Systemic racism or isolated abuses in police killings? Americans disagree

The general disagreement over whether killings of black men by police are isolated or connected might seem irrelevant in the context of past debates about criminal justice: If blacks and whites are divided on everything, this would just be another case. But this moment is different. The media attention to killings has created momentum for criminal-justice reform among both conservatives and liberals—but the pattern question could affect how the debate over it proceeds.

Last week, Conor Friedersdorf criticized conservatives, and particularly movement conservatives, for failing to speak out more about police abuses. The PRRI poll shows that it is true that a strong majority of rank-and-file conservatives see these killings as isolated incidents. But the conversation at the level of writers and thinkers is interestingly different—there are notable conservatives who are concerned about the deaths.

What’s interesting is that while liberals have tended to see these deaths as a result of systemic racism, in which the police are largely just an expression of the system’s bias, the most outspoken conservatives have seen a different, more classically conservative pattern: A pattern of state infringement of basic rights, as expressed in police abusing their power. That is, for example, the argument Michael Graham (no relation to me) makes in a well-read essay in The Federalist taking his fellow conservatives to task for not taking a stronger stand on Gray.