way when he finds a white kid smoking pot, cops don't generally let homicide slide with a warning, regardless of skin color.  And these statistics are only looking at the actual commission of homicide, not of sentencing, conviction, or even arrest.  Considering that, the numbers are far too dramatic to be explained away by faulty reporting or any other justification.

The data shows blacks are more likely to be murder victims than whites: 50.3% white victims vs 47.4% black (which, given the higher population of white people, means blacks are murdered disproportionately more)


However, the rate at which blacks commit murder is even higher in comparison to whites: 45.3% white murderers vs 52.5% black.  Again, considering the higher population of whites, this represents a pretty dramatic difference:
The rate of homicides committed by white male young adults (18 to 24 years old) was 20.4 offenders per 100,000 in 2008.  
The rate of homicides committed by black male young adults was 175.8 offenders per 100,000 in 2008.

20 to 175.  That is almost 9 times as high.

If black youth did not commit violent crime any more often than white youth, than (like with drugs), any difference in their treatment could only be due to racism.  But that is simply not the case. 

It sucks that this is true.  I don't like admitting it, never mind talking about it, or going out of my way to draw attention to it.  But it has to be said.  It has to be admitted. 
We have to take that into consideration before we call it racist for a person to be more wary of young black males than young white males.  We have to take it into consideration before we call it racist if cops stop young blacks more than young whites.  We have to take it into consideration before we call it racist that more blacks are in prison than white.  And we even have to take it into consideration before calling it racist that cops may be in situations where they mistake cellphones and wallets for guns more often when the suspect is black.

Racism is assuming that any specific person is a criminal, regardless of their individual actions, because of their race.  But thinking any random person of a particular race is more likely to be a criminal is not racism, if it is in fact a statistically accurate belief.  It is no more racist to fear a black stranger more than a white one, than it is to fear a male stranger more than a female one.  As it happens, both groups commit violent crime more than their counterparts at roughly the same rate.

Given that a young black male is statistically 9 times more likely to murder you than a young white male, wouldn't you expect someone who feels vulnerable to be more likely to cross the street to avoid one?  Given that a young black male is 9 times more likely to commit murder than a young white male, wouldn't you expect them to get more police attention, get into more altercations with police, and, as a result, get shot more often by police? 

If you wanted to break that trend, what would likely be the best way to do that?

By trying to convince everyone that the statistics - which are confirmed by each of our individual experience - are wrong, and convincing cops to give black suspects the benefit of the doubt? 
Or by working to reduce violence in the black community?

If the latter, does repeatedly telling black youth that cops are the enemy further that goal?  Or does it work against it? 
Does telling black youth that they are victims of the system, that they are discriminated against by every aspect of society, that their own actions have little if any bearing on their perception by white America, do these things encourage black youth to become non-violent, responsible adults?

These are rhetorical questions.  They do not.  Blacks are not unfairly victimized by cops, but that message being repeated constantly by both media and activists does encourage them to be disrespectful, to resist arrest, and to use violence against police officers.  It does encourage them to use crime as a means of getting ahead, as opposed to education.  It does teach them that they have no responsibility for or role in rising out of poverty, that they will be down-trodden no matter what they do.

Every low income young adult in America is eligible for a Pell grant, which can more than cover the cost of tuition, fees, and books at many junior colleges, and a significant portion of costs at public 4 year universities.  Everyone who applies for a Pell grant gets one.  Yet only 11% of them go to Black youth. Together with the school's own scholarships, any low income person can get a college education. 
The lower rate of Blacks with college degrees is not a consequence of institutional racism.  Its a consequence of Black people not applying for college.  It's the consequence of a lot of individual choices, made largely on the basis of cultural expectations.  A person is told constantly that they will not succeed, because the system is against them.  So they don't even try.  Lacking an education, they stay poor.  Being poor, they are more likely to resort to crime.  Being criminals, they are more likely to have run-ins with cops.  And the cycle continues.

