Death by Cop Redux: Trying to Save the Narrative in the Era of Trump

Yesterday, The Los Angeles Times (“Getting shot by police is a leading cause of death for black men in America”) reported that about 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police. Black men and boys are 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to die during a police encounter. It is important for readers to know that more white men and boys will die at the hands of police in the United States than will black men and boys. Black men and boys, while representing a minority of those killed in police encounters, are overrepresented among those killed in an encounter with a police officer. The question for scientists and policymakers is what explains this disparity.

Officer Philip Brailsford aiming his rifle at Daniel Shaver in a Mesa, Arizona hotel in 2016. Brailsford was acquitted of second degree murder and manslaughter. He retired in 2018 with a pension. Both Brailsford and Shaver were white.

Through the prism of left identitarian politics, racial disproportionality in police shootings indicates racism. It’s a sign of a civilization built upon white supremacy. A social movement—Black Lives Matters—has emerged to address the problem of racist police shootings. However, those pushing this line neglect one crucial fact: independent of ethnic and racial bias, the overrepresentation of blacks in serious crime increases the likelihood that police will encounter black men and boys under circumstances that represent a threat to the themselves and to others, circumstances that make it more likely that police will discharge their firearm or take some other action that increases the likelihood that a fatality or serious injury will occur. 

As I document in “Mapping the Junctures of Social Class and Racial Caste”: “In 2017, according to the Uniform Crime Report (FBI), blacks were responsible for 33 percent of aggravated assaults, 30 percent of burglaries, 53 percent of homicides, and 54 percent of robberies.” Most of these offenders were men and black men account for less than six percent of the United States population. Thus, black males are significantly overrepresented in serious crime. One finds ethnic and racial disproportionality in police shootings with respect to other demographic groups, as well. Black women and girls, as well as Latino men and boys (about 1.4 times more likely to die at the hands of a police that non-Hispanic white men and boys) are also killed by police at higher rates than their white peers. These groups are also overrepresented in those types of crime that are more likely to bring them into serious encounters with the police.

A headline framing police shootings as “a leading cause of death” for black men and boys, inspired by Frank Edwards, the Rutgers sociologist who produced the study informing the LA Times story, in this case conceals the leading source of death of black men and boys: black men and boys. According to the website Mapping Police Violence, police killed 1,147 people in 2017. Blacks were 25 percent of that total, or around 286 persons. That same year, according to the FBI, there were 15,129 homicides. Black victims accounted for 52 percent of them, or 7,851 persons. More than 86 percent of those victims were male. In approximately 90 percent of black homicide deaths, the perpetrator is also black. In other words, a black person is more than 27 times more likely to be killed by a black civilian than by a police officer (black or white). Edwards compares the odds of getting shot and killed by a cop to winning “a lot of scratch-off lottery games.” Of course, the lottery is random. But applying this metaphor to peer-to-peer shootings, the odds of a black person being shot and killed by another black person are much higher than a black man being shot and killed by a police officer.

I know many of you will object to this comparison. You question its relevance. Is it not changing the subject to bring in black-on-black killing? Isn’t there an agenda at work? I am guilty of making this very complaint. On July 20, 2016, I published a piece in Truthout titled, “Changing the Subject From the Realities of Death by Cop,” in which I criticized Heather Mac Donald of committing this very offense. I then appeared on the Project Censored show on KPFA Berkeley 94.1 to talk to Mickey Huff and Peter Phillips about it (you can listen to the program here: Black Lives Matter) and tied my argument to an appreciation of the BLM movement, which I felt at the time was making an important contribution to the problem of death by cop. Since that time, I have taken another look at the problem and come to a different conclusion (you can read my argument here “The Problematic Premise of Black Lives Matter”). In fact, police shootings and violence in America’s central cities are rooted in the same context and are directly associated.

The media systematically downplays the crisis of life in poor inner city neighborhoods, disproportionately black and brown, where the experience of murder and serious crime has become routine. Mass shootings perpetrated by white men serves as spectacle (the “real problem”), while shootings perpetrated by black and brown men in Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans, and other major cities, if reported at all, do not enter the media echo chamber where they might be amplified. As a consequence, one of the most serious social problem in the United States is little more than background noise. When one ventures to note it, he risks being accused of racism. The keepers of the narratives either portray the crisis of crime and violence in inner city black and brown communities as something akin to a natural phenomenon, inevitable and automatic, or treat black and brown people as if they are victims with no agency, as if they’re marionettes whose wires dangle from the fingertips of an invisible white marionettist.

