Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem has been a hot topic of conversation of late, with everyone from news outlets, to political shows to sports shows having guests on to weigh in with their opinion. His rationale for the protest has been the following, in his words:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
This, combined with his decision to wear the following socks, depicting police officers as pigs, suggests that his main concern has been the treatment of black Americans by police officers.
I respect Kaepernick’s right to engage in protest of the flag, and the national anthem. Indeed, the very flag and national anthem is what confers upon him that right. Much of the discussion I’ve seen on the subject has centered around whether Kaepernick’s protest was done in the right way, whether it was wise of him to use NFL games as his platform, and things of that nature.
All of this assumes that his protest is legitimate in the first place. I contend it isn’t. Consider the following passage, taken from this recent article in the Washington Post addressing the subject of the racial distribution of police shootings:
In 2015, The Washington Post launched a real-time database to track fatal police shootings, and the project continues this year. As of Sunday, 1,502 people have been shot and killed by on-duty police officers since Jan. 1, 2015. Of them, 732 were white, and 381 were black (and 382 were of another or unknown race).
But as data scientists and policing experts often note, comparing how many or how often white people are killed by police to how many or how often black people are killed by the police is statistically dubious unless you first adjust for population.
According to the most recent census data, there are nearly 160 million more white people in America than there are black people. White people make up roughly 62 percent of the U.S. population but only about 49 percent of those who are killed by police officers. African Americans, however, account for 24 percent of those fatally shot and killed by the police despite being just 13 percent of the U.S. population. As The Post noted in a new analysis published last week, that means black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.
U.S. police officers have shot and killed the exact same number of unarmed white people as they have unarmed black people: 50 each. But because the white population is approximately five times larger than the black population, that means unarmed black Americans were five times as likely as unarmed white Americans to be shot and killed by a police officer.
Passages such as this are used to buttress the point that people like Kaepernick are making with respect to police brutality. The problem with this analysis, which compares the numbers of fatalities to population, is that it assumes that each segment of the population commits crimes at the same rate. This isn’t true. From the Post article:
Because detailed FBI data on crime can lag by several years, the most-cited statistics on this point refer to 2009 data. According to that data, out of all violent crimes in which someone was charged, black Americans were charged with 62 percent of robberies, 57 percent of murders and 45 percent of assaults in the country’s 75 biggest counties — despite the fact that black Americans made up just 15 percent of the population in those places.
The following table shows the distributions of violent crimes by race, both of the offender and perpetrator, from 2012-2013, with homicides excluded:
From that chart, and the Washington Post story, we can glean that black people commit more violent crimes than their 13% population share suggests they should. As a result, we should rationally expect that there will be more run ins with police, and thus more police shootings involving blacks.
Indeed, when comparing the police shootings by race to the violent crimes committed by race, which is the relevant comparison, the distributions match up relatively well.
From the Washington Post quote earlier, from Jan 2015 to July of 2016, 49% of police shootings involved whites, who according to the Bureau of Justice stats from 2012, commit 42% of violent crimes.
24% of police shootings involved blacks, who commit 22% of violent crimes.
27% of police shootings involve the rest of the races, or unknown, a group which according to the Bureau of Justice commits 35% of violent crime.
If anyone should feel aggrieved, its whites, who are shot by police at a higher rate than they commit violent crimes, excluding homicide. Yet that isn’t the narrative.
The Washington Post tries to temper analysis such as that by claiming the crime level in a particular community doesn’t affect the rate at which police kill, and by stressing the fact that unarmed blacks are killed at a greater rate to whites:
Despite these arguments, police reform advocates and researchers as well at The Post’s own analysis has consistently concluded that there is no correlation between violent crime and who is killed by police officers.
A 2015 study by a University of California at Davis researcher concluded there was “no relationship” between crime rates by race and racial bias in police killings.
In a report covering 2015 data, Campaign Zero compared violent crime rates of 50 major cities to the rate at which police officers killed people, concluding that there was no correlation.
As part of its data effort, The Post tracks the “threat level” of each person who is shot and killed by a police officer: Were they shooting at the officer? Were they threatening the officer? Were they fleeing?
Overall, the majority of the people who have been shot and killed by police officers in 2015 and 2016 were, based on publicly available evidence, armed with a weapon and attempting to attack the officer or someone else.
