What black voices really say about police

Opinion and analysis over the last month have been suffused with these reductionist sensibilities. Sean Collins at Vox writes: “At the core of this rage is a legitimate fear for black Americans: the sense that they can be killed anywhere at any time by anyone, but especially by law enforcement. It is a feeling black Americans have carried for all of America’s history.” He provides examples of racial disparities in policing and punishment, but without context. For example, Collins cites a study that labels police-involved shootings a leading cause of death for African-American males. While it is true that black men between the ages of 25 and 29 are killed by police at a rate between 2.8 and 4.1 per 100,000, that’s well below the rate of their death in accidents (76.6 deaths per 100,000), by suicide (26.7 deaths per 100,000), from other homicides (22 per 100,000), from heart disease (seven per 100,000), and from cancer (a little over six per 100,000).

Moreover, black women in the same age bracket are killed by police at roughly 5 percent the rate of black men; surely if police killings were driven solely by racial animus, then black women would be victimized at a much higher rate. Despite the racial disparity in rates, a study of police-involved homicides between 2009 and 2012 shows that whites constituted a majority (52 percent) of victims. What explains “state violence” against whites? All in all, the evidence paints a murky picture, though still a troubling one. Too many people—including whites—die at the hands of law enforcement, but black men and women are much more likely to be killed by civilians and certain diseases than by the police.

Polling data suggest that most African-Americans do not share Collins’s bleak view of their experiences. In a 2019 Pew survey, 44 percent of blacks reported being “unfairly stopped by police” because of their race; 54 percent said, “No, has not happened to me.” In a Monmouth poll taken after Floyd’s death, 44 percent of African-Americans reported that they or an immediate family member felt “harassed by police,” but a majority did not share this experience. When asked, “How satisfied are you with the job your local police department does,” 21 percent said “very satisfied,” 51 percent said somewhat satisfied, 12 percent said somewhat dissatisfied, and only 5 percent said that they were “very” dissatisfied. These results do not suggest a complete endorsement of contemporary policing, as many blacks report negative interactions. Yet nearly three-quarters of surveyed African-Americans report themselves satisfied with their local police departments.