Yes, I wrote about this topic in a series of posts years ago, and I don’t generally like to repeat myself. But whether I like to or not, history does seem to insist on repeating itself, so here I go again, even though it’s hard to say anything about the recent spate of police killings of black people that isn’t obvious.  It’s obvious that police racism is a serious problem in this country.  It’s also obvious that it’s a problem without any straightforward solution, made all the more difficult because most cops in most places are inclined to deny that the problem is real.

Racist attitudes toward black people—often subtle and unconscious–remain pervasive in American society. Is there any reason to believe that police officers would be any different from the rest of us?  Not in terms of attitudes, but certainly in terms of capabilities: the police have guns, and they wield them with presumptive legitimacy as agents of the state. The perception of threat and danger that so often distorts people’s views of black and brown people is therefore all the more dangerous if the people happen to be cops.

To be fair, the perception of threat and danger, while exaggerated and overgeneralized, is not altogether unfounded—black violent crime rates are close to three times as high as white. And some cops do spend much of their time in genuinely dangerous neighborhoods. Also in fairness, not all cops–probably even not most cops–are racists.  But it’s enough that a lot of them are, and even the “good” cops never rat out on their brothers in blue. The code of silence is reinforced by police unions, which are everywhere devoted to unconditionally protecting their members from effective oversight and, when charged with malfeasance, punishment.

What to do?  Actually, a lot is being done.  As the NY Times reports, 30 states have passed over 140 new laws aimed at curbing police excesses in a variety of ways: delimiting acceptable uses of force, instituting more civilian oversight, increasing transparency of police actions, providing for enhanced training, etc.  Much of this legislation can probably be credited to the work of the Black Lives Movement, both in pressing for change and in awakening whites to the realities of racism. But we also have to thank modern communications technology—the George Floyd video alone clearly had great impact on white awareness. The federal government, too, is renewing its scrutiny of police department practices, which had been suspended by the Trump Justice Department.

Inevitably, people will point to past efforts at reform that have yielded disappointing results, and worry that the new wave of legislation will be similarly inadequate.  That is to be seen.   Certainly, more fundamental necessary change will be gradual.  Police departments need to be made more representative of their communities.  That is an inherently slow process, which will yield even slower results in terms of police behavior: new recruits, regardless of skin color, are socialized into a majority culture in which people of color are often viewed as the enemy. Peer pressure can be stronger than racial identity.

Another kind of fundamental change that will take time is a general improvement in the economic and social conditions of minority communities.  As black and brown people acquire the means to move out of dangerous neighborhoods and into the middle class, white perceptions of their “otherness” will fade. This kind of fundamental change requires a “big government” commitment to combat inequality, both through race-neutral public policies that generate opportunities for all Americans in the lower half of the income pyramid and through race-conscious efforts targeting the barriers that specifically impact people of color. The Biden administration so far has moved in the right direction, but the BLM movement and its allies on the left need to keep up the good fight.





  1. Daniel Greco April 20, 2021 at 2:15 pm

    I don’t think I disagree with the letter of anything you wrote here, but I would pick some nits with the framing. If you compare police killings in the US to other countries, what jumps out (to me at least) is the *much* higher overall rate at which police kill people here than in the rest of the world. Yes, police kill Black men more than white men (police overwhelmingly kill men), but the size of the discrepancy is pretty close to the size of the discrepancy between the Black and white poverty rates, or as you mention, the discrepancy in black and white rates of violent crime. I don’t think stuff like that accounts for *all* of the discrepancy in police killings; my best guess is that racism in the conduct of policing explains some of the gap, and there’s sophisticated social science research that tries to tease this out. But I do think racism in the conduct of policing gets a lot more emphasis in the media than is warranted by the statistics.

    To put the point starkly, if Black men in the united states were killed by the police at the same rate at which white men are, they’d still be overwhelmingly more likely to be killed by the police than citizens in any other developed country you care to name. If you wanted to reduce the total number of Black men killed by the police, you’d do much better to bring our overall rate of police killings down to that of the UK (or Australia, or Germany, or Canada…) than you would to equalize the rates at which Black men and white men are killed. (Of course I don’t pretend either of those would be an easy task, for lots of reasons, including some of the ones you mention.)

