The Myth of Systemic Racism in Lethal Police-Civilian Encounters

In light of the scientific literature on the matter of officer-involved shootings, the greater criminal justice system, and race relations, which does not support core claims made by #BlackLivesMatter and its New Left allies, indeed, that contradict those claims, independently-minded scholars must dissent from the growing demand that that we declare ourselves allies to what amounts to a regressive countermovement against freedom and reason and an assault on the truth. In this essay I expose the myth of systemic racism in lethal police-civilian encounters.

For the record, for those who do not know what I do for a living, I am a professional criminologist tenured at a public university who has spent more than a quarter century studying patterns of crime and punishment. In the 1990s, as a graduate student at a major public university, a milieu shaped by neomarxist and postmodernist epistemologies, I came to believe that systemic racism in part explained disparities in the criminal justice system.

My dissertation, Caste, Class, and Justice: Segregation, Accumulation, and Criminalization in the United States (2000), was influenced by epistemological notions embedded in the approaches of critical race theory and the social reality of crime. I won’t elaborate these here, but the core methodological error I make on their account is conceptualizing race relations as existing on the same ontological plane as class relations. I hope it will suffice to note that sociology, as do other domains of science, elaborates conceptual schemes in order to tap the unseen structures of relations the world and thus risks reifying its constructions. While class relations are material relations, since they exist in economic institutions, the concrete institutions of segregation were dismantled more than half a century ago. A system of categories remains in demography. But demographic categories don’t do anything. Therefore, to assume systemic racism on the basis of grouped differences commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

After spending a number of years after graduate school finding my way out of New Left ideology—what I now recognize as left-idealist romanticism—I discovered that what I had believed about race and criminal justice was misguided. A testament to the power and the problem of ideology, the facts were “hidden” in plain view. I want to tell you about those facts in this essay because many others are making the same errors I made those many years ago. (I critique the fallacy in previous blog entries, so I won’t rehearse that argument here. But you can see an example of my writing on this topic in this essay: Zombie Politics: the Corporatist Ideology of Antiracism.)

* * *

In testing the claim of systemic racism in criminal justice, William Wilbanks, in The Myth of a Racist Criminal Justice System, published in 1987, produces a comprehensive survey of contemporary research studies, searching for evidence of discrimination by police, prosecutors, judges, and prison and parole officers. Among the specific areas considered in his analysis are provisions of counsel, police deployment, use of deadly force, bail decisions, plea bargaining, sentencing patterns, and inmate classification and discipline. Wilbanks finds that, although individual cases of racial prejudice and discrimination do occur in the system, there is insufficient evidence to support a charge of systematic racism against blacks in the criminal justice system, which is the main issue animating #BlackLivesMatter. Wilbanks summarizes: “At every point, from arrest to parole, there is little or no evidence of an overall racial effect.” 

Wilbanks’ findings have been repeated in numerous scholarly reviews and studies. Here are several over them spanning a quarter century (I provide a bibliography at the conclusion of the essay). I emphasized that most of these studies focus specifically on the matter of lethal officer-civilian encounters.

  • Robert Sampson and Janet L. Lauritsen, in a comprehensive review of studies of the criminal justice system, published in the pages of Crime and Justice, in 1997, find “little evidence that racial disparities result from systematic, overt bias.”
  • Heather Mac Donald, in The War on Cops, a comprehensive review of the evidence published in 2016, finds no evidence of racially biased policing. (See her recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal.)
  • Roland Fryer, in a paper published in the Journal of Political Economy in 2018, finds no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account when turning his attention to the most extreme use of force, i.e. officer-involved shootings. 
  • Joseph Cesario and colleagues, report in 2018, in Social Psychological and Personality Science, that, adjusting for crime, no systematic evidence of anti-black disparities in fatal shootings, fatal shootings of unarmed citizens, or fatal shootings involving misidentification of harmless objects. The authors conclude that, when analyzing all shootings, exposure to police, given crime rate differences, accounts for the higher per capita rate of fatal police shootings for blacks. 
  • Charles Menifield and colleagues find, in a study published in Public Administration Review in 2019, that although minority suspects are disproportionately killed by police (a rough average across various sources produce a rate that is for blacks about 2.5 times the rate for whites), white officers appear to be no more likely to use lethal force against minorities than nonwhite officers.
  • In a study published in Journal of Crime and Justice, in 2019, Brandon Tregle and colleagues, when focusing on violent crime arrests or weapons offense arrests, find that blacks appear less likely to be fatally shot by police officers. 
  • David Johnson and colleagues, in the pages of the 2019 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, find that it is the rate of violent crime, not the race of the officer, that determines police shootings. In what is known as the “exposure hypothesis,” serious criminal activity increases the likelihood of officer-civilian interaction and this influences the frequency of policing shootings. As do Menifield and colleagues, Johnson and associates find that, taking crime rates into account, the bias in shootings appears to be against whites
  • Katelyn Jetelina and associates, in the American Journal of Public Health, find that, controlling for other factors, the observed significant relationships between race/ethnicity dyads and use of force dissipated.
Charlotte Protests Escalate After Black Man Killed By Police ...
Police officers face off with protesters on the I-85 during protests following the death of Keith Lamont Scott, shot by a black police officer on Sept. 21, 2016 in Charlotte, N.C.

