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Are Black People Wrong About Police Abuse?

This morning, I came across this polling result regarding the police shooting of Michael Brown:

This plot, this statistical result, demands an explanation. How is it that two groups of Americans can see the world so very differently?

Setting aside any appeal to actual evidence regarding racial bias in the use of deadly force by the police, of which there is plenty, I can think of two explanations for the statistical result shown above:

Explanation 1: Black people are wrong. The police treat every American equally and fairly, no matter the color of their skin. The incident of Michael Brown's shooting could have happened to anyone in America. That kid made a poor decision that led to his death. White people properly see this situation as nuanced, complicated and unpleasant, but it has nothing to do with race or racism, because we live in a post-racial world. Black people simply complain too much about race. 

Explanation 2: White people, in the main, are wrong. The police do not treat Americans equally and fairly. Instead, race and racism play a major role in the likelihood of an American getting shot by the police, independent of that person's actions, life choices, socioeconomic status, or geographic location. Michael Brown's shooting was just one instance out of many, and all find their root cause in the reality of racism in present-day America.

For the first explanation to hold, 80% of Black Americans would be impugning the conduct of the police despite being protected and served by them. 80% of Black Americans would be making up stories of being pulled over for "driving while Black," despite receiving excellent service from their local cops. Think about that. You can talk trash about Verizon while having a working phone and there'd be no consequence; your service will continue as long as you pay your bill. But imagine speaking out and protesting against police organizations that are presently providing them with adequate service and protection. Why the hell would Black people want to piss off the people who are not only serving them, but who are armed and entrusted with the right to shoot people? 

In short, for Explanation 1 to hold, 80% of Black Americans would need to be completely out of their minds, to the extent that they would protest an armed presence in their lives that is actually serving them. And to what end? So the police would see how ungrateful they are and stop giving them protection? What can Black people possibly gain by lying about being abused by the police? 

Can you see why Black people might find it offensive, and even racist, when white people deny that racial profiling, abuse, harassment and unjustified shootings of Black people is real and constitutes a racial problem?

For the second explanation to hold, the majority of white people (47% vs 37%) would need to be unaware of the unfair treatment that Black people receive at the hands of the police. Is it conceivable that people who are used to being treated with respect from the police might miss how other people are not being respected? Is it possible that white people, who live in predominantly white neighborhoods and whose friends are 91% white, might miss how the majority of Black people are treated by the police? Is it possible that white people would be resistant to talking about race when it leads to discussions about the unfair privileges they receive from racist systems that they don't see, because they don't feel harm from it? 

Those are what are known as rhetorical questions. The video below is a small sampling of what is known as reality for Black Americans. This particular American was pulled over because he wasn't wearing a seatbelt. He was shot because he's the wrong kind of American. More instances are logged and commented upon by Conor Friedersdorf in "The Case for Police Reform is Much Bigger than Michael Brown."


Leah Bennett said…
Excellent points, as always, John. That video is chilling.

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