    I think of a big part of the reason for misplaced emphasis is that neither right wing nor left wing media is particularly keen on covering the numerous cases of unjustifiable police killings of white men, so those cases aren’t as salient to us. Right wing media doesn’t want to cover them because the stories undermine the narrative of cops as good guys who only kill Black men who had it coming. And left wing media doesn’t want to because they undermine the narrative of racism and white supremacy as the primary ills afflicting our system of policing. But if you dig a bit in the Washington post archive of police killings, you’ll find a lot of cases that never went viral in the way that George Floyd’s (and many others) did. If you watch the videos of Tony Timpa’s or Daniel Shaver’s killings, I expect you’ll be less inclined to think the more familiar cases obviously reflect specifically *racist* policing, as opposed to just *brutal* policing.

    • tonygreco April 20, 2021 at 7:23 pm

      Excellent points! The thrust of your comment, very briefly, is that it is hard to separate out the specifically racist-caused component of excessive police violence in the US, but that component is very likely not as great as is widely believed. Your observations prompted me to do some homework that I really should have done prior to doing this post. A quick delve into some relevant statistics, followed by some back of the envelope calculations, have led me to conclude that you’re right. Thus, blacks constitute 12% of the US population but account for 27% of the victims of fatal police shootings since 2017. That sounds like a damning disparity until you consider that the black violent crime rate is around 3 times that of the general population. Not all blacks who get shot by cops are engaged in violent crime, of course; notably, not those involved in some of the most publicized recent cases. But propensity to commit violent crime would naturally be associated, statistically, with propensity to be shot by cops. Based on crime statistics, we would expect the disparity in black victimization by cops to be even higher than it is. I am honestly surprised that it isn’t. As you suggest, there is undoubtedly a great deal of relevant literature on this subject that I haven’t yet looked at, but tentatively, I have to retract my assumption that racism is a major cause of police violence.

      I will note that this reversal in no way impacts the programmatic recommendations in my last paragraph. Nor does it have much bearing on the various police reform measures recently enacted and proposed. Most of these measures seek to curb excessive police violence, which is a worthwhile objective even if the problem isn’t largely fueled by racism.

  2. Daniel Greco April 20, 2021 at 8:16 pm

    I agree that the issues I was talking about don’t amount to a criticism of (most of) the proposed reforms we’ve seen in the last few years. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has a lot of provisions, but by my read they’re pretty much all appropriate for a country where police kill too many people, independently of the question of racial bias in policing. It’s stuff like restricting the qualified immunity doctrine, transparency requirements for federal agents (body cameras, dashboard cameras), restricting the transfer of military equipment to police, etc. By my quick read, all good ideas, long overdue. It does require police departments receiving federal funds to adopt anti-discrimination policies and training programs. But by and large, that’s not the thrust of it.

  3. Donald Campbell April 22, 2021 at 3:14 pm

    We can’t analyze everything through statistics, particularly the impact of ‘white privilege.’ I have to rely on anecdotal evidence. If a kid grows up is a small town or suburb they are less likely to be arrested for a lot of crimes. Often the police know the family and have interacted with the kid or family on occasion. I have gotten away with things that would have yielded me a record or perhaps juvenile detention had I been non-white in the inner city. The impact of a record is a serious stigma in later life.

    As for drug use many people have been arrested and many of them have spent time in prison, some even with long sentences as a result of the ‘3 strikes’ sentencing policy. Many affluent people can go to doctors and have anti-depressants and other drugs prescribed which are illegal if sold on the street. Approximately half of US prisoners are there for drug offenses.

    President Johnson launched a ‘war on poverty’ in the 1960’s. Then in the late 1960’s after Nixon was elected the ‘war on poverty’ was replaced with the ‘war on drugs.’ The war on drugs essentially criminalized poverty (to a degree) and together with Nixon’s southern strategy represented the right wing response to the civil rights movement.

    This is not to say that white people are unaffected by poverty and drug laws but the impact on non-white people is significantly greater.

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