Contextualizing police-civilian interaction is necessary in explaining police use of force. If we look at crime statistics for blacks and whites for the year 2018, we find significant overrepresentation of blacks in serious criminal offending. Blacks are responsible for more half of all murders and more than half of robberies. Blacks account for one-third of all arrests for aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft. Moreover, contradicting the claim that violence against blacks by whites is the typical, while most serious crime is intra-racial, whites are disproportionately victims of crime perpetrated by blacks, and not just per capita, but in frequencies. And not by a little.

One finds these disproportionalities in crime reports going back for years. The persistence of black overrepresentation in serious crime is documented by the Uniform Crime Report, a collection of crimes reported to the police, arrest and clearance rates collected from thousands of police department across the nation, published by the FBI. It is also found in the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the Justice Department. These reports are published annually. These are the two major crime surveys produced on crime in the United States. 

I want to emphasize that most blacks do not commit serious crime. There is nothing intrinsic to being black that makes a person crime prone. Race is not a biological or constitutional entity. It is a social construct. Overrepresentation of blacks in serious crime is a persistent demographic fact. But the assertion of systemic racism rests on interpretation of disparities in demographic representation, therefore we must take the facts together. Controlling for rates of serious crime and considering the context of the encounters, the racial disparity in policing killings is explained. #BlackLivesMatter is based on a myth, the myth of racial bias in lethal (and even less-than-lethal) officer-civilian encounters.

The demographic profile of crime indicate these concrete circumstances: When police are called to a crime scene, or when they have probable cause that a crime is occurring or has occurred, they are more likely to interact with blacks on a per capita basis than they are with whites. Because of black overrepresentation in serious crime, these encounters are more likely to involve serious interactions. If the suspect officers encounter is armed and resisting, then the suspect will be at higher risk of being killed or injured. So will police officers (who are every year killed in the line of duty). Police officers share with all civilians a right to defend themselves. They are, moreover, charged with putting themselves in harm’s way.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw writes that the problem with liberal accounts of the law is “treating the exercise of racial power as rare and aberrational rather than as systemic and ingrained.” The way Crenshaw puts the matter suggests that there is the evidence of systemic and ingrained racism is abundant. In fact, police shootings of unarmed black men, to take the master complaint, are in fact highly unusual. Police interact with civilians millions of times each year. There are approximately 42 million black people in the United States. The number of unarmed blacks killed by the police for all of 2019? Around a dozen. Given such frequencies, police officers killing unarmed black men is rare and aberrational. We should celebrate this fact. Instead, we hear the crowd chanting the slogan: “Defund the police.”

On the larger question of systemic racism in the criminal justice system, scientific studies find little empirical support for the claim of systemic racism in the criminal justice system as a whole. A close examination of prison demographics in light of crime statistics finds that the ascertained patterns are, as they are with officer-involved shootings, largely explained by patterns of criminal offending. Even Michael Tonry, a public intellectual highly critical of US prison policy, had to acknowledge in his 1995 book Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment that racial disparities in the criminal justice system are mainly due to differences in criminal activity among races.

