What are the facts behind Black Lives Matter?

Almost eight years after Barack Obama’s presidential campaign promised healing in America, his last summer in power will most likely be remembered for a series of race riots, most recently in Charlotte, as well as two race-related massacres of police in just ten days. Both the Texas and Louisiana killers seemed to have been motivated by anger at the killings of African-Americans, a rage shared by large numbers of people as the Black Lives Matter campaign has gained momentum.

The common belief, almost unchallenged in the media on either side of the Atlantic, is that African-Americans are being targeted by police out of racial prejudice, and while many thousands have joined the peaceful BLM movement, this idea is also driving some individuals to violence. But is it actually true?

Black Lives Matter, a cause which has even – bizarrely- led to protests in Britain, is based on the belief that US police are specifically targeting black men or, as the Dallas mass murderer believed, committing ‘genocide’.

Reputable newspapers even print charts showing the disparity in police killings by race, as if by themselves these statistics reveal anything. Surely intelligent journalists and commentators understand that police tend to kill people of the same demographic as those involved in violent crime, and indeed those who kill police officers – overwhelmingly young and male, disproportionately black, with Asians underrepresented. For example, US police kill 22 times as many men as women. and no one suggest this is simply the result of institutional bias or historic stereotyping. It’s because they experience far more violent situations involving men.

In fact there is plenty of research out there which flatly contradicts the Black Lives Matter argument, such as this study by a black Harvard professor who found no racial bias in police shooting. There is also a paper here, again from Harvard, which shows there is racial discrimination in police use of force in general but not in fatal shootings.

Then there is an experimental study, which suggests that unconscious racial bias does not play a part in shootings.

And a report here which shows that, relative to homicide rate, police kill more whites than blacks.

And another here, from Washington University, concluding police are more hesitant to shoot African-Americans rather than whites.

I appreciate that race and crime is the mother-incest of all social taboos, but it’s strange that a whole political movement has emerged in America based partly on a refusal to look at easily available statistics.

It seems likely, based on this data, that US police do discriminate in their use of force generally, and that isn’t entirely explained by a disparity in crime, but in terms of fatal shooting the evidence seems to suggest not.

It is certainly plausible, of course, that in the heat of the moment police are more likely to reach for their guns when dealing with a black man than a white; people tend to profile more when they’re scared, and based on his own experience a police officer – black or white – might fear that a young black man is more likely to use violence. He may be tragically wrong, but stereotyping has served us well for millions of years for a reason.

Profiling under stress may well be responsible for many innocent deaths, but a concerted campaign of violence against young black men is only plausible if you ignore the disparity in violent crime; I wonder, are the commentariat in the US and Britain unaware of this disparity? Or is it just considered gauche to acknowledge it?

There isn’t a genocide being committed against African-Americans, it’s simply that in a social media-led world where identity politics stories spread like wildfire, police killings of black men get far more coverage.

The real shocking statistic about America is just how many people of all races are killed by police, and how many police are killed in turn: for example, white Americans are shot dead by police at a rate of almost 100 times that of white Britons.

The lesson is that if lots of people are running around with guns, then innocent people are going to get killed, by criminals as well as police. But for campaigners to give lots of potentially angry young men the idea that they are victims of a pogrom, and for the media to not challenge them because they’re worried about a taboo, is respectively irresponsible and cowardly.

Comments so far

  1. This misses the obvious point that the grievance is not only about quantity of shootings. It is also about the perceived disproportionate escalation of violence (as the reports you cite suggest, black men are more likely to face violence from police officers) and the perceived lack of justice in these specific cases. And there is nothing in your article, or the research papers you cite, that refutes claims that these specific cases were racially motivated.

    In any case a number of the reports you cite really do not provide solid evidence to suggest black men are not more likely to be victims of police violence. In fact they show the opposite. I’m not sure the argument ‘there’s no racial bias in fatal shootings, but there is when black men are disproportionately pepper sprayed, hit with batons, etc. etc.’ is the most solid

    • I’m sure Ed agrees that there is racism in the police. I also agree with this. But if we’re to have an intelligent conversation about the issue the massive racial disparity in crime rates (in the US, and also in the UK but less so) has to be acknowledged. And among the intelligent media, as Ed says, it’s generally not acknowledged, but shouted down as racist, which is intensely irritating.

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