When we choose to protest extremely rare events in an attempt to call attention to a trend that doesn't exist, we perpetuate and reinforce that cycle.  It is counter-productive. 

As a black male, watching all these well meaning activists actively making the situation worse is hard to watch.  Even worse, this inaccurate and destructive message has gone mainstream, and almost everyone is buying into it.  It is born of a combination of confusing the past for the present (blacks were at one time discriminated against by society, therefore it must still be happening) and white guilt (if we say that blacks commit more violent crime, that must mean we are racist).
Until we can get past those two things, nothing will improve.

It is very gratifying to people to be outraged.  Take a breath, step outside of the group-think, and ask yourself what the problem is, what you want to accomplish, and what the overall effects of your reaction are likely to be.  If you are like the majority of outraged people, at best, all you are doing is feeding the advertisers of news media.  At worse, you are reinforcing stereotypes are creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Either way, you probably aren't helping.  People enjoy being outraged, but resist it.  Think instead.

Do you want more racial equality in America? 
Instead of encouraging black youth to hate cops, encourage them to go to college.

(P.S. This should in no way be taken as a claim that racism no longer exists. 
See my previous posts:
heading 14; in which reparations are still due
Race (Whites still winning) 
Awareness of white privilege VS actually working to change it
for more)


John Schaefer
> http://www.statesman.com/news/news/crime-law/officer-involved-shooting-prompts-questions/nWnZ4/

Jerry Waller

Jason Kemp

Jordon Hatcher

Ibragim Todashev

David Silva

John Torretti

Daniel Sanez

Roy Jacobs Jr.

Thomas Schroeder

Jacob Grassley

Zachary Premo

Full list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_killings_by_law_enforcement_officers_in_the_United_States_2013


  1. This is very interesting Bakari, but not quite satisfying. While it may be epistemically justifiable to think any given black male stranger is more likely to be a criminal than any given white male stranger, that does not necessarily mean it is morally justifiable to treat that black stranger differently because he looks like what you think a criminal looks like. Especially considering the very low number of actual criminals in any population, to say to a black child, "Because you happened to be born looking like a very small number of bad people, we're all going to make your life harder and more dangerous and refuse to apologize or admit guilt for doing so," seems like a pretty grievous injustice to me. It seems especially unjust for white people to take that stance, considering that it is white people who created much of the economic and cultural disadvantage that I suspect has lead to higher rates of crime among blacks and considering how much privilege we already get for being born white. What do you think, are we not sometimes morally obligated to bracket our knowledge of statistical trends due to historical and social justice concerns, especially when that data deals only with a very small part of a population anyway?

    1. Oh, I agree with you entirely that a) it is unreasonable to actually act on a prejudice based on statistics, or to actually treat any specific individual differently independent of their individual actions, and that b) our current state is a direct consequence of hundreds of years of slavery (with no reparations ever made) followed by decades of jim crow.
      I have written more on that previously:

      However, the reason I wrote this is that I disagree - strongly - with the widespread idea that life is any harder or more dangerous for blacks due to anything built into society or white culture. The only part of culture that makes life more difficult and dangerous is the black culture that accepts violence and fails to encourage education. My whole point in this essay is in pointing out that black people do NOT get shot at while unarmed by police more often than whites. This is a myth. The number of innocent black people who are victimized by police - or by any white person, for that matter, is far smaller than the number of black criminals.
      Blacks do get shot at more by other blacks, but I fail to see how this is an example of whites making life more dangerous for blacks.

      I am not asking for people to go out of their way to call attention to black crime rates. All I am asking is that we stop pretending that every Oscar Grant and Rodney King is a martyr, when they were in fact criminals, and stop pretending that their cases are representative of modern day oppression, when it plain and simply isn't.
      I am asking this not just because I am personally bothered by mistaken beliefs, but because perpetuating these lies makes the situation worse, not better.