John Pfaff points out, in his 2017 book Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration-and How to Achieve Real Reform, more than half of the 1.3 million inmates in state prisons are there for violent offenses (aggravated assault, murder, rape, and robbery) and many tens of thousands more are incarcerated for burglary or other serious property crimes. Given the demographics of criminal offending, blacks are not overrepresented among prisoners relative to their involvement in serious crime. Moreover, the moral necessity of ending the drug war accepted, racial disparities in the enforcement of drug prohibition only minimally skew this pattern.

(On that last score, Pfaff’s work bring into question Michele Alexander’s popular 2012 The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a book I dropped from the reading list in my undergraduate criminal justice class because its race-centric approach distorts student understanding of the problem. I would likely use the book in a graduate seminar to illustrate the problem of ideological thinking, but undergraduates cannot be burdened with a hefty reading list. We have to get straight away to the truth. Pfaff’s Locked In has replaced it. I have my hands full having to correct misrepresentations in the otherwise excellent The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, by Jeffery Reiman.)

The obsession with race reflected in the work of Alexander, CRT scholars, and others gives short shrift to the matter on which we should focus our attention: social class. The United States is a capitalist society. Police and the greater criminal justice apparatus constitute a system that manages social problems systematically generated by the capitalist mode of production. Those displaced and underserved by an economic system based on the accumulation of capital are overrepresented in our prisons and jails. To be sure, historic forces have played a role in producing the demographic overrepresentation of blacks in the criminogenic conditions capitalism systemically produces, but the claims presented by #BlackLivesMatter and its allies concerning systemic racism in policing and the criminal justice are not supported by the evidence. As I stated at the outset, they are contradicted by the evidence.

Finally, advocacy of the #BlackLivesMatter understanding of the problems of police brutality obscures the progress democratic societies have made on this front. As Samuel Walker, arguably the most important expert in police accountability, tells us, “Whether the benchmark is one-hundred years, fifty years, or only twenty years ago, it is possible to see significant reforms in police management, crime fighting tactics, police personnel standards and training, the diversity of the work force, constitutional standards for policing, and the accountability of officers for their actions in critical situations.” We should acknowledge progress made in this area and keep our attention on continuing that progress. This means rejecting the regressive policies of depolicing and the #BlackLivesMatter interpretation of racial disparities in policing and the criminal justice system.


Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.

Cesario, Joseph, D. J. Johnson, and W. Terrill. 2018. “Is There Evidence of Racial Disparity in Police Use of Deadly Force? Analyses of Officer-Involved Fatal Shootings in 2015–2016.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 10(5): 586-595.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas. 1996. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. The New Press.

Pfaff, John. 2017. Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration-and How to Achieve Real Reform. Basic Books. 

Fryer, Ronald G. 2018. “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.” Journal of Political Economy 127(3): 1210-1261.

Jetelina, Katelyn K., Wesley G. Jennings, Stephen A. Bishopp, Alex R. Piqueri, and Jennifer M. Reingle Gonzalez. 2017. Dissecting the Complexities of the Relationship Between Police Officer–Civilian Race/Ethnicity Dyads and Less-Than-Lethal Use of Force. American Journal of Public Health 107(7): 1164-1170.

Johnson, David J., Trevor Tress, Nicole Burkel, Carley Taylor, and Joseph Cesario. 2019. “Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116(32) 15877-15882.

Mac Donald, Heather. 2016. The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe. Encounter Books. 

_______________. 2020. The Myth of Systemic Police Racism. Wall Street Journal, June 3. 

Menifield, Charles E. 2019. “Do White Law Enforcement Officers Target Minority Suspects?” Public Administration Review 79(1) 56-68.

Sampson, Robert J. and Janet L. Lauritsen. 1997. Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Crime and Criminal Justice in the United States. Crime and Justice 21:311-374.

Tonry, Michael. 1995. Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America. Oxford University Press.

Tregle, Brandon, Justin Nix and Geoffrey P. Alpert. 2019. “Disparity does not mean bias: making sense of observed racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings with multiple benchmarks.” Journal of Crime and Justice 42(1): 18-31. 

Walker, Samuel. 2012. “Institutionalizing Police Accountability Reforms: The Problem of Making Police Reforms Endure,” Saint Louis University Public Law Review 32:1.

Walker, Samuel and Carol Archibald. 2013. The New World of Police Accountability. Sage.

Wilbanks, William. 1987. The Myth of a Racist Criminal Justice System. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

_______________. 1987. “The Myth of a Racist Criminal Justice System.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 3(2):88-93.

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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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