I no longer see the phenomenon of shootings during police encounters as a problem of police officers operating on implicit racial bias (although bias needs to be confronted and eliminated where it is found) as much as the general problem of the function of law and order in a capitalist society. The United States is a business-run society with a pathological ethos of rugged individualism. As such, economic security for the majority is precarious and social supports are sorely lacking. The alienating conditions produced by a system that relegates a large proportion of its population to lives of economic uncertainty and material deprivation is associated with several serious problems: neighborhood disorganization and social disorder, high levels of crime and violence, and a large segment of the proletariat living beyond the routine means of control and discipline attached to the industrial system.

New York City Police Officers

The capitalist state and interested private forces developed the criminal justice system to manage those persons who experience and to a significant degree cause these problems. The police and the system of jails and prisons are functions of industrial capitalism and are stamped with the character of British and Northeastern United States rational Protestant culture with its emphasis on efficiency, calculability, predictability, and uniformity. It was inevitable that a crime control system in the context of a society at this stage of development and with this ethos would clash with the due process spirit of the U.S. Bill of Rights when crime and disorder, along with the enlargement of the industrial reserve, became widespread problems. Contemporary society, with most of the population now living in urban areas, experiences more crime than the framers of the Constitution could have possibility anticipated.

The need for a comprehensive crime control apparatus is real. Citizens of a democratic-republic rightly expect public safety. Living in safe communities is a human right. The crime control emphasis emerging from the 1960s addressing the drastic increase in crime and disorder throughout the United States during that decade played a major role in promoting general lawfulness forty years down the pike. We live in a much safer society today than previous generations. Despite this progress, high levels of crime and violence persist in our central cities. And the ills disproportionately impact black and brown people. Not addressing crime and violence in these communities is to abandon them to chaos. Studies find high levels of mental health problems, such as depression and emotional issues, in the black population of states where urban conditions make police shootings more likely. As The LA Times points out, living in a state of constant fear can lead to chronic stress. Far more fear inducing than the presence of law enforcement is the presence of armed civilians assaulting, killing, and robbing members of their own community (the article spins this reality in a way that pins chronic stress on the actions of the police).

The most effective way of reducing potentially lethal or harmful police encounters is to reduce the frequency of those encounters. Ending the drug war would help reduce the number of police-civilian encounters. We’re making some progress in this area. More broadly, ameliorating the conditions that give rise to crime and violence in the first place would drastically reduce these types of encounters and transform the experience of policing. Thus a state-organized industrial system of employment, along with social democratic reforms in education, housing, and policing, is needed to ameliorate the conditions that give rise to crime, disorder, and violence. These approaches will also help reduce the frequency of police-civilian encounters among white populations, whose members comprise the largest number of those shot or injured during police encounters. Blacks are overrepresented in the circumstances that put them disproportionately at risk because of historic patterns of occupational and residential segregation shaped by legal and economic history. The potential for criminality inheres in blacks no more than it inheres in whites. More than reducing lethal encounters with the police, combating criminogenic conditions will reduce the risk of aggravated assault, homicide, and robbery.

These are political questions, and unless those representing the general interests eschew the divisive practice of racal politics and organize instead around common class interests, no broad-based social movement will emerge with the power to put leaders into positions from where they may address this problem in ways that don’t pit working people against each other. Left identitarianism is a morass of competing interests based largely on demographic constructions. If one were to imagine what a bourgeoisie strategy to fragment working class consciousness on the left, it would look just like leftwing identity politics. Movements like Black Lives Matter are too narrow, too exclusive, too dismissive of whites. And they are too extreme, calling for the abolition of the police and prisons, blaming police shootings on such rhetorical constructions as “white privilege.” As such, these politics are alienating to the majority of working class people. And they are based upon a false premise: that the main cause of racial disparities is white supremacy.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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