I Can’t Express My Anger Sufficiently

I Can’t Express My Anger Sufficiently July 9, 2016

With the unprovoked murder of two young black men, followed by the killing of five police officers in Dallas at the end of a peaceful protest, I find myself almost numb. I’ve tried several times to write about this, but have experienced writer’s block for the first time in my life. I’ll try to say the things I want to say.


First, let’s not pretend that the murder of those young men by police officers is just a “few bad apples.” The problem of how black men (and women) are treated by police in this country is not anecdotal, it’s systemic. We’ve got reams of data and many, many studies that back that up. And it isn’t necessarily because police officers are any more racist than anyone else. For most of them, like most of us, the racism is implicit rather than overt. But those implicit biases take on a whole new dimension when they affect someone with a gun and the authority to use it.

For those who don’t understand implicit biases, we have piles and piles of studies that support it. It’s the idea that, at a subconscious level, we have racial biases that influence how we react to people. For instance, they might present the same story to a group of subjects but change the race of the protagonist for some of them. Invariably, the reaction when they think that protagonist is black is significantly more negative than when they think he is white.

They also do studies with images and our reactions to them. They’ll flash an image and have the subject immediately respond whether they think there is something to fear about that person by pushing a button. Again, invariably, the majority of the subjects will react more fearfully to the image of a black person than a white person, even if other factors — how they dress, for instance — are controlled for. Most people are more likely to respond with fear to even a well-dressed black man than to a white man dressed in a way that makes them appear less educated and more likely to be a criminal.

We also have study after study showing that these implicit biases hugely affect how the police view and react to black men, in particular, in specific situations. Black men are far more likely to be pulled over and have their car searched than white men, but white men are more likely to be found doing something illegal when they are pulled over and searched. Why? Because with white men, the police need a valid reason to have legitimate suspicion before pulling them over; with black men, the mere fact that they are black will make them automatically, subconsciously, more suspicious, so the bar is much lower for pulling them over.

We have studies of this specific problem, the shooting of black men by police officers, which conclude that black men are 3.5 times more likely to be shot by a police officer and that this has nothing to do with crime rates.

A geographically-resolved, multi-level Bayesian model is used to analyze the data presented in the U.S. Police-Shooting Database (USPSD) in order to investigate the extent of racial bias in the shooting of American civilians by police officers in recent years. In contrast to previous work that relied on the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Reports that were constructed from self-reported cases of police-involved homicide, this data set is less likely to be biased by police reporting practices. County-specific relative risk outcomes of being shot by police are estimated as a function of the interaction of: 1) whether suspects/civilians were armed or unarmed, and 2) the race/ethnicity of the suspects/civilians. The results provide evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being {black, unarmed, and shot by police} is about 3.49 times the probability of being {white, unarmed, and shot by police} on average. Furthermore, the results of multi-level modeling show that there exists significant heterogeneity across counties in the extent of racial bias in police shootings, with some counties showing relative risk ratios of 20 to 1 or more. Finally, analysis of police shooting data as a function of county-level predictors suggests that racial bias in police shootings is most likely to emerge in police departments in larger metropolitan counties with low median incomes and a sizable portion of black residents, especially when there is high financial inequality in that county. There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.

This is not the least bit surprising to anyone who has paid attention to the problem over the years. And so we have the Black Lives Matter movement protesting against such injustice and brutality. And while you may dislike some of their tactics, they are right on the core issue. Our criminal justice system really is racist from top to bottom. Anyone who denies that cannot possibly have seen all the data that supports it, data that I have been presenting for more than a decade.

And then we have two men who gunned down 11 police officers in Dallas on Thursday night, at the end of a long and peaceful protest against this injustice. What they did is horrifying and wrong in every possible way and it will do nothing but undermine efforts to address the problem. But unlike the unjust and racist treatment of black people in this country, that is an incident that is merely anecdotal, not systemic. But let’s also recognize that it was virtually inevitable.

I have been saying this for years: When you oppress people, you radicalize them. If you do nothing to address legitimate grievances and fix problems, it is inevitable that some small portion of the victims of that oppression are going to choose violence as a response. That doesn’t justify it, but it does help explain it. If you cannot change as a result of non-violent protest, you make violent protest inevitable.

And here’s the real problem: All this does is perpetuate the cycle of violence. Like the Hatfields and McCoys, every act of violence is then used to justify the next reprisal, which is then used to justify the next one, and the next one. At some point, the violence has to stop. But the only ones who can really stop it are those with power, which means law enforcement, courts and politicians. Violence on the part of those who protest against state-sanctioned killing is a response to the misuse of power, not an expression of power.

It is up to those with power to fix this. No one else can.

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