But an independent analysis of The Post’s data conducted by a team of criminal-justice researchers concluded that, when factoring in threat level, black Americans who are fatally shot by police are no more likely to be posing an imminent lethal threat to the officers at the moment they are killed than white Americans fatally shot by police.
The study also sought to answer whether officers were more likely to shoot and kill someone who is unarmed if the shooting happened to occur in a high-crime area. They concluded that is not the case.
“The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black,” said Justin Nix, a criminal-justice researcher at the University of Louisville and one of the report’s authors, said in April. “Crime variables did not matter in terms of predicting whether the person killed was unarmed.”
“This just bolsters our confidence that there is some sort of implicit bias going on,” Nix said. “Officers are perceiving a greater threat when encountered by unarmed black citizens.”
Regarding the point about there being no correlation between high crime areas and police shootings, that might be true, but it doesn’t show that there is any bias involved in either direction.
As for the unarmed argument, it is riddled with holes. Blacks may be more likely to be ‘unarmed’ when shot by police, but that is hardly the full story. Heather Mac Donald details this in a piece she wrote back in February:
In August of 2015 the Post zeroed in on unarmed black men, who the paper said were seven times more likely than unarmed white men to die by police gunfire. The article noted that 24 of the 60 “unarmed” deaths up to that date — some 40 percent — were of black men, helping to explain “why outrage continues to simmer a year after Ferguson.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. It is worth looking at the specific cases included in the Post’s unarmed victim classification in some detail, since that category is the most politically explosive. The “unarmed” label is literally accurate, but it frequently fails to convey highly-charged policing situations. In a number of cases, if the victim ended up being unarmed, it was certainly not for lack of trying. At least five black victims had reportedly tried to grab the officer’s gun, or had been beating the cop with his own equipment. Some were shot from an accidental discharge triggered by their own assault on the officer. And two individuals included in the Post’s “unarmed black victims” category were struck by stray bullets aimed at someone else in justified cop shootings. If the victims were not the intended targets, then racism could have played no role in their deaths.
Mac Donald further lists several examples of various incidents in which the perpetrator was literally unarmed, but still posing a threat to the officer in various ways. Perpetrators attacking with their fists, using the officer’s own equipment, or a car were considered unarmed. Innocent victims who may have been caught in crossfire of a police shootout are also included among the unarmed figure. The fact that blacks are more likely to resist arrest or engage in a confrontational manner is why the figures of unarmed black shootings are disproportionately higher.
And what of ‘Driving While Black?’
This was a common refrain uttered after Sandra Bland’s death last year. This goes to the notion that while perhaps police treat all suspects in a similar manner after the interaction has been initiated, there is bias in the choice of police to interact with the population.
In other words, police racial profiling is a big issue. Vox said as much in an article on the subject, stating that black people were more likely to be stopped than whites.
We also know that black drivers are more likely to be stopped by US police. In 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about 12.8 percent of black drivers reported being pulled over in 2011, while about 9.8 percent of white drivers and 10.4 percent of Hispanic drivers did.
That statement means nothing by itself. It could be, for example, that there are more repeat offenders in the 9.8% of whites who got pulled over, which wouldn’t necessarily mean there was a bias in police stops.
The very study that Vox links to has the following chart, which is more relevant to the point at hand:
The relevant column is the second column, which shows that whites made up roughly 65% of street stops, and 69% of traffic stops. Blacks made up 12% of street stops and 14% of traffic stops. Hispanics made up 15% of street stops and 12% of traffic stops.
The population distribution of each group is, according to 2010 census data the following: 63.7% white, 12.2% black, 16.3% Hispanic. In short, there is little to no bias shown by police in stopping people. Vox must have missed this chart in the report they cited.
All in all, there is nothing that shows that there is some sort of bias shown by police officers against blacks which necessitates outrage, let alone public protests from the likes of Colin Kaepernick.
The bottom line is that if you want to avoid being killed by police, you would do well to first avoid committing a crime. Failing that, or perhaps if you find yourself involved in a police stop despite not having committed a crime, avoid confrontational attitudes with the officer, do not resist arrest if it comes to that, and do not try to fight the officer or grab any foreign object in an attempt to injure the officer.
Follow that, and your chances of not becoming another statistic are quite high.