    2. I do think that past racism continues to have an effect today, and puts Blacks at a disadvantage. I added links at the end of the post to my past blogs on that topic.

      Your question is deserving of a more thorough response than I can put in a comment; my next post will address it further.

      But briefly:
      What I have EXPERIENCED, as a young Black male living in a poor high crime city, is no, cops, authority figures, and other whites in general do not harass, threaten, pushed around, or insult more on the basis of race.
      What I have seen is 2 things:
      1)cops may "discriminate" based on CULTURE. Race and culture are not interchangeable. The man who sags his pants and wears a bandana can not claim he gets more police attention just for being Black. The cops aren't stopping Black men in suits who drive minivans. If you choose to dress and act like a gangsta, you can expect police to watch you more closely. Employers and landlords may "discriminate" against the person who speaks "ebonics", but it isn't because it implies the applicant is Black. It is because it implies the applicant is ignorant. That has nothing to do with race. Take, for example, the movie "My Fair Lady". Slang has always been a sign of a lack of education - almost by definition.
      The suggestion that what I am saying means that Black people should "act white" - that is racism! That is saying that Black culture is and must be the culture of ignorance. Black people didn't invent ebonics because they were expressing their African roots. It developed because they weren't allowed to go to school. Encouraging it is like telling black people they should voluntarily ride on the back of the bus in order to honor their heritage.
      2)Many cases of apparent racism by cops etc are in large part enhanced, if not caused outright, by the assumption on the part of the citizen being "harassed" that the cops are racist. If a white guy gets pulled over for speeding 5mph over, he thinks maybe the cop is filling a quota or is having a slow day. If a black guy gets pulled over for speeding 5 over, it must be because he is black. Then you have differences in how the person interacts with the cop. See Chris Rock: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uj0mtxXEGE8
      Its funny, but its very true. I've lived it. Its the difference between how I as a Black man can say I've never in my life been harassed, and another Black man swears it happens all the time. It applies to both races. Unfortunately, our culture basically teaches young black males the exact opposite lesson, with predictable - and not so funny - results.

      As I pointed out in the blog post, Blacks really do commit more murder. Yes, the rate is still extremely low. As Steven Colbert recently pointed out, the rate of committing murder is only 0.009% of the Black male population. But murder is the most extreme example and I picked it because many will claim there is a bias in the statistics of lesser crimes. Despite any potential bias, its still true that, as a whole, more Black males commit crimes than other races - just as more men commit crimes than women. Since men commit more crime, we should expect to see police stopping men more often. It doesn't imply any bias. It works the same for race.

      Now combine all of those prior points into one big picture view of the population. Are they enough to account for 100% of the difference between the average interaction of cops with suspects by race? It is impossible to answer that question, there are too many variables, and none of them have concrete numbers. Probably not, since cops are people, and human brains naturally seek patterns and are subject to bias. But those points do account for a whole hell of a lot of it, I would claim the majority.

  2. Bakari, I've been reading your new and old posts here and there over the last few weeks and just had to comment on this one. You once again have shown a remarkable ability to leave behind pre- and/or misconceptions and discuss a matter thoroughly, thoughtfully, and rationally. Similiar to you in "If I was King.." post and Mr Money Mustache's in his latest "Badass Utopia," I yearn for a public and political discourse to more closely resemble the process behind this essay.

    Loving the blog.

  3. "It turns out it is very challenging to find examples of cops killing unarmed white men."

    As someone who lived in majority-white states for many years, I can tell you it does happen with some regularity. They, too, are swept under the rug.

    1. Did you stop reading after that sentence?
      My whole point is that it is common - but there is never any public outcry, because it doesn't fit the popular "minority oppressed by the system" narrative that people want to continue to believe in.

      I know it happens with some regularity! I just listed a whole bunch of examples!! I pointed out that if these same men had been black, everyone would know their names. They were "swept under the rug" BECAUSE they were white.

    2. My apologies. Yes, I should read articles better in the future.


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